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Rare paintings threatened by family problems

Update: July, 22/2014 - 09:37
The Song Huong Nui Ngu silk painting, one of the most valuable paintings by Dao remaining in Viet Nam. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu

by Phuoc Buu

THUA THIEN - HUE  (VNS) — Family poverty has placed a priceless collection of paintings by Ton That Dao, a former member of the Hue royal family, in jeopardy.

There is also argument in the family over who controls the paintings, the members of the family in Viet Nam or two of his children (daughter- artist Dao's second child and son- artist Dao's third child) now living in the United States.

According to Tran Thi Lien Phuong, daughter-in-law of the artist, none of his descendants have enough knowledge to protect the paintings.

"It's painful to see my father's heritage going to ruin. But we can't afford enough for conservation," she said.

"Selling them all would be offensive, but we hit legal problems even when we tried to donate them to an art institute or a museum," she said.

About 40 works by the artist hang on the walls of the family home, which also houses the artist's altar. They include valuable paintings of Song Huong Nui Ngu (Huong River and Ngu Mountain), Vuon Xuan (A Spring Garden), Chan Dung Cu Gia (Portrait of an Old Man), and Phong Canh Thon Que (Countryside Scene) that were produced in the difficult period from 1945-1965.

All the paintings are in bad condition. Some are encased in frames turned almost to dust because of woodworms. In others, the silk itself is tattered and fading or covered in thick layers of dust.

Artist Ton That Dao, who was born in 1910 and died in 1979 in Hue, was one of the best known silk painters in Viet Nam in 20th century. His works are regarded highly by global art community.

In 1932, the artist started studying at the Indochinese College of Art formed by the French in 1925 in Ha Noi. It was the only art college in Indochina at the time.

After graduation, he painted on silk, wood and poonar, using oils and coloured pencil. In 1957, he became the first rector of the newly established Hue College of Art.

Paintings by famed late artist Ton That Dao are hanging around in his son's home. — VNS Photo Phuoc Buu

Thanks to his prestige, Dao gathered many top artists, including Truong Dinh Y, Mai Lan Phuong, Phan Xuan Sanh, and Thiem Quoc Hung to lecture and train hundreds of young artists, who later made great contributions to the development of modern Vietnamese art.

However, none of four of his children were trained in art. His oldest son Ton That Luc, 68, lives in the old family home in Hue, where Dao used to live. Two other children moved to the US, but the youngest died many years ago.

Luc has spent his recent years on a sickbed because of an cerebrovascular incident in 1999.

Daughter-in-law Phuong, 58, suffers from painful backbone problems and cannot work.

Luc and Phuong have one son and one daughter, who are the only grandchildren of the artist Dao. However, the son is now paralysed with poliomyelitis.

"When my father died, he didn't leave a testament for his paintings. His daughter and son in the US said all the paintings belong to them and I have no rights," said Phuong.

The tragedy is compounded when one realises Luc and Phuong are now on the list of poor households in Phu Cat Ward in Hue City.

Legally, Phuong and her daughter can not sell paintings or part of the residential land to survive because their US relatives also have an interest.

Traditionally, Phuong and her daughter have no right to make a decision about the property because family tradition in Hue gives the right to men only.

"We know the paintings will eventually rot away if left untouched, but we have no other way of looking after them," Phuong said, adding that current rector of Hue College of Art, Phan Thanh Binh, had once promised to deal with the situation.

The college and Hue Union of Culture and Art Associations seem both reluctant to do something to assist the family save Dao's paintings.

Artist Phan Hai Bang, a lecturer at the college, said he initiated a scholarship named Ton That Dao to gather resources to protect the paintings, but no one had joined in.

"Dao's paintings are priceless. Many of Dao's students are now successful and rich. I think they would help if they knew about the situation," he said.

Meanwhile, Luc and Phuong live largely from donations and the small earnings their daughter earns as a librarian. — VNS

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