PhD in Cultural Studies, Expert Scientific Management Office, Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Arts, Vietnam, Hanoi
TRADITIONAL LACQUER PAINTING AS THE CRADLE OF VIETNAMESE LACQUER ART OF PAINTING
Vietnamese lacquer art of painting was born at the time French and Vietnamese cultures intersected, so it was considered a product of this acculturation. Unlike silk, a purely Asian painting genre, lacquer painting can express large, monumental, and modern themes via all materials used. The material’s advantages were discovered thanks to the efforts and enthusiasm of the first Vietnamese artists. Their endeavor, exploration, and creativity helped lacquer art have rapid and robust changes. After about 80 years of formation and development, from a decorative form, lacquer art has grown into an independent, epochal visual material that is rich in national identity.
Вьетнамская лаковая живопись зародилась на стыке пересечения французской и вьетнамской культур, поэтому она считалось продуктом этой аккультурации. В отличие от росписи по шелку, которая была чисто азиатским жанром живописи, лаковая живопись дает возможность выразить фундаментальные и современные темы, используя любые материалы. Такие преимущества были обнаружены благодаря усилиям и энтузиазму первых вьетнамских художников. Их стремления, исследования и творческий подход помогли лаковому искусству быстро измениться. После 80 лет становления и развития лаковое искусство превратилось из декоративной формы в самостоятельный, эпохальный визуальный материал, богатый национальной самобытностью.
Keywords: Traditional lacquer (another name for “sơn ta”), material of painting, lacquer art of painting.
Ключевые слова: традиционная лаковая живопись (“sơn ta”); материал для росписи; лаковое искусство.
1. Context for forming the Vietnamese lacquer art of painting
1.1. The traditional lacquer painting of the Vietnamese
Traditional lacquer is the sap of the rhus succedanea trees (often grown in Phu Tho Province, Vietnam) and is exploited and processed to paint on wooden furniture, making them more durable and beautiful. Lacquer painting is a vital craft of the Vietnamese. In the past, lacquer was applied in decorating wooden furniture in communal houses, pagodas, or palaces.
Lacquer painting is a traditional craft of Vietnam. By the 15th and 16th centuries, it had developed rapidly with a high technical level. According to historians, in the 16th century, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and French merchants came to Vietnam to buy lacquer. The main ingredient of lacquer is the resin of the rhus succedanea trees grown in Phu Tho Province, Vietnam. This resin is called raw lacquer (or “sơn sống”). If stirred with a wooden paddle continuously for many hours, the lacquer becomes transparent with translucent brown. It is called finished lacquer (“sơn chín”), known colloquially in Vietnamese as “sơn cánh gián,” or “cockroach wing” lacquer. Traditional lacquer has four primary colors: red, black, yellow, and white. If the lacquer is worked with an iron tool instead, a chemical reaction causes the lacquer to reach an opaque black, known as “sơn then.” Red is pigment red mixed with “cockroach wing” lacquer. Yellow is the gold leaf, and white is the silver leaf. In addition, mussel shells can be used for inlaying and mounting.
In the book “A Journey to Tonkin in 1688”, William Dampier mentioned lacquerware in North Vietnam in the late 17th century: “The lacquer made here are not inferior to other types, except for Japanese lacquer considered to be the best in the world. It’s probably because the Japanese wood is much better than in Tonkin, and people don’t see a difference in the lacquer or the varnish” [1, p. 86].
Mr. Dampier said that a foreign captain had brought wood and carpenters to Tonkin to build furniture and then used traditional lacquer to cover it. He described the painting technique of the artists of Tonkin as follows: “… They apply many layers of lacquer, so it is imperative to wait for the previous layer to dry before applying another one. The color turns to light black if the item is exposed to air. Thanks to the varnish and other substances mixed into the lacquer, the color will be warmer. When the final layer has dried, it is ground to become smooth and shiny like a glass sheet by rubbing it carefully with a fist or palm. They can create the lacquer in different colors and use it to make a kind of glue considered the best in the world. However, the glue is cheap and is prohibited from export. The lacquer is also used to make varnish” [1, p. 87].
Lacquer craft villages were born throughout Vietnam to serve the great demand for lacquer in communal houses, pagodas, temples, shrines, and mansions. The beginning was in the North with the craft villages such as Ha Cau (Dong Minh, Vinh Bao District, Hai Phong Province), Dinh Bang (Tien Son District, Bac Ninh Province), Cat Dang (Y Yen District, Ha Nam Province), Dong My (Thanh Tri District, Hanoi), Chuyen Mi, Boi Khe, Binh Vong, Ha Thai, and Van Giap (now belong to Hanoi.) The lacquer painting gradually developed into the Central with craft villages such as Trieu Son, Dia Linh, and Tien Non (Thua Thien Hue Province). The South had Tuong Binh Hiep lacquer craft village (Binh Phuoc Province).
1.2. Bringing lacquer painting to art schools
On October 27, 1924, Governor General of French Indochina, V. Merlin, signed a Decree to establish The École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (later known as the Fine Arts College of Indochina). French artist Victor Tardieu was appointed to be the first Director. He also campaigned and applied for the establishment of the school to train genuine painters, a profession that had never existed in Vietnam before. Previously, Vietnam had only folk paintings and a few portraits painted on silk. Sculpture only included worshiping statues and appeared in architecture made by artisans of craft villages. In 1925, the Fine Arts College of Indochina opened, and Vietnamese modern art was born.
From the beginning of the training, painter Tardieu gave a guideline to help Vietnamese artists find meaning and inspiration in traditional art. Therefore, in 1932, the Fine Arts College of Indochina opened the Faculty of Lacquer Painting.
In the early days, the professors and students learned to make lacquer from the masters because only experienced artisans knew the secrets of the forefathers and handled this kind of lacquer well. At this time, students used “sơn son” (natural lacquer stored after harvesting for 3-4 months) for decorative drawing. “Cockroach wing” lacquer and translucent brown-red lacquer (“sơn son pha cánh gián”) were mixed with Vernicia Montana oil. After finishing, grinding was not required, so the surface of the painting was usually glossy but not flat and smooth.
The sanded lacquer appeared after the painters had replaced the Vernicia Montana oil with pine resin. The Vernicia Montana oil is thin and hard, so if it is polished with water, the surface of the lacquer painting will be scratched. Why is it important to have a lacquer painting ground? The use of pine resin instead of Vernicia Montana oil can be explained as follows. Traditional lacquer (or “sơn ta”) is inherently a decorative material, so the artist must perform each operation precisely. Decorative motifs are painted on the lacquer baseboard, or “vóc,” a flat wooden board wrapped in lacquer-soaked cloth. Then, the artist paints layers of lacquer on it neatly and waits for drying. This method did not match the European style of painting that Vietnamese artists were practicing at that time.
A European oil painting is often painted with many layers of colors because the artists shall adjust the correlation between the pieces, the intensity, create blocks, or express light. They can wait for the previous layer to dry before applying another layer, or apply another layer even though the last layer is still wet so that the layers blend smoothly, depending on their intentions.
In the early 30s of the 20th century, lacquer paintings were not considered artworks if the traditional lacquer was not handled like oil paint. Artists could not freely compose if they had to paint in a decorative pattern that was completely flat, without blocks as well as light. Using pine resin instead of Vernicia Montana oil brought a good opportunity to help traditional lacquer become a material used in painting. However, there was a contrast between oil painting and lacquer painting. The beauty of oil paintings was determined in the final color layer, but lacquer paintings were not. Lacquer painters could apply many layers (each layer of paint mixed with pine resin). When the lacquer was dry, they sanded it and poured water simultaneously. There were many layers underneath, so the colors sometimes blended. After grinding, there would be color harmony or random details. Therefore, grinding determined the artistic effectiveness of the painting. The more they ground, the more the effect of the material, the color, and the space of the painting changed. They had to decide the level of sanding to achieve the most effect. Since then, the concept of “grinding” has been understood that “painting with a grindstone,” and professional lacquer artists called it “drawing combined grinding.” According to Vietnamese artists, the grinding process not only helped the painting to be flat but also contributed to the finishing process of the work of art.
2. Forming a material of painting
2.1. Starting with titanium white and moving on to a palette of vibrant colors like oil paint
From the above discovery, the students of the art schools added techniques, such as attaching eggshells, applying embossed lacquer, or making silver and gold powder to sprinkle in the wet layer of lacquer, creating more color harmony for lacquer and increasing the ability to depict light and dark which was the strength of European painting.
In the early period, the painters of the Fine Arts College of Indochina were influenced by the Neoclassical style of painting, which was popular in France, and the drawing style of the Principal, Mr. Victor Tardieu. In this painting style, depicting light and dark, or distance, was fundamental. Lacquer was inherently a decorative material, so in an array of colors, it was usually flat and almost did not change colors. Although the artists used many methods, such as sprinkling gold powder on the sky and bamboo leaves, or silver powder on the shadow of water to represent light, it was still unclear. Therefore, it was challenging to describe reality. To create a dark color, painters could add opaque black lacquer (or “sơn then”), but there was no way to create a light color. Attaching eggshells created a white patch but couldn’t change the hue of an array of colors, although artists used techniques such as grinding eggshells and sprinkling them on the paintings.
The discovery of white used in lacquer paintings could be considered a premise for the realistic development of lacquer art. Before, all types of white put into traditional lacquer (or “sơn ta”) would instantly begin to disintegrate and trigger a chemical reaction, making the “cockroach wing” lacquer turn black. However, bright yellow-brown was produced by combining titanium white with the “cockroach wing” lacquer.
The harmony of European-origin titanium white with Vietnamese lacquer opened a prospect for the color palette of lacquer art of painting. Undoubtedly, there would be more colors that could be harmonized with this “fastidious” material. It gave the artists an optimism that lacquer’s shortcomings would be remedied.
Moreover, if it was possible to mix pigments with “cockroach wing” lacquer, it meant that lacquer began to have things in common with oil paint. Oil paint was mixed with linseed oil. However, in lacquer, people mixed the “cockroach wing” color with other colors (that had no chemical reaction with the traditional lacquer.)
In 1948, green was discovered. Talking about this event, painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem said: “The green was not a discovery, but a requirement in the resistance movements. When drawing soldiers, we would think of green. In the war, anything that gave color was used, even medicine. Could we soak the Gardenia Jasminoides Ellis in the “cockroach wing” color to create green? Maybe. Covering the blue on the gold leaf was a good idea” [1, p.198].
Painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem said he had used to smash blue beer bottles, crush pieces of glass, and mix them with lacquer. He had used that mixture to paint and ground the painting but failed. After that, he had mixed lacquer with the Tinospora Crispa Miers.
The birth of green was marked by the work Soldier playing the flute in a stilt house (Bộ đội thổi sáo dưới nhà sàn) by Nguyen Tu Nghiem. Some green banana leaves suddenly appeared in the sunlight and were next to a purplish banana flower, making the vermilion more radiant, creating a refreshing complementary color, and making the lacquer painting closer to nature.
2.2. Attaching mussel shells and egg shells
In the past, when using mussel shells and eggshells to attach to products, artisans often applied raw lacquer and a bright white array. To conquer this artistic material, the lacquer artists mixed lacquer and added colors, or after they had attached eggshells, they applied a layer of colored lacquer, let it dry, and ground it. This method made the eggshell array have the luminosity of colors and intensity. The paint penetrated the crevices of eggshells, creating natural strokes of color. Painter Tran Van Can wrote: “The eggshell is not as bright and shiny as the color of gold, and not as hard and sharp as the bright color of silver. However, using eggshells in paintings will be like decoration for handicrafts if the artists don’t have good taste and lack technique” [2, p. 26].
Later, the artists continued to study the stages involved in attaching eggshells. After the eggshell had been fastened, the hammering technique was focused on. Artists wanted both to press the eggshell pieces so that they stuck to the lacquer on the surface of the paintings and express the richness of the colors in the eggshell array. The eggshell arrays that were hit more strongly by the hammer would be slightly concave. When they were applied with paint, the color would condense more than in other areas. Hence, after they had been flattened, the color would be darker than the surrounding area.
The painting Winter is coming (Mùa đông sắp đến) by Tran Van Can was created similarly. Painter Tran Van Can evenly spread eggshells on the surface of the painting into three arrays of different sizes. The closest array depicted a marble floor. Another array was a girl’s Ao Dai, and the furthest array was a house wall. These three pieces represented three different materials, so the painter showed different techniques. For the marble floor, he applied eggshells evenly, used gray paint, and polished it to create a shine of the marble floor. For the image of Ao Dai, he smashed the eggshells for them to concave in some places and painted them with red lacquer (sơn son). After grinding, there were red vignettes on the white Ao Dai. The white wall in the distance was also covered with eggshells. The most important thing was that the author used a strong force to make the eggshells sink, then painted the “cockroach wing” lacquer on them. He only ground some bright spots. The remaining areas were submerged in a dark color, causing the wall to be pushed away and creating space for the picture. It also helped the wall have a warm, ancient color.
2.3. Changing the effect of materials such as gold and silver
Previously, painters often glued the whole gold leaf or silver leaf on paintings, called gilding or silver plating. This stage required them to get skills and good aesthetics to make the surface even and flat. After gilding or silver plating, the product would be an even bright patch, with no residual paint and no difference in density. This advantage became a hindrance for artists. If reflective brightness was required, artists had to apply gilding and silver plating. As a result, such an even array of bright colors would be decorative. After a period of research, they found that if gold and silver were crushed and sprinkled on the paintings, they would create porosity and change the intensity. This was a method to create brightness commonly used in European graphics. Painter Hoang Tich Chu recounted: “Students of the Fine Arts College of Indochina studied the Japanese method of making lacquer and traditional method of Vietnam. Gold powder and silver powder were sprinkled on the layer of lacquer, creating patterns such as bamboo trees (sprinkling gold powder), the shadow of water (sprinkling silver powder on red paint), and improved polishing method” [3. p. 21].
Gold powder or silver powder was made by placing gold leaf or silver leaf in a sieve and then gently swirling it with a dry brush. It would crumble into powder, pass through the sieve, and fall on the surface of the painting.
The work that converged the innovative achievements in the field of lacquer effectively and artistically was Remembering an afternoon in the Northwest (Nhớ một chiều Tây Bắc), composed by Phan Ke An in 1955. With creativity in lacquer materials (including green, eggshells, silver powder, gold powder, gilding, and silver plating), the author portrayed a majestic natural image in an afternoon with sunlight spreading on the mountain slopes. Using green as the central theme, Phan Ke An showed us his ingenuity in describing the spatial layers of the Northwest mountains.
Gold has been skillfully used in this work. Gold and silver were used interchangeably. The painting was silver-plated in some places and sprinkled with gold powder. The artist coated them with brown lacquer and, after grinding, there was the movement of the sky. Gold was used quite abundantly and flexibly to describe mountainsides. In the closer mountain array, gold was directly plated and covered with a thin layer of lacquer. Then, this layer was sanded to create brilliant sunlight on the mountainside in the middle of the painting. It could be said that using gold and silver in this painting was much different from that of the late 1930s. Previously, gold was simply glued on the surface of the paintings, but in this painting, there were innovations in material handling, such as grinding gold and silver and mixing them to create many colors for the picture. Therefore, it can be affirmed that Remembering an afternoon in the Northwest is a landmark marking the completion of new material of Vietnamese lacquer painting. Obviously, innovations in lacquer have brought significant artistic effect to this kind of fine art.
Tran Dinh Tho’s work Going to the field (Ra đồng) was a typical work for the gilding technique. To describe the landscape of the midlands in dawn with bamboo, banana trees, and mountains in the distance, the author mainly used the colors such as red, gold, and opaque black and focused on handling techniques for gold. For banana leaves, the author glued gold leaf and then covered it with red lacquer. After that, he used a small stone to grind banana leaves under their shapes. While grinding, the author had to think about the density so that the banana leaves appeared brilliantly on the background of red. After he had glued gold leaf on bamboo leaves, he did not apply a layer of lacquer but kept it original, creating vivid banana leaves swinging in the wind. Furthermore, gold and silver powder was sprinkled on the bushes, hedges, and mountains in the distance with varying degrees of powder, creating a dawning glow covering a wonderful natural landscape.
With the desire to describe things and express the inner world of the artist via Vietnamese lacquer, artists broke the old habit of using colors and techniques and replaced them with a range of new materials, methods, and colors. In addition to the primary colors of traditional lacquer, such as red, brown (“cockroach wing” lacquer), opaque black (sơn then), and yellow (gold leaf), they discovered and used other colors such as white (eggshells), gray (mussel shells or finely sifted silver powder), and some inorganic colors to make lacquer. As a result, the colors in lacquer paintings were enhanced. Moreover, the change in drawing techniques, use of materials, and artistic talents helped the artists create a new painting material that was shimmering and fanciful. Thanks to that, Vietnamese lacquer art of painting has affirmed its position in the country and the world.
- Institute of Fine Arts. Traditional lacquer and traditional lacquer painting in Vietnam. Conference Proceedings,. Hanoi: Fine Arts Publishing House, 2002.
- Nguyen Luong Tieu Bach, Bui Nhu Huong, Pham Trung, Nguyen Van Chien. Vietnamese Modern Arts. Hanoi: Fine Arts Publishing House, 2005.
- Quang Viet. Vietnamese modern lacquer painting, Hanoi: Fine Arts Publishing House, 2006.
- William Dampier. A Journey to Tonkin in 1688, Translated to Vietnamese by Hoang Tuan Anh. Hanoi: The gioi Publishers, 2005.