Silk painting in terminal condition

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Long me (Mother's heart), a silk painting by Le Pho. Low market demand and high technical requirements are discouraging Vietnamese artists from taking up silk painting.

At a time when many arts are enjoying a resurgence based on increasing prosperity and greater market demand, it was a very drastic and shocking thing to say.

Famous silk painter Nguyen Thu told The Thao & Van Hoa (Sports and Culture) newspaper: "Let me put it this way. Silk painting has died."

This could be taken as an over-the-top, emotional statement, but there were others hinting at the same thing.

An artist who has worked for a long time on silk paintings recently said the Ho Chi Minh City University of Fine Arts had few silk painting students.

And a teacher who has taught silk painting for the past 20 years also said that since the National Fine Arts Exhibition in 1995, the number of silk paintings done has dropped, as have the quantity and quality of awards given in the field.

Artists said the lack of patience, a dearth of talent and the favor for explicit expression are factors threatening to affect the demise of Vietnamese silk paintings.

Luong Xuan Doan, a student of Nguyen Thu and one of the winners at the National Silk Painting Exhibition in 1980, said "I'm stuck. I no longer have an undisturbed mind to be able to paint on silk."

For painting on silk, the artist "needs real peace of thought and emotions," Doan said.

"I have turned my status into "˜paint fast' which is not suitable for silk painting."

He said silk paintings do not allow the artists to hide their mistakes or carelessness, which can be concealed in other art forms. For instance, a lacquer painting uses layers of colors or extra relief items that can be used to hide or cover up initial errors, he explained.

"With silk, everything is on one flat surface. Silk is where the talent, the skill or the shortcomings of an artist are exposed most clearly."

Doan said silk paintings can "totally demonstrate" any modern style, including realist, abstract, geometric or surrealist, but it takes real talent to do it.

He said silk painting was facing a dead-end as the effort to find a new way of expression is discouraging young people from taking up the art form.

Hai ngo (Picking corn) painted by Pham Kim Hoa

Hanoi-based painter Phan Cam Thuong agreed with Doan, saying young painters are no longer interested in silk paintings as they want to paint realistically, which is difficult to achieve on silk. Thuong said silk painting is confined by the requirements of being blurred, vague, picky on colors and not contrastive.

Thuong said silk painters in recent years didn't use natural colors like in traditional silk

paintings because it takes time and effort. They used water colors, which technically meant dyeing the silk and could ruin the painting in around 50 years.

The oldest silk paintings kept in Vietnam are the 15th-century portrait of Nguyen Trai, an illustrious historian, poet, tactician and politician, and more than ten portraits done in the 19th century.

Silk paintings began prospering in Vietnam only when the Dong Duong (Indochina) Fine Arts College was established in 1925 and French teachers at the school encouraged students to use silk and lacquer.

Then famous silk painters like Tran Van Can, To Ngoc Van, Nguyen Van Que, and Luong Xuan Nhi started to emerge. It was Nguyen Phan Chanh, however, whose works set standards in the field as they're simple, truthful and humanistic in content.

Painter Nguyen Xuan Tiep said silk paintings in Vietnam started to fade in the 1990s, when they only accounted for 5 percent of items at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum.

Tiep said silk painting needs time and talent, so many recent artists stop at making a silk painting that "looks good" while the consumption of time reduces the artist's inspiration.

Meanwhile, government agencies such as the Department of Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition, and the Department of Cultural Heritage under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, or Vietnam Fine Arts Association didn't make specific strategies to develop the art, he said. The artists also blamed higher prices of oil and lacquer paintings for the fading art.

Not everyone is pessimistic, though.

Nguyen Yen Nguyet, who graduated in lacquer painting at the Hanoi Fine Arts University in 1993 but later grew interested in silk painting, feels that the differences between silk painting and other art forms are precisely what will help it prevail.

"I never made a silk painting, wondering if I could sell it or not. I just paint because I like it," Nguyet said.

Yen Nguyet 3 painted by Nguyen Yen Nguyet

Silk painting needs a layer of glue behind, said Nguyet, adding she spent more than ten years grinding rice and keeping the powder in water to make good glue, so that the silk will never get musty.

"Silk painting has the deepness of colors. It doesn't use many, but the levels of color are diversified as the silk is cleaned with water many times during the painting and only the quintessence of the colors remains," she said.

"Thus, the more you look at a (fine) silk painting, the more you're absorbed. That's the interesting thing about silk paintings. So I don't believe that there's a day they'll all disappear."

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