Vietnamese lacquer paintings (tranh sơn mài) are a must-see for anyone interested in the country’s art scene. Phan Ngọc, a cultural researcher, said: “Sơn mài paintings are Vietnamese artistic contribution to the world’s culture.” Art lovers are proud of the long history that has turned lacquer from a traditional handmade material into a unique material for Vietnamese paintings.
What is a sơn mài painting?
Vietnamese lacquer paintings(tranh sơn mài)are named after their technique: sơn mài. Sơn refers to the material (paint) and mài to the artist’s movements (sanding).
Sơn mài painting is an excellent discovery in Vietnamese art and technical expression.
The history of lacquer painting
Originating 8000 years ago in China and Persia, sơn mài combined local techniques and Western technology to create sophisticated and meticulous works of art.
The use of lacquer found its way to Vietnam very early. More than 2000 years ago, since the Ly Dynasty (11th century), lacquer paintings had been used to decorate palaces, commune halls, temples, and pagodas. Nevertheless, this form of art has only been popularized since the 1930s thanks to Joseph Inguimberty – a lecturer of a renowned Vietnamese Fine Arts school. He introduced the art of sơn mài to the syllabus, which was then acquired and developed by generations of Vietnamese artists. Through extensive research and refinement, the senior class of artists paved the way for this traditional craft to become the technique that we know today.
The outstanding features of lacquer painting
Sơn mài paintings are sturdy and can stand the test of time. Their surface is covered with a protective layer, making it easier to polish. The final look is highly dependent on the paints with their available colors, most of which are inorganic to avoid being faded because of light exposure and through time. It is painted on a blackboard, which means vóc – the ‘body’ of the painting. The artists use traditional black and puce lacquer (made from sap of an Asian sumac).
Other featuers include red lacquer, silver and gold leaves, clam and snail shells.
Traditional lacquer comes in three colors: brown, black, and red. In the 1930s, artists learned about the chisel technique and started applying it. Then the color range was widened, with a diversity of shades to enhance the viewer’s sense of size and distance. It takes roughly 15 to 20 days to complete a small, simple sơn mài artwork, and even years for larger ones.
The enchantment of sơn mài painting that gains public attention combines its unique material, durability, and luxuriousness. Sơn mài paintings are distinctively different from silk, oil or watercolor works.
The paint properties and smooth surfaces create a particular vibe in space that makes it well-suited to abstract art. The painting exudes a strong, energetic feeling, because of its tight composition and rich material.
Interestingly, the sơn mài technique has some paradoxical and confusing principles. For example, if the artists want to shorten the drying period, they will store their works in an airtight cabinet with high humidity.
Famous Vietnamese sơn mài artists
There aren’t many young people who dare to conquer the challenge of completing a work of sơn mài painting due to its difficulty. Those who diligently pursue the art, therefore, are few and far between. Hence, the artists that can make names for themselves in this field are highly respected and honored.
Nguyễn Gia Trí (1906-1993) is one of the leading painters of the lacquer painting form in Vietnam. He thrived from 1938 – 1944, which was also the prime time for lacquer painting.
Hoàng Tích Chu (1912-2003) was a famous painter in oil and lacquer paintings. Most of his works are on display in the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Moscow Museum of Oriental Fine Arts, and other private collections.
Phạm Hậu (1903 – 1994) is one of the pioneers in lacquer painting. He created many beautiful artworks and large partitions and won several prestigious awards from 1935-1945.
Photo 6: Painting Cá vàng ba đuôi (three-tailed goldfish) by artist Pham Hau. Photo: Pinterest
Modern sơn mài painting
Sơn mài painting is a particular traditional art form that has become a luxurious line, on par with paintings made of other Western materials. Today, the modern sơn mài continues to grow, along with many artists’ bold expressions and creative explorations. These movements contribute to the lasting vitality of lacquer paintings in Vietnamese arts.
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