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French diplomat restores fading artwork

Update: December, 04/2013 - 08:26

Work in progress: Painter Nguyen Lam works to fix the lacquer paintings. — VNS Photos

by Do Quang Tuan Hoang

HCM CITY (VNS) — When the new French Consul General in HCM City, Fabrice Mauries, took office in April 2011, the lacquer painting Dam Ruoc (The Procession) by one of Viet Nam's noted artists was gracing the wall of the consulate reception room.

Neither Mauries nor his staff knew exactly when Dam Ruoc – one of the few remaining pieces by wellknown painter Nguyen Gia Tri – came into the consulate's possession, but he soon began to realise it was a precious art work.

"I now know it is among the rare paintings of the artist that remain. I did feel upset to see it slowly degrading, and wanted to have it restored," he said .

Nguyen Gia Tri (1908-93) completed the painting in 1939 in Ha Noi. The work, 3m by 1.8m in size, was painted onto nine timber planks covered with cloth - layer after layer of raw lacquer..

The painting is a tribute to the beautiful scenery of the northern countryside, including the spectacular red silk cotton (kapok) trees, bamboo hedges, rice fields, irrigation trenches, and a church.

As new: The photos show the Dam Ruoc painting before and after restoration.

"I invited a French fine-arts expert to examine the painting, but he wanted a sky-high fee," said Mauries. "Then I shared the idea with friends, colleagues and the French who are living and working here."

Immediately, Guy Lacombe, an art collector, chipped in and mobilised his French friends – art lovers – in Viet Nam to contribute funds to restore the lacquerwork. Lacombe also recommended experienced artist Nguyen Lam, who has more than 50 years of experience working with lacquer, to restore the painting.

Lam was a founding member of the Sai Gon Young Artists Club in 1960s and in the same generation as many other famous artists, such as Nguyen Trung, Ho Huu Thu, Do Quang Em, and Trinh Cung.

"Things were easy because the French are open whenever asked to contribute to conserving cultural heritage," said Mauries, requiring the restoration be carried out inside the consulate's building.

"Dam Ruoc is the best preserved of Tri's works I have seen, however, it was not easy to restore," said artist Lam who invited his three artist children, Huyen Lam, Lam Huynh Son and Lam Lan, and artisan Huyen Ly join in the work.

After taking the painting from its frame, the artists carefully removed dust layers from the painting surface with clean water and emery paper until the original paint appeared.

It took almost one month for the artists to complete touching the painting up. "It seems simple to outsiders, but if it was put in the hands of unskilled artists, the process could damage and discolour the painting," said one expert.

"Nguyen Lam has completed the delicate work skillfully worker," said Mauries after announcing Dam Ruoc had been completely restored.

"I feel so happy and proud to be assigned such work. This is an authentic work made using traditional lacquer painting techniques, not so much different from current techniques," said Lam. "The work always made me feel pleasant, like I was working in the artist's worshop back then."

To evaluate the artistic value of Tri's painting, Mauries said that the French Consulate would consult with museums in HCM City, hopefully before he completes his term. — VNS

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