Lacquer meets contemporary Art

Vietnamese art reflects a mixture of influences: Vietnamese traditional art, influences from China and influence from the French during the colonial period. The foundation of the L’Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine had given a strong impetus to the birth of a new form of painting encouraged by two French artists: Victor Tardieu (1870–1937) and his associate Joseph Inguimberty (1896–1917), the two founding directors of the school. They trained the students in Western art, including the then state-of-the-art techniques such as perspective, three-dimensionality and the visual representation of reality, which were combined with traditional Vietamese themes, objects, motifs, colours, and techniques.

It was especially Alix Ayme (born 1894 in Marseille – passed away in 1989 in Paris), who – as a professor of the “L’ Ecole des Beaux Art” in Hanoi has encouraged many students to explore this artistic heritage and further develop the symbiosis between traditional Lacquer techniques and painting. Later on, after returning from her imprisonment by the Japanese to France, she brought Lacquer to Europe, and used it herself for example in her “Via Dolorosa” work in Luc-sur-Mer in Calvados (France) and in many exhibitions in Florence (1952) and Monaco (1961), as well as – post hum – in Baltimore (2012).

Artists Tran Van Can (1910 – 1994), Pham Hau (1903–1995) and Nguyen Gia Tri (1909 – 1993) pioneered the development of the lacquer technique, from the simple decoration of architectural motifs in communal houses and temples or handicraft articles to the artistic drawings of modern lacquer pictures. They painted and did research passionately, mobilizing the traditional know-how of the lacquer craft while experimenting with new techniques. Their goal was to apply the laws of space and perspective concerning composition, shapes and figures (along with other painterly knowledge absorbed from the West) and at the same time to preserve the character and features of lacquer art.

The first lacquer paintings done by Vietnamese artists were quite traditional in expressing scenes of natural beauty.  Later, lacquer paintings promoted socialist and communist values.  However, since Vietnam became more outward looking in the 1980s and 1990s, young artists have explored and reinvented the old art form, placing it in a new, contemporary context to create highly innovative and interesting paintings.  Each artist has different ways of using lacquer to produce paintings, and some details are known only to the artists themselves.  However, there are some features common to all lacquer paintings – the traditional process described below.

Basically, lacquer paintings incorporate the traditional colours — brown, black, red, yellow, white — and the technique of inlaying egg, crab and snail shells. Innovations include techniques in mixing dyes, the addition of various tones of green to enrich the colour scheme, the drawing of shapes and figures, the use of shade and light with a wide range of different tones, and methods of applying pumice and polishing. Realistic themes depicted in so many works through each historical period convincingly confirm the expressive, inexhaustible resources of lacquer art.

Another generation of artists, such as Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Le Quoc Loc, and Sy Ngoc, has put its stamp on the value of Vietnamese lacquer art. Since 1934, international exhibitions have highlighted the achievements of lacquer art as a major landmark in the fine arts of Vietnam.

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