Passionate collector turned potter rediscovers a precious ceramic secret
Celadon vases by artisan Nguyen Viet on display recently in Hanoi. At the age of 80, Viet is still working on the enamel and doing ceramic artifact restoration works at his workshop in Gia Lam District, Hanoi
“Turn on all the lights,” painter Le Thiet Cuong tells his assistant as visitors arrive at his house on Ly Quoc Su Street in Hanoi.
“For light enhances the beauty of...” he continues, but does not finish the sentence.
With the clicking of switches, neon lights come on in the 30-square-meter living room, which serves as Cuong’s private gallery.
The lights illuminate the cool, fresh, transparent jade color of a set of ceramic vases, jars and pots standing on shelves against a very big wall painting of similar colors, done in 2007 that Cuong did himself.
The collection, including 50 replicas of celadon glaze, is a very rare line dating back to Ly Dynasty (1009-1225) times that was on the brink of extinction until 1991, when Cuong’s senior partner and artisan Nguyen Viet quit his trading business to pursue the craft and successfully restored some famous Ly and Tran glazes.
Viet went on to discover the formula for celadon, which is considered “an ultimate goal” by local potters, a few years later.
Cuong, 51, a well-to-do talented painter in Hanoi who often sponsors exhibitions by young artists, has played an important role in Viet’s career.
After several years of not keeping in touch, the two had their first accidental reunion in 1986. At that time, Viet, who said his life had been divided into three stages, chronologically corresponding with three of his passions: ballet, archaeology and ceramic, showed Cuong a vase of celadon glaze.
“I made it myself,” said Viet, who was a businessman at that time. The pottery amazed the younger painter, who could not help telling his senior, “Since you can make such rare, precious ceramic, instead of continuing to do business working as a businessman, why don’t you pursue the art?”
Encouraged, the former ballet choreographer, who 40 years ago was the first head of the ballet troupe of the Vietnam Opera and Ballet Theater, quit his business to run a kiln and workshop at Dong Ho Village in the northern province of Bac Ninh.
“I was born into a kiln in Mong Cai of Quang Ninh Province, and started working there at seven, why on earth I should keep continuing as a stage director?” said Viet. Before settling down in Bac Ninh, he went to the southern province of Dong Nai to build a kiln. There, he had the opportunity to meet several known ceramic artisans, including Nguyen Van Mau and Nguyen Van Phap. Later, he visited the provinces of Hai Duong and Thanh Hoa in the north to study the enamel of Ly and Tran dynasties.
For further research, Viet traveled to a Brussels museum in Belgium, which houses a large collection of Vietnamese celadon glaze.
The collection was purchased by a Belgian artifact trader in Saigon from some French officers who found the celadons when building a railway at Ham Rong area in Vietnam’s Thanh Hoa Province early 20th century.
Creating a jade layer of color is a challenge for potters. Even if they have the formula, successful application is not guaranteed.
While others prefer chemical substances to treat the shrunk enamel after firing, Viet, 80, keeps using natural materials despite countless number of broken batches. He has spent all his money and effort to create enamel that has the same colors as the original.
The jade color is a result of plant ash mixed with clay and iron as additive and then burnt in minimized air. The ceramic, one of China’s most classical and popular, is highly appreciated for its outstanding feature – it can be used to test food for contamination.
So far, Viet has successfully discovered formulas for celadon’s five colors: jade green; coffee brown; black; white color of rice water; and green-yellow.
Instead of making ceramic items of traditional shapes and patterns like dragon, phoenix and flowers, recently, Viet has made his latest collection a reflection of Cuong’s panoramic painting, which features bright and light colors including the jade green of the celadon; and modern motifs.
Together, the work of the artist and the potter combine to make an installation exhibition called Ha Noi Mua Thu (Hanoi in the autumn), which was held from September 28 to October 8 at Cuong’s private gallery in the capital city.
In an interview with the Voice of Vietnam on combination of Le Thiet Cuong’s paintings and Nguyen Viet’s celadon, painter Dao Hai Phong says that as Cuong is a painter of irreducible style of art, his painting matches well with all kinds of arts.
“Artisan Nguyen Viet has longed to introduce Cuong’s painting into his ceramic long time ago,” said Phong, adding: “Fortunately, this combination is so ‘sweet’ and ‘synchronous’ that these celadon vases, if they stand alone without flowers or other decorations, are still very attractive.”
Celadon originated in China (206 B.C.) and developed well during the reign of the Tang Dynasty (619 A.D. – 960 A.D.) before spreading to Vietnam, where it flourished under the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225).
However, according to the Museum of History in Hanoi, formerly, because of the lack of evidence, most foreign scholars presumed that all pottery under the Ly Dynasty came from China with the exception of some brown flower glazed pottery.
In the past, scholars, including Vietnamese ones, did not believe that artisans under the Ly Dynasty could produce such sophisticated white and jade glazed ceramics. They contended that under the Ly Dynasty the technology for pottery production was underdeveloped. Thus, the white and celadon glaze products of this period were usually categorized as Song pottery.
This hypothesis, however, has been shaken because archaeologists have found a number of high quality porcelain items with white, green, jade, brown and yellow glazes from the Ly Dynasty.
Now, it is being said that Vietnamese and Chinese pottery at the time of the Han Dynasty could be similar, but there are differences in materials. Early Chinese celadons used grayish clay and greenish-yellowish glaze. Vietnamese mostly used white clay and ivory glaze for their potteries. The discovery of Ly Dynasty pottery can be compared to the skill and sophistication of works from the Song Dynasty in China.
Vietnamese celadon was produced in many places including Thang Long (present-day Hanoi) and Thien Truong (in Nam Dinh Province).