After nearly 150 years of rule in Vietnam, the Nguyen dynasty (1802 – 1945) left many cultural treasures in the ancient imperial city of Hue. One of these is the city’s renowned enameled medal art.
Enameled art’s origin
Phap lam is the name the Vietnamese gave to enameled metal art. These products usually have a copper core and are coated with an enamel glaze. The art combines different types of enamel techniques, plus casting, hammering, welding and tempering the metal core. Nowadays, it is also produced by electrolysis.
Phap lam Hue was inspired by the Guang Dong’s falang enameled metal art. Many people think that is where enameled metal art came from but it actually originated in the 13th century BC in ancient Greece. Later, it became popular around the world. Each country has its own distinct genre. Guang Dong’s falang was inspired by Limoges and Battersea enamel in the 17th century.
Limoges is a city in southwestern France, where pottery and ceramics are a specialty. The main themes of Limoges enamel are myths and parables – religious themes and ancient bible verses. Many household items, including candlesticks, forks, vases and other ornamental pieces, are decorated this way. In Hue, there are enameled images of dragons, phoenixes and herbs. The origin and techniques are similar, but in Hue the art form reflects Eastern and Western cultures. It also reinforces the historic cultural exchanges between countries.
Hue’s phap lam
Imported to Vietnam during the reign of Chinese king Minh Mang (in 1827), this art form won people’s hearts and minds. At that time, Vietnamese people called the enameling technique phap lam instead of the Chinese falang. There are many controversies about the origin of the term phap lam. The most popular explanation seems to be related to the name falang (which means France) in Chinese. When it was imported to Vietnam, they might have wanted to avoid profaning the tabooed name of Lord Nguyen Phuc Lan since the words “lang” and “lan” have a similar pronunciation. Hence, the name phap lam was born.
The existence of the workshops during the Nguyen dynasty only lasted about 60 years. However, the legacy of this dynasty can be seen today in palaces, ancient mausoleums, museums, and collections of private artifacts inside and outside the country. Based on the production method, enameled metal is divided into different types. Most of the phap lam Hue products are the painted enamel style.
The art of phap lam Hue
Historically, this type of art was often used for exterior and interior decoration, or for home appliances and worship items. The designs used in the exterior decoration of the Nguyen dynasty palaces have received much attention. They feature dragons and clouds and are usually found on the palace roofs and gates. According to engineer Do Huu Triet, who participated in the reconstruction Hue’s phap lam enamel, the art is usually in intermediate, bright and contrasting colours. This was eye-catching but not as colourful as Chinese falang. Purples and blues bring about a dreamy beauty in the Hue products.
Function and beauty
The enameled products have both a functional and aesthetic beauty. They are artistic works with diversified shapes, rich colours, and brilliant, decorative themes. The ancient objects displayed in museums have helped researchers rejuvenate this particular type of art.
Revival journey of phap lam Hue
Recently, phap lam has been used is the restoration and preservation of Nguyen architectural works but it is also associated with other fine art forms such as sculpture and mosaics. Rich and diverse traditional handicrafts have a unique appeal, drawing from a bold traditional culture and helping to propel traditional industries.
After almost 200 years of neglect, phap lam Hue is being reborn. Along with its beauty and functionality, the art form presents important historical evidence of the trade and cultural exchange between the East and West.
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