No turnaround for reverse glass paintings

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The art of making reverse glass paintings, once ubiquitous in homes and pagodas, is dying

Tao Dinh Hai, 35, (R) has been a glass painting apprentice and artisan for more than 14 years at a workshop on Nguyen Chi Thanh Street in Ho Chi Minh City. His colleague Lieu Van Toan, 41, has more than 20 years in the job. Photos by Tuan Anh

The art and tradition of reverse glass painting was brought to Vietnam by Chinese immigrants more than a century ago and soon developed to become an interior design style distinctive to the south until it faded during the resistance war against the French colonialists.

The paintings arrived when other decorative and worshipping items like wooden carvings, gilded reliefs or artifacts inlaid with mother-of-pearl were rare and more expensive, so they swiftly became a popular trend.

Glass paintings were put up on every altar, above the main doors, in the main rooms. Their venues and applications were virtually unlimited, including temples, pagodas and restaurants, rich houses in central, urban areas as well as poor ones in rural areas.

The art consists of applying paint to a piece of glass and then viewing the image by turning the glass over, thus the name "reverse glass painting." In Western countries, it was referred to by the French term "Verre Églomisé" meaning a process in which the back of the glass is gilded with gold or metal leaf.

Reverse painting on glass basically requires details that are normally painted first to be painted last, and vice versa.

Mother-of-pearl or thin gold leaves are sometimes inlaid after the paint is left to dry. The product is finished when the artisans add some protective paint and place the painting in a wooden frame.

The original material for the painting was a mixture of color powders with the oil of the tung oil tree, but all kinds of industrial paints were used later. Many paintings have not faded even after 70 years depending on the mixture.

When the Chinese brought the art to Cho Lon, now Vietnam's largest Chinatown concentrated in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5, it was simply colored glass used to make decorative windows. Then big words were painted on to create a new kind of gift for shop openings, weddings or longevity ceremonies, traditional holidays and Lunar New Year celebrations.

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The art grew strongly primarily because it served the worship needs of the Chinese and Vietnamese communities, generating paintings of the Buddha and holy symbols. 

It took a more Vietnamese turn when several painters from Cho Lon moved in the 1920s to Lai Thieu, a town in what is today Binh Duong Province, then the cradle of handicrafts in southern Vietnam. 

It flourished because there were various conveniences at hand including a group of graduates from the Thu Dau Mot Fine Arts University and a busy trading location with rivers and a railway line passing through.

The Lai Thieu line of glass painting brought in nature motifs even as it stayed focus on worship. The late Son Nam (1926-2008), renowned researcher of southern Vietnamese culture, remarks in his 1991 book that "Vietnamese artisans created a new line [of glass painting] that suits the sceneries of southern Vietnam."

While the Cho Lon line focused more on worshipping Gods, Lai Thieu artisans paid tributes mostly to their ancestors.

There is a set of paintings with mountains in the background and a river in the front, demonstrating a popular Vietnamese ballad that describes parents' love and care as being as vast as the mountains and as endless as flowing water.  To this scene, big trees were added later to indicate everyone has roots that run deep in their native land.

Lai Thieu thus pioneered the ancestor-worshipping paintings famous in southern Vietnam, and artistically, the products were more appreciated than those of Cho Lon. Many Lai Thieu glass paintings were sold to the central region and Cambodia.

The making of reverse glass paintings in Lai Thieu as well as Cho Lon was interrupted during the August Revolution of 1945 against the French colonial rule. The uprising's victory a month later did not herald a major resurgence as trading was slow and raw materials rare.

There was a revival of sorts in the 1950s, thanks to students of artisans of the past, but the art form never managed to regain the glory of its heyday.

Two glass paintings on display in a shop in the China Town in Ho Chi Minh City's District 5

In an unusual return, a new line of reverse glass painting was established in the Mekong Delta province of An Giang around 1954. It was known as the Ba Ve (Ms. Ve) line as the paintings were sold at the Ba Ve Market, so named after a woman who sold food and other necessities to passers-by.

Tran Van Tu pioneered the art in An Giang after studying it in Can Tho City under some teachers from Lai Thieu. While the An Giang paintings did not match those of the Lai Thieu line in artistic terms, they were cheaper and more diverse in design.

An Giang artisans' contribution to the art was to introduce story telling. A famous painting of this time is typically hung on the house's girder and runs through all three compartments of a typical southern home, narrating major milestones in the life of Siddhārtha Gautama.

Many paintings tell famous folk stories including the one from centuries ago about Luu Binh and Duong Le, friends since childhood.

Binh was born in a rich family and he lets poor Le live with him. His poverty pushes Le to study hard to pass a national exam and become a mandarin, while Binh feels he has no need to study because he is wealthy. Binh later falls into poverty and approaches Le for help, but is rejected and treated like a beggar. Hurt and angry, Binh studies with a vengeance, helped by a woman named Chau Long who takes care of him, and passes the exam. It turns out that Le had planned the whole thing and sent his third wife to help.

Other paintings present rural iconic scenes like the boy playing a flute on the back of a buffalo as also aspirations for peace.

The reverse glass paintings were also developed by Khmer communities living in the delta's Tra Vinh and Soc Trang provinces from the 1930s.

Popular Khmer paintings are ancestors' portraits in traditional Khmer costumes. Commercial painters would make many portraits in advance, leaving the face part empty until they received specific orders.

Few Khmer people in Vietnam worship statues but they use many glass paintings telling life stories of the Buddha.

Some small markets in the Mekong Delta are still selling the glass paintings but the making is no longer practiced on a large scale.

Artisans seem to have lost confidence in reviving the art at least ten years ago.

Nguyen Thanh Hoa, an artisan and the third generation making the paintings in his family in An Giang Province, told the Nguoi Lao Dong in 2003 that his main customers were farmers in rural areas who would buy some paintings for the altar when they built a new house.

"But with the new construction style, glass paintings would be no longer demanded," Hoa said.

Those still appreciative of the art can find the paintings in some old pagodas and several old vending carts of Chinese people, but the art form looks set to slip almost unnoticed into oblivion.

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