A modern reinterpretation on a centuries-old art

Silk painting is no longer the popular medium of expression among Vietnam’s contemporary artists it once was. With a history dating back centuries, recent decades have seen this once vibrant traditional art form decline into something bordering on kitsch or cliché. Young Vietnamese artists have come to view silk as an outdated material – a fact reflected in the dwindling numbers of students studying silk painting in the country’s fine arts universities.

Saigon-based artist Bui Tien Tuan is doing his best to reverse the tide. “Many Vietnamese artists have chosen to abandon painting on silk because they think the material is not suitable for the times we live in. Even contemporary Vietnamese silk painting has typically focused on themes like landscapes and traditional village life and looks like it could have been made 50 or 60 years ago. The way I am different is the way I look at color, the way I dye the silk, and the modern, urban quality of Saigon that comes into my paintings.”

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Solo Performance

Tuan spent the first decade of his career working primarily with oils on canvas. His decision five years ago to return to painting on silk full-time sprang from his love of the material and his sense that it was starting to fade into a solely decorative form. Tuan hopes to help preserve and reinvigorate what he regards as an important part of Vietnam’s cultural heritage.

“When you are working with oils it can be superficial in a way as you are just embossing the surface of the canvas with the paint. With silk, you are penetrating the material with the color,” he explains. “The process for achieving this is quite labor intensive and time consuming but it appeals to my meticulous nature.”

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Sleeping Beauty

Although silk is a difficult material to work with, Tuan modestly downplays his technical abilities. “I don’t overestimate my skill in working with silk. Carving out an independent and unique space for my work in the greater art scene is more important to me and more difficult than just mastering a technique. I want my silk paintings to be immediately recognizable to viewers as my own.”

Silky Skin
With his ongoing Frivolity series, Tuan demonstrates silk can still speak to a modern audience. His lively and colorful portraits of women are a far cry from the muted tones and staid subject matter of traditional Vietnamese silk paintings. Uncharacteristically for Vietnamese silk painting, many of his paintings feature nudes and many of his subjects tend towards the zaftig (deliciously plump, or carrying extra weight very well). “I think if you look closely at the images in my paintings you can clearly see the breath of contemporary life, the spirit of modern women and a reflection of present day society.”

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Graceful Lady

Tuan’s choice to represent women in the paintings of his Frivolity series is well suited to the material. He believes silk has a delicacy that is feminine in essence and the female form comes to life through silk. Tuan’s women are mostly portrayed nude with the skin not painted or colored but left without tincture, emphasizing Tuan’s belief in the intimate and symbiotic relationship between silk and skin.

Paintings like Girl in the Flower Dress 1 show the diverse influences Tuan incorporates into his work. He professes great admiration for the Japanese artistic sensibility and it is easy to see elements of manga in his compositions. The well versed will also see the influence of the ukiyo-e genre of Japanese woodblock prints of the 17th – 20th centuries. Many of the paintings in the Frivolity series evoke the Art Nouveau poster art of the 1890s, also influenced by ukiyo-e, produced by devotees of Japanisme such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

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Bui Tien Tuan

A 1998 graduate of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts University, Tuan supports silk painting in Vietnam by serving as an adjunct professor at his alma mater. “I don’t do it for the money. I want to share what I have learned and help keep silk painting alive in Vietnam. When I was studying there were only a few of us dedicated to silk and there was a real fear that it would be dropped completely from the university’s curriculum. I love silk painting and will do all I can to help keep it relevant.”

Bio: Founded in Saigon in 2009, Craig Thomas Gallery (27i Tran Nhat Duat, D1; www.cthomasgallery.com; cthomasgallery@gmail.com) represents and holds regular exhibitions for young and mid-career Vietnamese artists working in painting, sculpture and mixed media. 

Images provided by CThomas Gallery