Zee Stone
Phung Pham - Lacquer Master

Phung Pham - Lacquer Master

In the heart of Hanoiís old French quarter, not far from the gracious old colonial French hospital and university buildings, a narrow three-storey house rises in the middle of a typical street market. Beside the front gate squat ladies selling fruit and vegetables, while the aroma of ginger wafts across from the nearby open-air food stalls.

Entering the house with its traditional shuttered windows is like stepping back a hundred years. Minimal furniture includes two wooden chairs, a bench and a table with teacups and roses in a vase. There is no evidence of any modern convenience or comfort. All round the room, however, stacked against every inch of wall, are the main focus of this house: lacquer paintings.

This is the home and studio of Phung Pham, now 72 years old and one of the most sophisticated lacquer artists in Vietnam. A slight, serious man with a worn look but elegant, expressive hands, Phung Pham is an artist whose life is totally dedicated to his art. In contrast with the environment of their creation, his paintings are strikingly contemporary. Phung Pham evokes a lyrical vision of the Vietnamese countryside, using flat planes of bold colour to produce flowing lines that echo the rhythms of daily life. His compositions are graphic, with a strong geometric element. Women pounding corn or drying rice appear like dancers on a stage, acting out rituals of country life that have persisted for centuries.

Lacquer art has a centuries-old tradition in Vietnam, having first been introduced by the Chinese in the making of handicrafts and decorative items. After the establishment of the Ecole des Beaux Arts de líIndochine by the French in 1925, however, what had always been a craft performed by anonymous artisans became a new art form as the traditional lacquer technique was applied to paintings for the first time. The founders of the Ecole, Victor Tardieu and Joseph Inguimberty, recognized the beauty of the Vietnamese artistic traditions and wanted to help their students make the most of their heritage as well as teaching them Western painting. During the 20 years of its operation, the Ecole trained more than 100 Vietnamese artists who would become the pioneers of Vietnamese modern art, combining indigenous art forms with the art of Manet, Degas, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir.

Painting with lacquer is a long and complex process requiring great skill and patience. It involves the application of many layers of lacquer on a prepared wooden board, allowing each to dry in turn, and finally polishing the painting with pumice to reveal whatever colours the artist desires in different areas of the painting. Other materials used include eggshell to produce a white colour, mother-of-pearl, and gold and silver leaf. The final result is smooth and durable, and will not crack due to fluctuations of temperature or humidity.

Pure lacquer is harvested from one of six species of trees growing in Vietnam, the main one being Rhus succedanea in the hilly areas of Vinh Phu Province in the north. In the early days of lacquer painting, colours were restricted to brown, black and cinnabar red, but today artificial dyes can produce a limitless palette of vivid colours.

The first Vietnamese artist to master the art of lacquer painting was Nguyen Gia Tri (1908-1993). His paintings in the Hanoi Fine Arts Museum show how after studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the 1930s, he combined the perspective, composition and colour of European painting with new lacquer techniques such as polishing (previously lacquer had been used as a varnish but not polished) and the production of new colours from various raw materials. Triís works include landscapes and idyllic scenes of young girls picking flowers or chasing butterflies.

Other lacquer masters include Nguyen Sang (1923-1988), who favoured a more natural style, and Nguyen Tu Nghiem (born 1922), whose work shows the fusion of traditional Vietnamese culture and the spirit of Western modernism. His inspiration comes from temple, pagoda and dinh (communal house) sculpture, woodblock prints, and Vietnamese dance and music. His subject matter includes village dancers and festivals and the twelve animals of the zodiac.

Today, Phung Pham is an acknowledged master of lacquer painting, having created his own unique style. Born in 1934 in Vinh Yen Province, near the Red River, he was the fifth of seven children of a teacher in a farming community. Although his parents were not artistic, two of his brothers were interested in literature and became writers and poets. He has happy memories of his early childhood, especially walking along the banks of the Red River every day on his way to school.

At the age of 13, following the revolution in Vietnam in 1945, Phung Pham was sent on a revolutionary youth programme to the mountainous region of Tay Bac in northwest Vietnam, close to the border with Laos.This remote area is a land of rugged mountain scenery and hill villages, populated by ethnic minority tribes including the Ma, Hímong, Dao, Muon, Kinh, Khmer, Tay and Thai, who made a lasting impression on Phung Pham.

Thai women in particular are renowned for their beauty, white skin and elegant, slim figures. Many still wear traditional dress including intricately hand-embroidered clothes, elaborate headdresses and silver jewellery. Phung Pham never forgot the beauty of these people and 60 years later, he seeks to express their energy and grace in his paintings.

In 1957 Phung Pham entered the Hanoi Fine Arts University (previously the Ecole des Beaux Arts), where he studied for five years. The training covered all aspects of art, including drawing, oil painting, woodblock prints and lacquer painting. When he graduated in the 1960s, it was wartime and artistic materials were difficult to find. Canvas and paints were virtually unobtainable and so Phung Pham began his artistic career with woodblock prints, which were easier and less expensive to make. Although he liked lacquer painting for many years, he only began doing it in the early 1990s, when he had access to the necessary materials.

Each painting begins with a small sketch, which Phung Pham makes using a geometric grid. Next, it is the job of his two sons, Phung Kien (34), an architect, and Phung Hieu (30), a painter, to enlarge this to a full-size drawing using the same grid. The outline is transferred to a lacquer board in white chalk by a tracing technique, then the painting can begin.

How many layers of lacquer Phung Pham applies depends on the effect he wants. Great care goes into colour composition, and to the all-important application of gold and silver leaf or powder. By placing these under layers of coloured and clear lacquer, he can achieve a richly glowing surface to convey the warm sunlight of a golden afternoon, or cool moonlight. It is a delicate process to achieve just the right effect. When all the layers are dry, the final polishing is done.

Unlike other lacquer painters who have an atelier with many artisans to help make a large number of paintings, Phung Pham makes only a limited number of paintings and only his family is involved. He, his wife and two sons have chosen an ascetic lifestyle dedicated to his painting. Phung Pham may work on several paintings at once, completing different areas of each painting in turn. Whereas in oil painting an area can be re-worked, in lacquer painting there is no room for error. He is a perfectionist and each painting may take several months to complete.

Over his long career, Phung Pham has worked with many lacquer masters in Vietnam, but he especially mentions the influence of his favourite Western artists, Kasimir Malevich (1878-1935), Fernand Leger (1881-1955) and Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). He admires their artistic language, their energy and individual styles. A book on Picasso lies by his bedside.

This perhaps explains why, in both his woodblock prints and his lacquer paintings, Phung Pham is not interested in realism but rather in capturing the essence of the figures, their posture and the energy of their movements. His style is graphic, with an emphasis on rhythm and line. In contrast with other lacquer artists such as Bui Huu Hung (b. 1957) who applies European chiaroscuro to his work in the search for a lifelike quality, Phung Pham uses lacquer in a modernist way, emphasizing colour contrasts and reducing colours to their simplest form as in the traditional lacquerware of Vietnamís ancient pagodas and temples.

In his paintings Phung Pham creates an idealized, romantic view of life in the countryside. Although he realizes that the life of minority people is not always easy, he sees the beauty of their figures and their dress as they work and go about their daily life. The simple, peaceful life that revolves around the farming calendar from sowing to harvest-time, age-old traditions and festivals, inspires him and he tries to convey this in his work. Above all, Phung Pham is interested in developing his unique style, using a traditional medium in a very contemporary way.