The Colour of Light – Dinh Quan’s Lacquer Paintings

Click to see artworks by Dinh Quan

March, 2004

From his childhood in Haiphong to his current status as one of Vietnam’s most recognized artists, the art and life of Dinh Quan has constituted a long quest – a long road towards enlightenment. For Dinh Quan has woven together his emotions, his memories of youth, his fervent Buddhist beliefs and the history of Vietnam with a flamboyancy that has resulted in an art that speaks a universal language. And with the clarity of his vocation, Dinh Quan, the artist, has become the perpetual wanderer in search of his inner self.

Born in 1964 into a family of humble origins in the port city of Haiphong, Dinh Quan lived in a world typical of most Vietnamese for

whom the essence of daily existence was spartan and governed by a rigid socialist regime that did not encourage intellectual discourse in the arts. But, typical of most Asian cultures, Dinh Quan’s childhood was enveloped with traditions that were both spiritual and aesthetic. The colours associated with local festivals, the symbolism used in the embellishment of artifacts in pagodas and temples, and the tradition of story-telling were all part of the memories that would later be woven into his artistic tapestry.

Dinh Quan had harboured a love for art since he was a young child and followed his destiny to enroll in the Lacquer Department of the Hanoi Art University from where he graduated in 1990. It is hard to envisage the obstacles he encountered as he supported himself financially while at school, especially during a time when a career choice in art was deemed unprofitable and frivolous. And maybe it was these very circumstances of his life that partially explain his constant effervescent hunger for creativity and seeking out the perfection of truth in his art.

By the time Dinh Quan graduated, the tenets of Doi Moi – the liberalization of Vietnam’s economic policies – were firmly set in place. Like many young Vietnamese, Dinh Quan was caught in the whirlwind of the new reform and despite the difficulties of daily life he felt motivated to achieve success. And as Hanoi like other major cities of Vietnam became an oasis for the Vietnamese art scene, with a burgeoning of art galleries and foreign art collectors, Dinh Quan was fast establishing his position as one of Hanoi’s most promising emerging artists by participating in numerous exhibitions in Vietnam and abroad.

The art of Dinh Quan is based on a Vietnamese cultural mould that is tinged with finesse. At the heart of this unique existence Dinh Quan credits his resilience to endure the arduous journey he had embarked upon to his profoundly strong Buddhist beliefs. It was also his wish to affirm his cultural identity at a time when the Vietnamese art scene was drawing attention from international critics and collectors that drew him to study the traditional art of lacquer painting .

Even though lacquer painting has long been synonymous with Vietnamese artistic expression, its application remained traditional and imbued with national character. It began to be adapted to new forms while under the influence of the cosmopolitan avant-garde introduced through the establishment of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts d’ Indochine in Hanoi in 1925 by the French artist, Victor Tardieu . The establishment of the school affirmed the French influence on the aesthetic life in Vietnam and contributed to a new language of contemporary artistic expression, even in the traditional arts. The portrayal of the graceful Vietnamese woman as an object of tender and detached melancholy became a model for many an artist’s indulgence.

By the time Dinh Quan made his mark as an artist, the Fine Arts school was a tradition of the past that ended with the school’s closure in 1945, the year that marked the country’s turbulent break with French colonialism. But the aesthetics of many of Vietnam’s most famous artists who had adapted the European avant-garde during the pre-revolution years had left its hallmark on modern Vietnamese contemporary art. It was therefore inevitable that many of Vietnam’s new generation artists like Dinh Quan would be influenced by the abstract expressionism of the earlier generation. For Dinh Quan this was a period rich in experimentation. He came to understand, nevertheless, that the avant-garde movement had reached an impasse. He likewise recognized the efforts of postmodernism to return art to culture and to Vietnamese life. As a result, for Dinh Quan personally it became a period of seeking out his own identity, which would reveal his ability as an artist and give direction to his later work.

By 1993 Dinh Quan ’s determination to perfect the art of lacquer painting had paid dividends. Although he had the best of the traditional lacquer techniques at his disposal, he always preferred to stretch his limits, reinventing and exploring in different directions, thus hatching his own unique style of lacquer painting . It was with this extraordinary sensibility and understanding of the tradition, the techniques, the materials and the colours that Dinh Quan has been able to project a mystical and powerful strength and creativity. For beneath every layer of lacquer lies precious fragments of Dinh Quan’s inner self – sometimes fragile and patient, often resilient and strong like the female forms that have become fundamental to his mode of expression.

The female essence has been at the heart of his unique world, which has been profoundly linked to his strong reverence for his Buddhist beliefs and filial piety to his family. While images of the female deity Kuan Ying feature prominently in Dinh Quan’s everyday world, it is his innate respect for the role of women that he has employed in forming his personal vision.

It is no accident that Dinh Quan cites the feminine form as one of the most powerful and forceful influences in his life. For in the oriental psyche, the icon of femininity serves more than as an object of passion. Her beauty lies in her embodiment of strength, hope and creativity. “A mother is the Sky, a mother is the Earth … I honour women for the love, despair and doubt that they impart to me,” says Dinh Quan. And through the feminine form that has become primeval in his world, he has created perspectives to express his emotions.

During the years that followed he began to earn recognition as well as obtain the material security resulting from a prolific body of work. By now Dinh Quan knew how to orchestrate both strength and subtlety in his work by skillfully mixing the traditional with his own contemporary methods. The transparency of the medium fascinated him and by applying his own method of creating figures from silver powder, ground from silver leaf, and mixed with epoxy and lacquer, he produced works such as Nude VI.

He also created pictorial structures as in A Garden and in Night Poem , using eggshell to modulate another spectrum of texture. These two paintings are dazzling in their mystical narration of the beauty of nature. In A Garden, he admirably demonstrates the relationship between people and nature. The sumptuous forms show the immensity of the countryside as a space of dreams.

Dinh Quan’s fascination with mythology may be explained by the vivid and happy memories he has from his childhood. Legends told to him as a child together with his incessant fascination with womanhood inspired him to create In the Sky . The work is obviously inspired by legends of the mythical apsaras – the celestial nymphs who abound in Southeast Asian mythology. This theme, a perception that he constantly extends, was later depicted in Fairy in the Red Sky (1997). In Year of the Cat (1999) he further asserts his strong cultural identity, for Dinh Quan himself was born in the lunar year of the tiger or cat as it is known in Vietnam.

Dinh Quan’s rapport with his Vietnamese culture is remarkable, but understandable when appreciating that his Buddhist faith is rooted in the practice of meditation, both in the meaning of words and in the physical realm of the world. It supports his research into his art and use of colours. “For me, as in life, art is a long journey without an ending. For me that journey is about faith – faith in my Buddhist beliefs.” This understanding complements artworks such as Unrevealed (2002) where the philosophy is present and aptly magnified by a glowing palette and contrast between darkness and light. Red – an auspicious color that symbolizes wealth, happiness and hope — has been used liberally in traditional lacquer work, and appears in much of his work. The colour has an incandescence that illuminates the board. And by submitting himself completely to his art, his work becomes a personal experience as in Red Dreamer (2003). Other times, somber colours obscure his work, taking on a new dimension. Three Persons (2000) refers to a period when Dinh Quan was facing a reconstruction in his life.

Dinh Quan is constantly nourished by his Buddhist ideology. The search for self-enlightenment through his art has been a constant issue for him and inspired him to do a series of self-portraits. In Self Portrait II (1997) the contrasts and organisation of colours reinforces the symbolic significance of his work bearing in mind the history and personal culture of the artist. In another work, Self Portrait I ( Singapore Art Museum ), the effect and structure are more accessible, by no means implying to be an illustration but rather a revelation of his own personal experience at the time. Self Portrait III (2002) is yet again another pictorial structure of himself. The haunted look on his face reveals the duality of emotions and humanism, considered by the artist to be one of the most profound mysteries of life.

The strong bond he had developed as a youth with his family may explain Dinh Quan’s incessant work on the feminine form. It has been his inspiration throughout his career. The result was fluidity; as his art developed the women have become more monumental. Despite the diversity with which he has illustrated the female form, she has remained an icon of femininity symbolizing all the emotions that have been primeval in Dinh Quan’s world. Woman (1997) is gentle and sensuous. A Dancer (2002) and Falling Leaves (2002), as well as Nude VIII (1999) and Evening (1998), are diverse and sumptuous and admirably demonstrate the beauty of the relationship between women and nature. His liberal use of gold leaf and silver reveals a luminous beauty that so honours women. And although the theme of feminism is universal, Dinh Quan’s women remain Vietnamese.

This may be the reason that Dinh Quan’s figures are seen in a uniform relationship even though in his recent work he has adopted a voluptuous narrative as illustrated in Rebirth I (2000) and in Women in Motion (2003). Desire (Inspiration) (2003) is a monumental work that demonstrates the infinite richness of his creations wherein he translates the aesthetic experience into one that is also spiritual.

Throughout his artistic practice, Dinh Quan has given his work an essential purpose – a confirmation of the sacredness of life. He translates his own spiritual experiences into the language of visual art that becomes songs of colour and pictorial space rooted in the radiance of light. In his art, we find reflections of what is worldly as formal beauty and at times an inner experience whereby the artist has created a place to meet his audience, a space where pictures and beholders may engage in dialogue.

And through this journey of honouring his beliefs and artistic practice, he has brought to light a language — radiant with colour and glowing shapes — that brings together the past and present of his rich Vietnamese heritage.

Shireen and Naziree

An historian and Independent curator

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