A novel tradition

At the beginning of the twentieth century, French artists and professors came to Vietnam and established their E’cole des Beaux-Arts de I’Indochine. They introduced views, techniques and media from the distant West. Concurrent with developments in traditional Vietnamese fine art, great names emerged from this modern school. Yet things were not so clear-cut. A few modern artist turned to a widely used local material: lacquer.
Commonly used to make objects for everyday life as well as for religious rituals, lacquer is derived is found not only in Vietnam but in most other Asian countries, up to that time lacquer was merely used for handicrafs throughout the region. With its use in Vietnamese painting, a new term came about: Lacquer Art.

With time, lacquer art took shape and progressed. Three great artists were associated with this medium Nguyen Gia Tri, Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Nguyen Sang-and their works seemed to have set the style of this art form. But in the early nineties, there appeared a new wave in Vietnamese lacquer painting. Mr Bui Huu Hung is among the artists of this “movement”. He has embarked on a risky venture. Indeed, no innovation is free from peril. He fully rejects the concept that an artistic language is limited by the artistic medium, and applies Euroupean chiaroscuro in the depiction of people and objects even though this is extremely difficult in lacquer work. A few predecessors had repeatedly tried to do it. Bui Huu Hung  does not stick to the old view concerning the material any more. Some of his painting are even drawn on canvas instead of a board. I think that one of the characteristics of contemporary art is the fusion of space in Hung’s picture, unlike his portrayal of men and objects, is prone to the influence of graphic art techniques. The paradox turn out to be logical when the artist deals with relatively flat backgrounds, a moderate relationship between light and shade and medium-tone colour. By association, these factors make the viewer think of the illusory light in pagodas or in contryside thatched cottages with earthen walls. It suits well with the subjects selected by the painter and evokes a touch of nostalgia and antiquity.

In some pictures, Bui Huu Hung audaciouslu utilises ancient scripts. They surround his subjects, half hidden, making space in the paintings more suggestive. They create the effect of dim images, and hint at multidimensional spaces and interwomen details, in much the same way as modern films and novels do.

The contest between “modernity” or “tradition” does not exclusively depend on artistic media or motifs. Hung’s solution and achievement is his novel view of ancient things.

Le Thiet Cuong

Hanoi February 1999

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