Artist Le Dinh Nghien

PANO - Le Dinh Nghien, the last artist of Hang Trong paintings, has been trying his best to preserve and restore the well-known genre of traditional paintings of ancient Hanoi.

The genre of once famous folk paintings is now being restored to life by the skilled hands of Le Dinh Nghien, a member of the third generation of the family with painting tradition in Binh Vong (Thuong Tin District, Hanoi). Le Dinh Nghien is one of few artisans who have deep love for and concern about the traditional Hang Trong paintings.

According to Nghien, Hang Trong paintings are made differently with a more sophisticated method than other genres of traditional paintings. Artisans start with woodblocks to print black basic shapes of the paintings and then draw the details. For those patterns with no woodblocks, artisans have to draw the whole picture completely by hand.

The pasting process comes after that. Each painting is normally pasted with two to four layers of paper. It takes great skill to do the pasting so it is flat and fine, but not creased. However the most sophisticated job is the process of colouring. The painting is coloured layer by layer. Only when the first layer is dry, should the second one be started, thus creating the “soul” and the difference of each painting. Especially, the sparkling various colours of the paintings can be attained by each craftsman’s sensitiveness of the phase colours.

“Holding drawing pen in hand, the artisan should focus on painting and nothing else. Painting seems to be his destiny”, said the old artist.

Hang Trong paintings first appeared in the 16th-17th century, and became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Nghien said. During that time, Hang Trong paintings were made in the ancient streets of Hanoi like Hang Trong, Hang Non, Hang Hom, Hang Quat. However Hang Trong was the major street where they were made and sold. It is a precious long-lasting memory of the Red River Delta’s people to recall the image of those paintings like Ly ngu vong nguyet (Carp watching the Moon), Tien tai (Good Wealth), or Tu Binh (sets of 4 paintings) like To nu (Four Female Musicians) and Ngu ho (Five Tigers) hanged solemnly on the walls of houses during lunar New Year.

Many researchers affirm that Hang Trong paintings are strongly influenced by the regional thoughts, culture and religions of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. The paintings also combine of the art of statues and sculptures in temples and pagodas and normal beauty in people’s daily lives.

Le Dinh Nghien is now among few artists who pursue their passion for traditional Hang Trong paintings. He has been working to preserve and restore Hang Trong paintings at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum since 1972. He has even created several new patterns.

Nghien still keeps nearly 50 woodblocks of Hang Trong paintings which he considers a valuable inheritance from his ancestors, and which he wants to hand down to his son as a family tradition.

Translated by An Khue