Vietnam celebrates birthday of late great silk painter

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Choi o an quan, a famous silk painting by Nguyen Phan Chanh. Photo: My Thuat (Fine Arts) Magazine

The Vietnam Fine Arts Association celebrated the 120th birthday of late painter Nguyen Phan Chanh last week. Chanh is considered the founder of Vietnamese silk painting.

The artist from Ha Tinh Province in north-central Vietnam introduced the country's silk painting arts after several of his works were praised at an exhibition in Paris in 1931, three years after he had begun working with silk.

His paintings depict life in rural Vietnam, inspired by the simplicity of life: children playing a traditional rock game, a girl washing vegetables, a little girl feeding birds.

The Paris-based photojournalism publication L'Illustration published pictures of four of his paintings in 1932. His works were then exhibited in Milan in 1934, San Francisco in 1937, and Tokyo in 1940.

A group of Chanh's Japanese fans paid to have three of his paintings restored for display earlier this year at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan, Hanoi Moi reported.

Two of the paintings Hun thuyen and Don cui were created in 1938 and the other, Co gai cuoi bo qua song, in 1967. The restoration took one year.

A May report by To Quoc, the news website of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, said 40,000 people had seen the restored paintings at the museum.

In 2009, the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts invited Kikuko Iwai, a famous painting restorer from Japan who worked on Picassos and Monets, to check the paintings.

 Nguyen Phan Chanh

Silk painters need a layer of glue behind, but Chanh's paintings used a layer of concrete, and restoring them needs the concrete to be removed.

She said she admired Chanh's work, which was made under difficult economic conditions. Chanh had to use concrete instead of glue to bind his paintings to their frames, which has made restoration process much more difficult.

Tsutomu Nakamura, chairman of the restoration project, said he felt "enchanted" when he first saw Chanh's silk paintings during a visit to Vietnam in 2001.

He visited Chanh's house and found that most of the paintings were in bad shape, so he asked if he could bring some to Japan for restoration and Chanh's family agreed, Vietnam Television reported.

Artist as young man

Chanh was among the first graduates of the Indochina Fine Arts College in Hanoi in 1930, but he had started painting when he was a little boy.

Many works from his childhood and teenage years were sold by his mother at large market gatherings before the Lunar New Year, said a Voice of Vietnam report. His father died when he was 7.

His difficult childhood gave him a love for rural Vietnam and his main subject has always been farmers,
the report said.

He created around 170 silk paintings during his lifetime, aside from several lacquer paintings. He died in November 1984, at the age of 92.

His daughter Nguyen Nguyet Tu said the family has ten of his silk paintings but they are all severely damaged.

The paintings are representative of Vietnamese techniques with no influence from Japan or China, Tu told To Quoc.

Chanh was among the first group of artists to win the first Ho Chi Minh Awards in 1996, a major national recognition for influential figures in Vietnam.

 "The silk paintings and other works [by Nguyen Phan Chanh] are precious to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum and many other museums in Vietnam and abroad, in France, Japan, Singapore and Switzerland," painter Tran Khanh Chuong told the awards ceremony.

There are upcoming exhibitions of his paintings scheduled in Japan and France.

Few, if any, Vietnamese artists still make silk paintings.

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