Once a forgotten genre, silk paintings are on the rise, fueled by a wave of enthusiastic young artists with open minds and refined skills.
Following masterworks by painter Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984) that laid the foundation for silk painting in Vietnam, the genre faded in popularity over subsequent decades. Artists such as Mong Bich and Mai Long kept the traditional practice alive, but younger generations turned to oil and lacquer paintings or other visual arts. However, silk painting in recent years has seen something of a revival, given a boost with the first National Silk Painting Exhibition in 2007.
A leading figure in contemporary silk paining is Vu Dinh Tuan (born 1973), who has demonstrated a refinement and precision while taking an innovative approach to technique, such as layering two pieces of painted silk to create a faint, ghostly blur. Tuan is also fond of soft and neutral colors in a variety of shades, while traditional silk paintings were typically draped in a single dominant tone, such as Linh Chi’s pale yellow, or Nguyen Phan Chanh’s flat color shapes in black with some highlights. Tuan has mastered the crescendo and rhythms of his color palette for a contemporary effect that is based on innovation and creative inspiration rather than convention and restraint.
With a single face forming a central axis, ideas abound and blossom, drifting over attitudes from praise to criticism, coupled with intertwined brushstrokes that demand a closer examination. Tuan’s paintings are elaborate, but not chaotic and expressive with delicate transitions of color shaping the solid but not rigid forms
Tuan’s selection of themes is clever and conducive for subjective thoughts and contemplations, in stark contrast to preceding generation who grappled with the phantom of restrictive conventionality and petrifying realism. A master of the medium and technique, Tuan is also prolific in his creations; over time, his may well outnumber those of a dozen of artists in previous generations combined.
A leading veteran on the contemporary silk painting landscape is Ho Chi Minh City-based Bui Tien Tuan (born 1971). The artist tends to work on a large scale, with a focusing on negative space and a highly individual style. The key subject of his works is the female body, and Tuan shifts his perspective to capture physical curves and eye-catching shapes. Rather than simply capturing beauty, Tuan’s work takes on a range of faces and expressions, dark and edgy juxtaposed with enchanting and harmonious.
The women in works by Bui Tien Tuan reflect the changes in society’s outlook of life and femininity. His style has drifted far away from realism, leaving much space for the creation of a subjective style. His paintings border on mischievous simplicity, with brushstrokes that are moderated but profound, focusing ultimately on personal feelings and patterns above all else.
What silk paintings in this current generation have in common is tenderness and emotional maturity, exuding a thoughtful approach to the medium that moves beyond a superficial realism to depths of contemplation. Once a marginal medium, silk painting has become a playground for contemporary artists; late last year, a renowned exhibition was held that featured 109 silk paintings by 23 artists from the generation after 1970. The show highlighted how far silk painting has developed in the 10 years after its rebirth at the National Silk Painting Exhibition and pointed towards the bright future of contemporary Vietnamese silk painting.