Lacquer paintings belong to the Vietnamese, said Bùi Thị Thanh Mai, deputy-director of the Việt Nam Museum of Fine Arts, while concluding a seminar on lacquer art held yesterday in Hà Nội.

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Lacquer paintings are a Vietnamese trademark

June 14, 2018 - 09:00

Lacquer paintings belong to the Vietnamese, said Bùi Thị Thanh Mai, deputy-director of the Việt Nam Museum of Fine Arts, while concluding a seminar on lacquer art held yesterday in Hà Nội.

A lacquer painting entitled Thiếu Nữ Trong Vườn (Girls in The Garden) by master painter Nguyễn Gia Trí. Photo courtesy of the Việt Nam Museum of Fine Arts
Viet Nam News

HÀ NỘI — Lacquer paintings belong to the Vietnamese, said Bùi Thị Thanh Mai, deputy-director of the Việt Nam Museum of Fine Arts, while concluding a seminar on lacquer art held yesterday in Hà Nội.

"Some countries like Britain, France and Germany also showcase lacquer paintings, but the term sơn mài [lacquer] was created by Vietnamese," Mai said. "Sơn mài comprises two words sơn (lacquer) and mài (grind) which relate to the material and process used to make a sơn mài painting.

Over the past 80 years Vietnamese lacquer masters reached milestones in developing traditional crafts towards artistic creativity.

"Let young artists be free to explore and create art like our masters. The history of lacquer or sơn mài art is built from contributions from each country in the world, and Việt Nam played an important role in the development of lacquer art."

Mai made the conclusion after listening to ten presentations and opinions from the seminar participants.

The seminar, entitled Tranh Sơn Mài - Chất Liệu và Nghệ Thuật (Lacquer Painting - Materials and the Art) was co-held by the museum and the Hanoi Goethe Institute, with participation from lacquer painters; art critics; and experts and lecturers from Việt Nam; Germany; the Netherlands and France

Participants were introduced to the concept of lacquer painting; the history of lacquer art; as well as specific requirements for lacquer materials and the preservation and restoration of lacquer paintings at the Việt Nam Museum of Fine Arts.

From the German Museum of Lacquer Art Munster, director Monika Kopplin introduced the style and techniques developed by European lacquer artists, whilst Dave van Gompel from the Netherlands, an expert in the restoration of Japanese lacquer painting analysed Japan’s modern lacquer works in the context of preservation and development. 

Expert Gompel also said that artists must respect the old, but not fear the new. They should avoid the widening gap between artists and craftsmen; cherish the material, farmers and tool makers; invest in education and communication; explore markets outside Việt Nam and invest in conservation and preservation.  

The first Vietnamese lacquer paintings were made by students at École Superieure des Beaux Arts de I’Indochine (Indochina Fine Art Colleges) in the 1930s.

The Vietnamese people had been using resin from the lacquer tree to make crafts and valuable objects for hundreds of years, including objects of religious value. 

"After visiting Văn Miếu (The Temple of Literature) with Vietnamese students, French teacher Joseph Inguimberty realised the potential of lacquer resin, which was used in the temple’s decorations.

He noticed the beautiful gilded and lacquered objects and architectural elements. He suggested his students experiment with lacquer resin as a painting material, as an alternative to the traditional western techniqe of oil painting," said artist Đoàn Văn Nguyên. Nguyên is veteran lacquer painter and lecturer at the Việt Nam Fine Arts University. 

Nguyên stressed that Vietnamese lacquer was quite different from its Chinese counterpart.

“Vietnamese lacquer paintings are covered and ground many times with lacquer resin before the artist inlays crushed egg shells, gold, silver and other materials". Nguyên also reveals that he has successfully restored his lacquer paintings which were partly damaged by oxygen. He is ready to co-operate with the museum to restore damaged lacquer masterpieces. His own lacquer painting is also in the museum’s collection. 

Art critic Nguyễn Hải Yến also participated in the seminar. She spoke about lacquer master Nguyễn Gia Trí. He was one of the first artists who took up lacquer resin as a new painting medium and is now considered the greatest exponent of Vietnamese lacquer painting. 

"Artist Trí stopped his studies at the Indochina Fine Arts College for many years to focus on drawing. During this time, he noticed differences when using lacquer resin to make traditional craft objects and make paintings," said Yến.

"He made lacquer resin popular in modern painting." 

Art critic Yến also said that during the early part of his career, his lacquer paintings accorded with the romantic colonial style and ideals, but he soon began experimenting successfully with more abstract concepts. 

Yến also expressed her desire to make lacquer paintings a Vietnamese trademark in the world.

Lacquer painting was a milestone for Vietnamese fine art, but how it will be preserved in the museum is an issue that many participants at the seminar were concerned with. The museum’s former deputy-directors Nguyễn Ánh Nguyệt and Nguyễn Xuân Tiệp gave presentations about lacquer painting preservation in the museum.

Nguyệt highlighted achievements in restoring some master works, including Nguyễn Gia Trí’s master work Thiếu Nữ Trong Vườn (Girls in The Garden). The painting was damaged by bullets in the American war. The big holes were treated but the lines and colours were not. Meanwhile Tiệp is worried about backwards infrastructure and urges the use of technology to preserve the lacquer painting collection in the museum. 

"The lacquer painting collection is very big, due to many reasons the number of restored paintings is very few," said Tiệp. "It requires the best materials to restore the damaged works."

Deputy Director Mai thanked the participants for attending the seminar and highly appreciated the opinions which will help the museum to preserve, restore and popularise Việt Nam’s lacquer paintings. — VNS