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A concerted push is being made by a number of young Vietnamese to revitalise long-neglected Dong Ho and Hang Trong folk paintings.

By Le Diem on February 10,2018 11:29 AM

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Photos: S River & Le Diem

Both Dong Ho and Hang Trong paintings appeared in the 17th century. Dong Ho paintings originated in Dong Ho village in Hanoi while Hang Trong paintings were sold at Hang Trong Street in the Old Quarter. 

After fading from memory for a number of years, Dong Ho and Hang Trong folk paintings are once again easily found in Hanoi in the days surrounding Tet. For centuries, the capital became more beautiful and colourful as lively folk painting markets sprung up for people to decorate their homes and welcome in the new lunar year. After years of war, however, the practice was largely forgotten, which led to many artisans’ leaving their traditional trade village. Recently, though, exhibitions of the folk paintings have been held in the city around Tet, thanks to the passion of a number of young people and their desire and save the country’s traditions in a modern and inspirational way.

While many young Vietnamese were busy planning their Tet holidays, Xuan Lam, a 25-year-old painter, was readying his art works for an exhibition entitled ‘Redrawing Folk Paintings’, which opened in January and is part of his project introducing Vietnamese folk paintings to the younger generation.

A total of 20 paintings at the exhibition depicted the typical subjects and style of Vietnamese folk paintings, such as Five Tigers (Hang Trong paintings), a carp, a hen surrounded by chickens, a crane, and Thanh Giong, a folk hero who defeated the northern invaders (Dong Ho paintings). But the folk paintings were given a new look, with added colour range and 21st century graphic design techniques. ‘Folk paintings are beautiful in themselves in my view,’ Lam told a talk show at the exhibition. ‘They are the soul of talented artists. So, I kept all the subjects, shapes, and arrangements. But the colour and printing techniques back then were very simple, so I changed some colours in the hope of making them more eye-catching for the younger generation.’

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Lam and the other young partners in the project hope to encourage people to look at folk art in a different way. Several of his paintings have been printed on objects from daily life, in a cooperative effort with TiredCity, which specialises in distributing exclusive artwork from prominent young Vietnamese artists, including envelopes containing lucky money presented to kids during Tet, notebooks, tote bags, t-shirts, postcards, and, in particular, a collection of hoodies bearing folk paintings.

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Sharing Lam’s passion and outlook, S River, a group of young people dedicated to Hang Trong folk paintings, has also been working with artisans and researchers on a project to bring the paintings to the attention of the younger generation. An exhibition entitled ‘The New Classics’ took place in January, introducing Hang Trong folk paintings, with a book, ‘Hoa Sac Viet’ (Vietnamese colour and patterns), to be published in March.

Since Thu Trang, S River’s leader, began learning about design in 2002, she found it easy to locate a wide range of information on design styles in Japan, China, South Korea, the UK, France, and elsewhere, but there were few traces of Vietnamese design styles. Looking at art as a reflection of culture and social life, she has always been interested in Vietnam’s distinguished, genuine, and unique style of design.

Only in 2013, when she became a professional graphic designer and a lecturer at the Hanoi University of Architecture, did she find a source of folk materials that became the basis for developing her new ideas on design. ‘Though there are similarities between Vietnamese culture and other Asian cultures, the essence of Hang Trong paintings is truly Vietnamese,’ she said. ‘I was amazed by the aesthetic values of Hang Trong paintings, which have a lot of potential for application in art and design. It’s even more stunning given it’s gradually disappearing.’

After four years collecting and researching original Hang Trong paintings, S River’s book is now ready for release. It provides an in-depth analysis and the specific methods of using colours and textures in Hang Trong folk paintings, with digitised patterns available for those interested. Colour-matching instructions and practical products for the design industry are also presented, from graphic designers, fashion designers, interior designers, craftsmen and women, and others with an interest in the subject.

Some parts of the book were introduced at the January exhibition, including ideas for applying the colours and patterns from Hang Trong paintings into design and life, such cookies, candy, traditional snacks offered to guests during Tet, bags, scarfs, and shirts. ‘Vietnamese folk art is very beautiful,’ Trang said. ‘I believe that if people had the chance to become familiar with it, they would love it. Our approach is to “revitalise” traditional Vietnamese values so they don’t just “exist” in museums but also become available in daily life, representing Vietnamese culture.’

Such projects have had their share of problems, given the lack of original folk paintings as well as supporters and financial sponsors. But with greater support from artisans and local media, the projects are beginning to find success in approaching the public.

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Visiting ‘The New Classics’ exhibition, Ngoc Ha, a student at Hanoi University, said she had no idea about Hang Trong paintings before but now knows that Hang Trong and Dong Ho paintings are regarded as two most famous types in Vietnam. They also embody the craftsmen and women of Hanoi, where she was born and bred.

When Vietnam’s capital was moved to Hanoi in 1010, it soon became the centre of the country, attracting all classes of mandarins, intellectuals, artists, businesspeople, and workers, according to Phan Ngoc Khue, a fine arts artist and researcher. Many forms of culture and arts therefore began in the city, serving the spiritual lives of local people before spreading out to other parts of the country.

Both Dong Ho and Hang Trong paintings appeared in the 17th century. Dong Ho paintings originated in Dong Ho village in Hanoi while Hang Trong paintings were sold at Hang Trong Street in the Old Quarter. Both were usually bought right before Tet, for decoration, kept for one year and then replaced the following Tet. Hang Trong paintings were also used for worshipping.

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Both use wooden blocks. While they are used in both outlining and colouring in Dong Ho paintings, they are only used to make black outlines in Hang Trong paintings, with artisans then colouring them in by hand. The size of Hang Trong paintings is therefore more varied and much larger, with colours more diverse than in Dong Ho paintings, which feature a few basic colours made from nature colourings.

Other visitors to the exhibition were also taken in by the colour, beauty and style of the works compared to other types of paintings. Ha was interested in the idea of using some of the patterns in fashion design. ‘If a shirt with those patterns was available, I’d buy it. It looks stylish, new and different,’ she said.

When folk paintings are digitally printed they differ from the originals made by hand, according to researcher Khue. But this is an acceptable development and could be customised in a way that the essence and value is still acknowledged. The passion and effort of these young people in honouring and popularising Vietnamese folk art and traditional values that were lost in history needs to be both appreciated and encouraged.

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