Story: SON CA

Lacquer and silk Tet paintings spark nostalgia in a Vietnamese person far from home.

My first encounter with an Indochinese lacquer painting, depicting a young woman, was in Paris. The artwork and I were alone in a still space, as the gilding on its scarlet and ebony layers stirred powerful emotions of longing within me.

My reaction was not unique. As the new year approaches and spring arrives, nostalgia tightens its grip on Vietnamese people far from home. Art, especially lacquer and silk paintings, can bridge that gap of distance and longing. We miss not only land and space but also dreams, memories and segments of our lives that have already passed.

Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac (Central, Southern, and Northern Spring Gardens) by Nguyen Gia Tri

Modern Vietnamese art was born almost a century ago with the 1924 establishment of the Indochina School of Fine Arts (Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine) by French artist Victor Tardieu. The Hanoi college became a gathering place for contemporary Vietnamese intelligentsia as well as a destination for French artists traveling to Asia.

A generation of Vietnamese artists blossomed from this fertile soil, playing major roles in the national and global art scene and creating works whose value continues to resonate through time.

According to scholar Doan Anh Duong, at the time of the Indochina school’s founding there was a wide gap between peasants and Westernized intellectuals who left their farms to grow up with a French-Vietnamese education in developed cities.

Within this new class of urban dwellers, women most strongly felt the impact of the collision of tradition and modernity. As a result, they were often featured as topics of discussion and subjects for art. In a February 1934 issue of Phong Hoa newspaper, a column by artist Lemur Nguyen Cat Tuong described “the beginning of a revolution in women’s clothing in Vietnam.”

Ngay Tet (Days of Tet) by famed artist Tran Van Can

At the time, the majority of magazine cover images and supplemental material, particularly for the Phong Hoa – Ngay Nay magazines, were created by artists of the new generation. Many paintings of young ladies resplendent in ao dai were created exclusively for the Lunar New Year, including Ngay Tet (Days of Tet) by famed artist Tran Van Can, printed in Indochinese Schools of Art (Les écoles d’art de l’Indochine) in 1937. It is the earliest extant silk painting of a woman in spring.

In comparison to Luong Xuan Nhi’s and Nguyen Tien Chung’s paintings of young women at the Tet market, the subject in this painting has a friendlier interaction with the flower seller. In a rarely seen pose, the young woman has her back turned to the viewer. The farmer, meanwhile, is clearly shown with an expression of affection, placing the story of the two characters at the center of the work.

Among the many variations on this theme, the 1940 silk painting Di cho Tet (Going to the Tet Market) by Nguyen Tien Chung, currently on display at the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum, is perhaps the most notable. Its aesthetic values, in terms of both colors and composition, transcend time and convey a delicate spirit.

Silk paintings lack the depth of lacquer, but they elicit strong emotions due to their inherent fragility and ethereal quality. Here, the ao dai flutters elegantly with the lady’s steps. Red highlights appear throughout the painting, on her shoes, scarf and lips, resembling small embers bringing warmth amid the new year’s chill.

Silk painting Di cho Tet (Going to the Tet Market) by Nguyen Tien Chung

It would be remiss to discuss famous works of this theme without mentioning the lacquer national treasure, Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac (Central, Southern, and Northern Spring Gardens) by Nguyen Gia Tri. The entire space of spring is filled with women in the full bloom of youth, extending across the three regions of Vietnam. The painting uses pointillism to create a rhythm of sound and light, with countless nuances of movement bringing the viewer into a marvelous world brimming with vitality and joie de vivre.

As I gazed upon the vintage Indochinese paintings, I was deeply moved by the beauty of both the theme and materials. Silk and lacquer are traditional media in Vietnam and, like the ao dai young ladies wear during Tet, the works not only evoked memories of home but also of halcyon days gone by. I believe what gives art the ability to awaken such powerful emotions is the unique way it can touch our roots.