Researcher aims to popularise folk painting

Artist and researcher Phan Ngọc Khuê spoke about Hàng Trống folk painting and storytelling paintings.

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Folklore researcher Phan Ngọc Khuê.

Artist and researcher Phan Ngọc Khuê recently presented to Việt Nam Women’s Museum a set of storytelling Hàng Trống folk paintings from his private collection. He is a leading researcher on this painting genre.

He spoke about Hàng Trống folk painting and storytelling paintings.

Việt Nam has several different styles of folk paintings such as Đông Hồ, Kim Hoàng, Làng Sình and more. Why are you interested in Hàng Trống folk painting?

I was fortunate to study at an art school, so I had the opportunity to learn about many works of art, especially folk and traditional sculptures and paintings. Learning from artisans has been indispensable in my career.

During my career at the Việt Nam Fine Arts Museum, we often travelled to pagodas and temples to research and collect ancient architecture and carving patterns. Sometimes we made moulds of them.

Wherever we went, we would always ask local people if they have any sources of paintings or if they had kept any folk paintings. Folk paintings were popular among Vietnamese in the past, but in fact some people keep them and some don’t.

Due to the hot and humid climate in the country, paintings on paper are difficult to preserve for a long time. Therefore, collecting each painting is extremely important to us.

Not only Hàng Trống paintings, when learning about other genres such as Làng Sình, Đông Hồ and Kim Hoàng paintings, we had to go and learn about them in person, even asking people for each painting.

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A set of Hàng Trống storytelling paintings that folk researcher Phan Ngọc Khuê presented to Việt Nam Women’s Museum. Photos

I still remember that sometimes we brought home many paintings because the sales did not go well and people just had them left in their houses.

There are a few kinds of Hàng Trống folk paintings available such as worship paintings, paintings depicting daily life activities, natural landscapes, storytelling and decoration paintings for the new year.

The set of Hàng Trống storytelling paintings currently on display at Việt Nam Women’s Museum, I was given by Trương Thị – owner of a popular painting shop in Hà Nội in the 1980s. At that time, the paintings were rolled and kept in the attic because she could not sell them. When the paintings were brought home, I had to frame them.

Could you tell us more about the value of Hàng Trống folk paintings, including storytelling paintings?

After printing the initial painting with wooden blocks, artisans would add more layers of paper behind the painting to strengthen the appearance of strokes and lines.

The paintings were made during the genre’s golden era at the end of the 19th century and early 20th century. Some of these sets of paintings depict ancient tales of the past.

Before Hàng Trống storytelling paintings, it should be remembered that our ancestors had carved wooden figures in pagodas and temples which depicted ancient tales.

For example, Ngọc Canh Communal House in the northern province of Vĩnh Phúc has a carved wooden figure related to King Đinh Tiên Hoàng in the 10th century. It is one of the ancient tales that influences other forms of folk art, including painting.

Hàng Trống storytelling paintings’ composition closely reflects Vietnamese tales, showing that they were original from folk art. In other words, Hàng Trống storytelling paintings had continued the flow of Vietnamese folk art from carved wooden figures to wood engraving.

What is the relationship between Hàng Trống storytelling paintings and ancient tales?

Hàng Trống folk painting and storytelling paintings are closely related to Vietnamese ancient literature. Oral literature of Vietnamese appeared long, long ago before Nôm (Vietnamese ideographs). When we had Nôm ideographs they became a means to spread national culture.

Basically, Vietnamese legends, anecdotes, fairy tales and literature were written in Nôm and handed down which helped folk painting artists create unique storytelling paintings.

It should be added that storytelling folk painting is not only seen in Hàng Trống paintings, but also Đông Hồ and Kim Hoàng. However, Hàng Trống storytelling paintings are the most beautiful and popular.

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A set of Hàng Trống storytelling paintings from Phan Ngọc Khuê’s collection

In your opinion, what should be done to preserve and keep Hàng Trống folk painting and other styles alive?

Hàng Trống storytelling paintings have not been popular for nearly a hundred years. Therefore, we need focus on re-introducing the style and making it popular.

In 2016, I published the book Tranh Dân Gian Hàng Trống – Hà Nội (Hàng Trống – Hà Nội Folk Painting) to introduce over 400 paintings. This number does not necessarily cover the centuries-long development process of Hàng Trống painting.

But we must see that the traditional art of the Vietnamese people includes not only decorations, sculptures and statues in communal houses, pagodas or temples, but also contains printing and painting.

It’s just a pity that there are not many master artisans alive now. During my career, we researched a lot of folk painting genres, but sometime we did not know the origin of the folk painting.

Theo Vietnamnews