Resplendent & Luxurious Beauty of Vietnamese Lacquer

Resplendent and Luxurious Beauty

The lofty vault inside a Gothic Catholic cathedral often inspires a mystical sensation and evokes the presence of supernatural power. It is just the reverse when we enter a Vietnamese “dinh” or village communal house. Due to the hot and damp climate, the building is usually sheltered by a large roof. Accordingly, it is cool on the inside in hot weather and warm when it is getting cold. The hall devoted to the cult of the gods looks as sumptuous as golden palaces. The smoke from incense sticks gently spreads out, which makes us truly sense the spirit of the Viets. No imperial palaces, no temples, pagodas, shrines, communal houses, and luxury goods can do without the gilding and painting with vermilion. Vietnamese lacquer, gold, and silver are the most important decorative materials in Vietnam. Without the decoration with Vietnamese lacquer, our ancient architecture is doomed to lose part of its splendor. The resin of lacquer tree is used to glue or coat things for everyday use to increase their durability, hence the phrase ‘gan bo keo son’ (‘closely attached as glue and lacquer’). Lacquerers in Vietnam venerated a high – ranking court official named Tran Lam or Tran Lu, of Binh Vong, Ha Dong town, as the founder of their handicraft. The mandarin got his doctorate in 1502. He learned lacquer work technique after his several diplomatic missions to China as the Emperor’s envoy. However, lacquerware appeared in Vietnam earlier and in reality, this handicraft was widespread in many localities after having reached a high standard. Lacquer trees grow in East-Asian countries but the best genera are from Vietnam (Phu Tho province) and Korea.

As far back as 1384-1111 BC, under the Shang dynasty, the Chinese already used lacquer to increase the durability and beauty of wooden, copper, and bamboo objects… And before the Christian era too, the Japanese had learned lacquer handicraft from Korea. Later, they invented a world-famous painting technique using metal powder to sprinkle on lacquer pictures. They also used oyster shells to inlay their paintings.

Thus, lacquer handicraft was quite universal; it surrounded the Ancients’ life due to its decorative usefulness. Here is the Imperial Palace in Hue. It is all over coated with lacquer and decorated with vermilion and gilt. The same technique is applied to the largest and most beautiful house in a village. Look at the sacrificial hall of this communal house: from the smallest decorative patterns, the details on the cranes’ bodies, the doors, the altar for displaying the offerings, the Chinese characters on the parallel scrolls down to the tiny petals… everything here is coated with lacquer and ornamented with vermilion and gilt.

Yellow and red have become the symbols of luxury, power, aristocracy, and durability. Recently, Vietnamese archaeologists were the first scholars to discover ancient mummification in Vietnam. According to one stele at Dau Pagoda (Ha Tay province) dating from the Ly dynasty: in 1639 the dead bodies of two Buddhist monks – Tu Khac Truong and Vu Khac Minh who passed away while beating the wooden drum and chanting Buddhist sutra – were coated with a variety of materials and painted to be turned into two statues for worshipping purpose. Of late, some ancient lacquer paintings were also picked up from a sunken ship off the East Sea. Though being immersed for ages at the bottom of the sea, they were not damaged by saltwater. Once wiped out, they looked splendid and regained their initial beauty. Of course, since gilded vermilion is a precious material, it was primarily used for highly placed or very important persons, e.g. the gods, the men who rendered meritorious service to the country, or the founders of some village handicrafts. Palanquins were used to transport one person or cult objects. Meaningful parallel scrolls were vertically hung on pillars or on either side of an altar.

The Viets are well-known for their manual skill. Handicrafts are a pric1ess treasure of our traditional economy and technique, and our most precious cultural legacy as well. The yellow of gold (a precious metal), the white of silver and other colors such as red, brown, black… all of them are natural hues made from minerals and plants. The wood on which the design of a lacquer picture is drawn is called the “board”, made by a rather complex technique. A number of materials such as wood, gauze, sawdust, allusion (or earth taken from termites’ nests), lacquer, etc. are used. The phrase “thuong vang ha cam” (‘including gold and bran’, i.e. (‘odds and ends’) is the appropriate vocabulary to describe the brie-à-brac technique for making a lacquered board. Lacquer resin may cause allergy or be toxic to some people, hence the phrase “Son an tuy mat, ma bat tuy nguoi” (‘Not everyone is allergic to lacquer or obsessed by devil’s’). For this reason, many people are afraid of working with raw lacquer (i.e. unprocessed lacquer resin freshly extracted from a lacquer tree).

The lines and colors of this picture are the basic ones, typical of the lacquer painting technique. However, the colors in ancient pictures are not rich in shades; they simply coexist, free from any color mixing. Only did decrepit, time-worn murals have different tones. Faded ancient statues are masterpieces in terms of the harmony of colors. Artist Nguyen Gia Tri was one of the first painters who scored a great success in the execution of modem technique on lacquer paintings namely relievo, pumicing, polishing, metal powder spraying, gold and silver inlaying… The subsequent generation of painters continue to create other colors besides the basic ones in traditional lacquer painting, thus they have enhanced the expressiveness of their pictures. Ivory powder (obtained from sharpening ivory tusks) or eggshells (hen eggs or duck eggs) are used to make white color; glistening oyster shells are inlaid in relievo or intaglio prior to the coloring. The technique of eggshell affixture is also an art in lacquer painting. Painters skillfully combine mixed colors with the technique of ancient bas-reliefs. Gold and vermilion have been very original decorative and artistic materials in our country for several centuries. Vietnamese contemporary artists have studied, made careful selections, searched for improvement, and finally have produced a new genre of paintings from Lacquer, an original medium of Vietnamese traditional art.