VietNamNet Bridge – International exhibitions are starting to take in Vietnamese lacquer art pieces, evidence that the art form is gaining a presence in the global creative community. Luong Thu Huong reports.


Hard knock life: Lacquer painting requires extreme meticulousness and patience.




Exhibited at gallery 1 of the National Gallery Singapore during the Reframing Modernism exhibition, which kicked off last month, The Fairies, a lacquer painting by Vietnamese artist Nguyen Gia Tri, caught the attention of visitors due to its large size and impressive colours.

Painted in 1936, the 2.9m by 4.4m painting is one of the largest known lacquer works by Tri, who is considered to be Viet Nam’s pioneering artist in integrating lacquer into works of art.

“At the time The Fairies was made, Vietnamese artists were experimenting with how lacquer could be used as a modern painting medium," said Phoebe Scott, a curator at the National Gallery Singapore. "To me, that shows very clearly in this work: even though it would have been so meticulous and painstaking to prepare, it still gives the impression of expressiveness and spontaneity, through the flowing lines and nuanced colours."

Also displayed in the gallery were other lacquer paintings by Vietnamese artists, including Dawn on the Farm by Nguyen Duc Nung; Landscape of Viet Nam, also by Nguyen Gia Tri; and Bo Market by Nguyen Van Tỵ.

These lacquer paintings, which are the perfect combination between the technique and unique traditional material, have received much admiration from both visitors and international art critics.

The increasing appearance of Vietnamese lacquer paintings at international arts events in recent years has confirmed the status and value of this unique form of art among the world’s modern arts.

Viet Nam has been the cradle of lacquer painting, which has been renowned worldwide. Lacquer has a long history, as vestiges of lacquer have been found in many decorative items and Buddha statues in many ancient pagodas, such as Dau Pagoda in the northern province of Bac Ninh, which was constructed in the 2nd century.

It uses resin extracted from the son tree, which is found in the mountains of the northern province of Phu Tho. The resin is used along with other materials, such as eggshells and mother of pearl, before being processed into a piece of lacquer art.

At present, Hue, the former royal capital, is preserving the largest number of lacquer paintings and ancient works of art. Lacquer seems to be present everywhere in the city, from the architecture of sophisticated buildings, such as temples and pagodas, to objects of everyday use for ordinary families.

Since its early days, lacquer gradually developed from a traditional trade to handicrafts and, ultimately, to a higher artistic form: lacquer painting.

While other Asian countries, such as Korea, China or Japan, mainly consider lacquer to be material for handicraft products, since the early 20th century lacquer has taken up a role in Viet Nam as material for artistic paintings, especially after the establishment of the Fine Arts College, then named the École des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, in 1925.

According to painter Luong Xuan Doan, the vice chairman of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, French teachers and outstanding students of the college at that time, who were also considered the “golden generations” of Viet Nam’s artists, experimented to apply new material, or lacquer, to their works of art.

“The combination between traditional material, the Western classic arts theory and the creativity of renowned painters, such as Nguyễn Gia Tri, Tran Van Can or Pham Hau, created a new face of Viet Nam’s arts.”

In each period, lacquer has significantly contributed to the development of Viet Nam’s fine arts. The dark colours of lacquer, which are mostly comprised of brown and black, have been extended, while the black background of each lacquer painting has been constantly expanded by Vietnamese artists. In a short period of time, the art form has achieved a high status among Viet Nam’s modern arts, which is equivalent to that of Western oil paintings.

According to artist Hoang Quyen, former lecturer at the University of Industrial Fine Art, the unique feature of Viet Nam’s lacquer paintings is the harmonious combination among five basic elements: metal, wood, water, fire and earth.

“In lacquer paintings, metal is found in gold and silver leaf, wood in painting boards and resin from son trees, water in the water used to polish, fire to fry eggshells and clamshells, and earth in natural minerals, such as earth and stones which are ground and processed to create various colours,” he says.

While creating a painting, artists attach layers of eggshells, clamshells and colours which have been mixed with resin onto the wooden board, before applying other layers, such as gold or silver leaf. The work is then kept in a humid atmosphere until it is dried and ready for polishing.

Quyen adds, the polishing phase is also the artist’s moment of creativity, as he needs to know those certain parts in the painting that have to be roughly or carefully polished in order to preserve the colours or shapes he wants to keep. At times, such phases might result in surprising effects when colours of eggshells, silver and gold leaves become so brilliant and shine under a mysterious amber light.

Due to the distinctive characteristics of its material, lacquer painting requires extreme meticulousness and patience, explaining why the age of these paintings might be hundreds of years.

“Each painting has its own mysterious beauty hidden in layers of resin, the colours of which are both noble and splendid, but also subtle, like the soul of the Vietnamese,” Quyen says.

Since its appearance, Viet Nam’s lacquer painting has become increasingly famous and favoured worldwide. Many lacquer paintings of the 20th century have become national masterpieces and art treasures, such as Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac (Central Southern Northern Spring Garden) by Nguyen Gia Tri or Xuan Ho Guom (Sword Lake Spring) by Nguyen Tu Nghiem.

Viet Nam’s lacquer paintings have also been greatly sought after in many art markets or auctions worldwide. For example, the lacquer painting entitled Trong Vuon (In the Garden) by Nguyen Gia Tri was the second-most expensive work to be sold at the Larasati Auction in Singapore last year, bringing in over US$99,372. The sales price also set a new world record as the highest price ever paid for any Vietnamese work of art sold at auction.

Next generations

With the aim to preserve and promote the values of Vietnamese lacquer painting – a unique genre of art in the country and the world, several Vietnamese lacquer artists gathered in 2013 to form a group that is dedicated to Vietnamese lacquer painting.

Despite their differences in age, seniority, style and points of view, these lacquer artists share the same passion for the traditional material and the aspiration to confirm unique values of lacquer painting to the world.

Since its establishment, the group has regularly conducted arts events, such as workshops to exchange experiences among members, field trips to lacquer trade villages or conferences with both Vietnamese and international counterparts.

In particular, the group successfully carried out two exhibitions in 2013 and 2014. Their next exhibition is expected to be held in June.

“I have attended many exhibitions of lacquer paintings before, and have been very impressed by those held by groups of Vietnamese lacquer artists,” commented Manh Hien. “The young artists have created very impressive and creative works of art.”

Vietnamese lacquer painters have been given more opportunities to introduce their works abroad in France, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong.

For example, in 2014 the Viet Nam Fine Arts Museum held an exhibition displaying over 30 works by members of a Vietnamese lacquer artists’ group in Moscow and received very positive responses from Russian art critics.

Additionally, in July 2015 VietNam’s lacquer paintings were displayed for the first time in South Korea, offering a chance for cultural exchanges and future art cooperation between the two countries. Just in the three days after its opening, the event attracted thousands of visitors, which demonstrated the popularity of Vie Nam’s unique arts form.

“The exhibition was like a new breeze of art bringing along the mystery and brilliant light of Vie Nam’s lacquer. The viewers were moved from surprise to admiration and looked forward to seeing more lacquer works in the future,” one international arts critic noted.

According to the group’s head, Nguyen Truong Linh, who has created lacquer paintings for over 25 years, Vietnamese artists have come up with many creative innovations for lacquer works in recent years.

“In the past, the main topics of their paintings were everyday life activities, war or landscapes, such as Tat Nuoc Dong Chiem (Bailing Water out of the Rice Field) by Tran Van Can or Binh Minh Tren Nong Trang (Dawn on the Farm) by Nguyen Duc Nung,” he said.

“Due to the lack of materials, their works mainly applied traditional colours like ochre, gold and black, with very few greens and browns. The temporary artists have created more colours for lacquer paintings and additives for the painting process, and demonstrate a variety of temporary topics on their works, which differentiate them from their predecessors,” he adds.

A new opportunity to promote Viet Nam’s traditional lacquer handicrafts and lacquer painting on an international scale has been opened. Recently, the country received an invitation from South Korea to participate in compiling a multinational dossier, proposing that lacquer be placed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

China and Japan, two nations with age-old and developed traditional lacquer trades, might also join in building the catalogue.

“It would cause pride and happiness to us as lacquer painters if the arts of lacquer is recognized as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity,” says Linh.

“It is time to present art lovers around the world with the splendid beauty of Viet Nam’s lacquer paintings,” he adds.


Art abroad: Ha Noi Co Cau Long Bien (Ha Noi has Long Bien Bridge) by temporary lacquer artist Nguyen Truong Linh.




Traditional style: Binh Minh Tren Nong Trang (Dawn on the Farm) by Nguyen Duc Nung, also on display in National Gallery Singapore





Local legacy: Bac Nam Mot Nha by Nguyen Van Ty, one of the pioneering lacquer artists in Viet Nam. The painting is now being exhibited in Vietnam Fine Arts Museum





Cream of the crop: Doc Mung (Indian Taro) by artist Nguyen Gia Tri is considered as the most beautiful lacquer painting in Viet Nam by Vietnamese arts critics. VNS Photos Thu Huong




Hung up: Lacquer painting The Fairies by Nguyen Gia Tri is being displayed in Gallery 1 of National Gallery Singapore.



related news

Hanoi artist debuts exhibition on beauty of ethnic groups

First Vietnam-RoK lacquer painting exhibition opened in Hanoi

Trang Subyone combines installation art and oil paintings at downtown show