Painting, Chinese style

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A 1,000-year-old import from China, "water and ink" painting almost died out in Vietnam in the 1990's before a revival began

  One of Truong Han Minh's shui-mo painting. Photo courtesy of Truong Han Minh

Tranh thuy mac is a traditional Chinese style of painting that has been around in Vietnam for 1,000 years.

But not many have a clear understanding of the art. All they know is that its name in Chinese means "water and ink." This is not too surprising since it is a complex art that involves more than merely brush and canvas as can be seen at the numerous galleries in Ho Chi Minh City's districts 5 and 11.

Here it is undergoing a revival after reaching the brink of extinction in the 1990's when the hard post-war times forced artists to look for other means of livelihood.

One such gallery belongs to 61-year-old Truong Han Minh. It is on raucous Minh Phung Street in District 5, a slightly incongruous setting for the inherently tranquil tranh thuy mac.

Minh, who has been painting for 44 years, is one of the top artists in this genre. His beautiful works, using special techniques created over centuries of the art's development, not only reproduce a subject but also capture its essence.

Minh tells Vietweek that it is "easy to learn but hard to be adept."

"Shui-mo painting has rules for balancing the structure. The painting, whatever the size, usually consists of four aspects: poems, calligraphy, painting and seal.

"The harmony of these aspects ensures the painting's beauty. The stamp is a unique creation and hallmark of each artist.

"I know some artists who have up to 500 stamps with different patterns indicating his name and signature."

Unlike in most other painting styles, the seal does not go at the bottom but could be anywhere to ensure overall balance, thus virtually becoming a part of the work.

After being painted on a thin paper with a brush dipped in black or colored ink without oil, a work is mounted on a layer of silk and paper. Since the paper is too thin to withstand erasures, an artist gets just one chance to get it right.

Master Truong Han Minh completes a shui-mo painting in just a few strokes.Photo courtesy of Truong Han Minh
Minh says shui-mo painting in Vietnam is not much different from the original version found in China or adaptations in countries like Japan and Korea, usually featuring landscapes, especially mountains, water, and clouds.

But Minh likes flowers and birds.

He says a childhood indulged in nature endlessly inspires him. It also gives him a distinctive romantic style filled with bright colors unlike other artists who prefer black and white.

"When I was born here [Cho Lon (Big Market) area] it was still thinly populated and covered in vegetation. My childhood was closely connected with trees, insects and, generally, nature."

Painting a bamboo plant and two butterflies in just two minutes, he says "inspiration can be found in our surroundings."

Shui-mo artists usually take longer to sketch a picture in their minds since they cannot do it on paper than painting it. His ability to create sophisticated works at lightning speed has taken years of practice.

Leading shui-mo artists have distinct styles and pet themes, Minh says. He focuses on nature using a Literati (freehand) style, Ly Khac Nhu mixes his colors in the manner of oil paints, Ly Tung Nien uses a traditional Meticulous (more formal) style.

Rising stars

Young painters like Tran Van Hai and Xuan Lo are very talented and have already come up with notable innovations, he says.

Hai, 42, born to a poor family in Saigon, was an apprentice at the HCMC Fine Arts Company before he started working as a commercial artist doing cheap copies. It helped him hone his art, but the turning point in his life occurred when he joined Ly Khac Nhu's Ky Long Fine Arts Club House as an apprentice.

He ascribes his rapid progress to the generous and whole hearted assistance of Nhu and some other noted painters.

The artist community has begun to recognize Hai as a trailblazer. Among his innovations are achieving a cracked effect by crumpling paper and spreading ink or paint on it and by pouring them on rough surfaces to achieve clumps of colors.

Minh says unlike himself and most senior artists, the young painters explore all aspects of life in their works.

"It does give them more scope, nevertheless it is [an artist's] skill and emotions that touch a viewer's heart."

Lu Tong Dao, who along with Minh, Nien, and Nhu makes up the "fantastic four" Chinese painters in Vietnam, had ambitions to market the art globally when he moved to the United States in 2000.

But unfortunately he has made no headway.

He told The Thao Van Hoa magazine last month that sometimes he can sell nothing at shows despite putting up works that used to be appreciated in Vietnam.

His paintings now hang in his daughter-in-law's manicure shop since it costs a fortune to hire a gallery, and it takes at least a year to become known.

Thankfully for him, he got a warm welcome when he came back home for the first time last year.

His desire to have an annual exhibition in Vietnam seems to have come true. At an exhibition held in August he said the paintings he is working on now are strongly nostalgic about his homeland.

Minh himself was away from his beloved painting for a long time to earn bread for his large family. He has tried his hand at oil painting and watercolors, but "it seems like I was born to be a shui-mo painter and die as one," he says.

He is now an acknowledged master and his works fetch handsome prices. He uses it to help poor people.

In 2010 a painting titled Phu Quy Truong Xuan sold for US$66,666 at a charity auction to raise money for surgeries for blind children.

The city-based Chinese Fine Arts Association Chinese, established in 1985 and of which he is president, is at the forefront of preserving the art.

"Three annual group exhibitions, four or five individual exhibitions, and some unscheduled ones will spread the art more in the community."

"We have to support the association ourselves, cannot rely on authorities' or others for support."

His gallery runs a class for people interested in the art. But none of his eight children have followed in his footsteps.

"The class is held every Sunday [monthly fee is VND 600,000 or $30]. There are many young people who have interest and aptitude for the art."

"But "˜in a calm sea, every man is a pilot.' We need time to identify the true lover [of the art]."

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