The Chinese produced lacquer paintings already 800 years ago, but the lacquer painting technique has hit a renaissance due to a group of artists in Vietnam. They have taken the difficult art form into the 21st Century.
Trinh Tuan is 38 years old and in many ways typical for the 6,000 artists who live in Hanoi, the art Mecca in Asia. He received his training at the Hanoi Industrial University for the Fine Arts, one of Hanoi’s two art Universities. He has an outgoing personality, is curious, is interested in establishing contact with visitors, and has a humor familiar to Europeans.
However, in one way he is very different. With his wife, Hoa – who is also an artist – he has chosen to focus on the laborious art of lacquer paintings. The technique of lacquer paintings came to Vietnam around A.D. 1450 when a Vietnamese Mandarin was sent to China to learn about this particular form of art. The Chinese collected the lacquer substance from a tree which produces a sap suitable for painting. In China, people have known the process of lacquer work perhaps as long as seven thousand years.
It is a very meticulous work to produce a lacquer painting, and the process can take several months to complete. First, a piece of wood is being prepared and polished to serve as a template. The lacquer substance is then applied and polished, often in 8 – 10 layers. Colours, silver and gold leaf, mother of pearl, eggshell and other substances are applied between the layers of lacquer. The process is very time consuming and requires a lot of skills. “It is difficult to know the final result and have full control of colours, even with many years of experience. Suddenly, a colour you thought to be red, turns out more brownish”, says Trinh Tuan. “The final appearance of the colour may depend on in which layer of lacquer it has been applied”.
Trinh Tuan is Associate Professor at the University where he himself was a student and graduated in 1985. He has participated in several exhibitions abroad, such as in Japan (1996), China (1996), Germany (1997), Singapore (1997), Denmark (1997, 1998). He plans to exhibit in New York, Buenos Aires and Bangkok (Thavibu Gallery) in 1999.
He also sets aside time to teach foreign students of lacquer paintings among his busy schedule. “I went to Hanoi to study under Trinh Tuan because he and Hoa are among the best lacquer artists in Vietnam” says the Danish artist Marianne Rask. “They are also wonderful people who share their joy of art with others.”
Around 20 students who major in lacquer paintings, graduate from Hanoi’s two Art Universities every year. However, most of the new graduates choose not to pursue lacquer paintings, but turn to other art forms. “It can be much quicker to earn a way of living by painting oil on canvas”, says Trinh Tuan. “A piece of canvas is inexpensive, and if the inspiration is present, a skilled artist may produce a painting in a very short time”. Lacquer paintings will necessarily be relatively more expensive. The wooden template costs around US$ 30, which is a high price in Vietnam considering the low wages. On top of that, it will take at least one month to complete the lacquer painting due to the many layers of lacquer which have to be applied and the very intensive polishing work.
A half of dozen lacquer artists are today among the top Vietnamese artists. There is today an extensive production of fake paintings by the late and famous Vietnamese painter Bui Xuan Phai who painted oils. It is assuring to know however, that lacquer paintings cannot be ‘faked’ due to the long and complex process of making the painting. It is not possible to copy a lacquer painting since the colours depend on the layer in which they have been applied. If you do not know the ‘code’, a copy cannot be made. Lacquer paintings are also very durable. An oil painting may show cracks in the paint after some years, but the lacquer painting will last unchanged for several hundreds of years.
“I know that it is a difficult form of art”, says Trinh Tuan. “But I love it, and I will never give up to produce lacquer paintings”.
Michael Rastrup Smith