Hunting for a Vietnamese lacquer painting threw up a wealth of information.
A MAJOR brief on our recent holiday to Vietnam was to buy something quintessentially Vietnamese. An elegant ao ðai? A ceramic elephant? A rustic bamboo bowl? Or maybe a lacquer painting? And while we picked up all these and more, it is perhaps the lacquer painting that now hangs in our drawing room that captured the essence of Vietnam - of quiet and measured artistic refinement. Armed with background information, we set out on our quest for a lacquer painting - long and tiring but hardly dull. As it transpired, Vietnam has a lively arts scene that showcases both exciting contemporary art and a huge body of traditional art, including lacquer. From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, we trolled literally dozens of art galleries, gradually narrowing our search to artists, themes and colours that we liked. The display space of most galleries seemed to be dominated by Dinh Quan, Trinh Tuan and Cong Quoc Ha. There was also Cong Kim Hoa, a rare female lacquer painter, known for her semi-abstracts and abstracts. And despite the restricted range of basic raw materials, colours and even themes, the distinctive style of the masters bestowed an instantly recognisable seal on the works.To be honest, the paintings were thematically narrow in scope, revolving principally around two major subjects: the romantic and the revolutionary. Interestingly, most of the works displayed in galleries were of the romantic persuasion, while those extolling the virtues of communism and of peasant life, celebrating the valorous fight against colonialism and proclaiming the equality of women seemed to unerringly find their way to the walls of the government-run Fine Arts Museums of Hanoi and Saigon. While these paintings were very illuminating as social and political commentary, the artistic ideology that underpinned them seems to have been largely repudiated by most artists today. Instead, there has been a widespread embrace of stylised interpretations of traditional Vietnam. It is these themes that dominate the gallery spaces. Soft, idealised and figurative, typical themes tend to be plaintive-looking Vietnamese women in the traditional long tunics (ao ðai); idyllic representations of rural life; flora and fauna; and still lives with flowers or fruits. But within these larger themes, there was quite a range of visual imagining. For instance, the graceful and highly stylised female form in a Dinh Quan painting would be posed in melancholy languor against a stark, mono-coloured background strewn with artfully placed arresting gold or silver leaves. In contrast were Trinh Tuan's paintings - faces rather than bodies being the focus here, vigorous rather than languid, often with a shock of frizzy hair - bathed in bright rather than subtle tones. And so, what did we finally end up buying? Much of our education came from just walking around the galleries and meeting the well-informed and always friendly gallery owners. By the time we had done about eight to 10 galleries, we knew what kind of work we wanted - a Cong Quoc Ha and a vibrantly coloured still life.A serendipitous meeting with Cong Quoc Ha, facilitated by a gallery owner in Hanoi led to us to the artist's house. We were treated to a visit to his studio and an animated conversation on his working style, his artistic inspirations and his ever-evolving technique. In the end, we ended up literally plucking one of Ha's paintings off his walls - a still life of lotus flowers with burnt eggshell and gold leaf accents, bright green stalks rooted in a riotously coloured vase set against a gleaming rust backdrop. Off Ha's wall in Hanoi and on to our wall in Chennai! Our lust for lacquer was finally sated. Paintings by well-known artists can cost from a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars. Most galleries focus onwestern tourists and prices are in dollars. Bargain and you can almost always get a 10 per cent discount. Meeting the artists will give you a better insight into the art, and may get you even better prices than the galleries, although bargaining here is more difficult, read "impolite". Also remember that because a lacquer painting is on wood, it will, if it is large, have to be shipped.