CULTURE/ART
Tuesday , Jan 27, 2009, Posted at: 18:01(GMT+7)
Vietnamese silk painting
A traditional game

French painter Victor Tardieu (1870 – 1937) opened the Indochina Art College in Hanoi in 1925 after recognizing Vietnamese’s fine arts ability during his period of living in Vietnam.

Tardieu was completely successful with his first class, which created a famous generation of Vietnamese artists, including: Nguyen Phan Chanh, Cong Van Trung, Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Le Van De, Tran Van Can, Nguyen Tien Chung and Le Thi Luu. In 1931, these students made a strong impression on 64 million viewers and won three prizes at the International Fine Arts Exhibition in Paris. This was the first time Vietnamese paintings had reached out of the country in such impressive style.

Nguyen Phan Chanh was famous with traditional silk paintings while To Ngoc Van was considered a master of oil-painting. Nguyen Gia Tri reached the pinnacle of lacquer painting and Bui Xuan Phai, generally considered the most successful painter, specialized in painting Hanoi’s ancient streets with oils and pastels.

A child feeds a bird

Tardieu suggested that his students use and improve two traditional materials: lacquer and silk on European depiction principles.

The painters used water-colors on raw silk then washed (developed) it many times to create the limpidity, deep-laying and silkiness of the material and make the colors soften and stick to each silky fiber. Finally the painting was strengthened on a layer of paper.

Silk paintings in this period were performed in many genres, such as landscape, portrait, historical and still life. The most respected work is the painting ‘Choi o an quan’ (Mandarin square) by Nguyen Phan Chanh. Painted in 1931, it depicts young ladies playing traditional games, in dark browns, yellows and whites.

A woman cleans vegetables

Other famous works by the same painter are: ‘Len dong’ (Go into a trance), ‘Rua rau ben cau ao’ (Washing vegetables on the jetty), ‘Em be cho chim an’ (The child feeding a bird). Along with ‘Choi o an quan,’ they were published in the French L’Illustrations newspaper, around Christmas 1932.

From that period onwards, Nguyen Phan Chanh has been considered the father of Vietnamese silk painting with a special style that is unique, simple and true to life. And the ‘Choi o an quan’ painting was known as the painting that formed the basis of modern Vietnamese silk painting.

Silk painting built a solid foundation in Vietnam Fine Arts between the early 1930s and 1970s. We can name some painters who have inherited the fine arts tradition of Indochina school such as: Pham Dang Tri, Ton That Dao, Luu Dinh Khai, Tu Duyen and the next generations such as: Linh Chi, Nguyen Dinh Dung, Pham Thanh Liem, Nguyen Thi Tam, Tran Dong Luong, Nguyen Minh My, Nang Hien, Phan Thong, Trong Kiem, Le Vinh, Ngo Minh Cau, Nong Cong Thang, Vu Giang Huong, Tran Thanh Ngoc, Tran Luu Hau, Le Anh Van and Luong Xuan Doan.

However, at the end of 1980s, silk material had drawn lesser attention than it had before. Silk painting had retreated from national fine art exhibitions despite many students of silk departments of fine arts schools being trained every year.

Going into a trance

Some experts explained that it is not easy to preserve silk paintings in our country’s warm climate. Painters find it impossible to keep their works for decades, if not centuries.

Social background has changed rapidly, painters feel it is difficult to show the roughness and severity of modern life on silk rather than by oil and various materials that have found ‘mix-media’ painting with free and strong expression. Some young painters have followed other modern artistic genres, such as arrangement, performance and video art, which they think can better express the complex aestheticism of today’s culture.

The chaotic market in the beginning also helped the silk paintings lose favor. The themes were becoming more and more boring; painting technique had not changed much after a long time and did not bring any new feeling or message. Silk painting, itself, made it a boorish-backward outsider.

A judge at a Vietnam Silk Painting exhibition said that Vietnam silk painting was alive still but walking backward.

However, viewers sometimes find outstanding silk paintings beside imposing oil and lacquer paintings. That is why people believe that painters, who are talented and favor this material, are still able to create beautiful works.

I think it is time to hold conferences to discuss the great art that is silk painting, as well as finding the reasons of its failure in order to find a way to save such a skilful and beautiful art.

By Ngan Ha DK. – Translated by Thuy Doan
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