A group of dynamic contemporary artists have helped bring a new look to the unique Vietnamese lacquer art form.

By JESSICA NGUYEN on March 15,2019 09:37 AM



Vietnamese lacquer lovers were able to admire a unique and large lacquer painting for the first time at the premiere exhibition of the VCCA Art Center in Hanoi from June to August 2017. The painting, sized 244cm x 244cm, was hung on the ceiling, creating an impressive and unique experience for viewers. Shaped by the various dichotomies and inversions between East and West, the archaic and the high-tech, the comic and the terrestrial, “Mappa Mundi” is a painting made of lacquer and pigments on wood panel by talented overseas Vietnamese painter Phi Oanh Oanh, who was born in 1979.

The large-scale depiction of a satellite image of Earth is suspended from the ceiling so as to invoke a similar sense of wonder and illusion as exuded by classical European murals. Under the dim glow of spotlights shining from the ground, the deep colors of the lacquer painting as well as the ever-changing shades inside the lacquer demands the attention of viewers, then offers a heightened visual experience. Standing under the artwork, viewers feel extremely small in the immense, lively and fanciful world of the universe.

“Sotto in Su, or ‘from below, upward’, is a type of European mural painting that employs different optical effects to create openings in walls through architectural illusion,” Oanh explained. “The ceiling fresco is to be viewed ‘from below looking upwards’, similar to how we look up at the night sky to see the cosmos, but rather what we see is a mirror image looking down from outer space. Only recently through satellite imagery have we acquired this type of super sight, a remote representation of a seemingly accurate view of the ground below. In this painting, I take a static satellite imagery of this corner of the planet to create ‘Mapa Mundi’ with a local medium.”

In another corner of the exhibition, Le Thua Tien’s lacquer paintings bring a different feel to viewers that is difficult to predict: curious and skeptical at first glance. Nevertheless, when spending some time in front of each painting, named “Reflection 1”, “Reflection 2” and “Reflection 3”, 240cm x 115cm in size, viewers can really “feel” them.


“In these perfectly hand-crafted and extremely exquisite paintings, forests, trees, and grass shimmer in the sun and disappear in the darkness”

Lights illuminate each painting, reflecting the image of the person standing in front of them. The shades are sometimes hazy like smoke or in a round and beautiful shape, while at other times are distorted and scarified with another image inserted. Viewers may feel like they are facing themselves when standing in front of the painting; sometimes good, sometimes bad, with feelings of joy, sadness, or fear that can’t be hidden in their faces.

Born and based in Hue, Vietnam’s former imperial capital and where war and the passage of time have left their ruthless mark, Le Thua Tien (1964) makes works that are layered with abstract simulacra of memories - his own and the city’s. Stately and somber, the works - ranging from paintings and sculptures in installations and making substantial use of traditional lacquer and experimentation, incorporating other objects and materials - at once command self-reflection and provide windows into the collective psyche. A versatile artist who does not simply dwell in the past, Tien also engages in other community-based art projects, addressing current issues.

At another exhibition space organized by a group of painters in Hanoi, lacquer works entitled “The winter morning”, “Autumn Dream”, and ‘Blue wild grass” by young artist Vu Duc Trung bring an extremely peaceful feeling to viewers. Using landscapes in his abstract lacquer paintings, Trung layers delicate shades over each other to produce a shimmering surface.

Lacquer helps him find or create another fanciful reality for himself, creating certain dreams. “It may never be but I feel peaceful,” he said.

In a recent article on Trung’s lacquer painting, Raquelle Azran, an American painting collector, commented: “In these perfectly hand-crafted and extremely exquisite paintings, forests, trees, and grass shimmer in the sun and disappear in the darkness. We find there the paths we yearn to walk, deep within the picture and deep in the dimensions of the past and the future. There, we can discover light and clouds. That color, silently relieved, was the symphony of light and finally it succeeded in introducing nature in the most beautiful form.”

Born in 1981, Trung is one of many young artists who choose to stick with traditional lacquer materials. He graduated from the Department of Lacquer at the Hanoi University of Industrial Fine Arts in 2003 and after that continued to complete a Fine Arts degree at the Vietnam Fine Arts University in 2007.

Each of the artists mentioned above have different backgrounds and different expressions in their personal works and, of course, bring different impressions to the public, but most importantly have a magic way of transforming the same material - Vietnamese lacquer - into their own pieces. This is the clearest proof of the longevity and originality of this traditional Vietnamese painting medium.

Lacquer - a lifetime medium

“Mysterious and sensitive, lacquer resin - a natural resin taken from the ‘son’ tree that is only found in the north of Vietnam - is a unique medium compared with other types of painting materials,” Oanh said in explaining why she has stuck with the material since 2004. “I’m interested in further exploring this process of acculturation by combining ‘son mai’ with new materials and formats to extend the scope of the medium as an image, reflecting on cross-cultural histories and situating the medium in broader art discourses.”


An ancient varnish, Vietnamese lacquer was re-invented as a painting medium during the 20th century. This also represents an entire history of painting becoming lacquer. In Vietnamese, lacquer painting is ‘son mai’. Son is translated as the noun, a material that is used to “paint”, and mai as the verb to smooth or polish. The lacquer is painted on to a prepared board and after drying is sanded into smoothness. Perhaps the process could be defined as “taking off”, whereas oil or acrylic painting is “putting on”.

The lacquer craft has a long history in Vietnam. Based on archeological finds, the materials used for painting were available in Vietnam about 2,500 years ago. Traditional painting is limited by black, red, brown, and reddish brown colors and gold and silver patterns. Artisans were called “the professors of ‘son son thiep vang’ (painted wood covered with gold)”.

In Vietnam, lacquer was historically used to preserve wooden statues in pagodas and then, as techniques progressed, was used by artisans to add decorations to them. A natural progression was to transfer the process to carved wooden furniture.

The best lacquer is extracted from trees that grow around Phu Tho province in northern Vietnam. It is collected before daylight as a glue-like substance and when it is brought by artists and craftspeople it is black and deep crimson.

In 1925, a French lecturer at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Hanoi encouraged a group of students to investigate and experiment using lacquer as a medium in fine arts and it slowly became a recognized genre. From this point in time, the term “lacquer” and “lacquer painting” in Vietnamese contemporary painting was officially born.

The first-ever Vietnamese lacquer painters include Pham Hau (1903-1994) and Nguyen Gia Tri (1908-1993). They were the leading artists during the peak period of lacquer painting (from 1938 to 1944), with typical works such as “Villagers” (1934) and “Midland Landscape of the North” (1940-1945).

Old medium, modern techniques

Lacquer works are painted on wood or glued plywood covered with 14 to 20 layers of pure lacquer (apart from the third layer, which is cheap cloth). Each layer is dried and sanded to velvety smoothness before the next is applied. People in Duyen Thai village in Hanoi take this arduous task out of the hands of the artists, with most buying prepared boards, lacquer, pigments, and other supplies in Hang Hom Street in the capital’s Old Quarter.

Because of the narrow range of colors in traditional lacquer, artists incorporate other media. Gold leaf is an expensive option and silver, and nowadays steel, powder is sprinkled on wet colors to lighten them and define outlines.

Perhaps the most stunning effect is that provided by the application of eggshell. Eggshells are sorted according to the color desired, from subtle brown to duck-egg blue and soft white, and gently crushed. Lacquer is applied to a portion of the painting and then eggshells are carefully placed on top. After drying, it is sanded and polished flat and smooth.

Many contemporary lacquer painters prefer not use eggshell, as it is a long, painstaking process, and instead use Japanese pigments to add points of color. Relatively new to the scene, Japanese pigments dry quickly in dry conditions. They come in just about any color imaginable, but if artists use them they have to be applied before the lacquer. The most exciting but apprehensive aspect of using traditional lacquer is that the artist can’t control the shades of earthy colors that result after drying. This is perhaps why so much lacquer found in shops and galleries are painted in the controllable Japanese medium.

Painter Vu Duc Trung is one who prefers Japanese pigments to add points of color. His lacquer paintings require careful planning, so that the flecks and highlights afforded by the Japanese pigment will not be overwhelmed by successive applications and sanding. After years of apprenticeship in pure traditional techniques, he has been experimenting with other pigments for the past 15 years.

Trung’s use of traditional lacquer materials clearly work. His paintings had won the hearts of viewers and been bought by many collectors, internationally and locally.

“The scene in Vietnamese art has been dynamic for the past two decades,” said Quynh Pham, curator of the ‘Foliage exhibition 1’ that was organized at VCCA Contemporary Art Center in Hanoi in August 2017 as well as director of the Galerie Quynh in Ho Chi Minh City. “This is great news for the viability of the art ecosystem, as besides overseas buyers, more and more local collectors are now interested in getting involved with the local art scene and collecting the works of Vietnamese artists.”

The attraction among foreign collectors for Vietnamese artists, according to Quynh Pham, is that they find something within the work that resonates. People are less interested in clichéd images of Vietnam. Now they want art that isn’t just aesthetically pleasing but also has a story to tell. “Talented and dynamic Vietnamese artists have been doing this for the last few decades,” she said.

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