Tran Nguyen Dan - An Icon Woodblock Painter

Wednesday, June 01, 2016 - 13:24:42

(VOVworld) - In woodblock carved paintings, a design or picture is carved into a block of wood, then printed onto a sheet of paper or other special materials.  Tran Nguyen Dan is one of the very few woodblock painters who has remained dedicated to this art form for nearly half a century. On this week’s Sunday Show, we’ll tell you the story of this elderly passionate artist.

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Artist Tran Nguyen Dan (Source: The Artist's official FB)

 Dan, now 75, started his career in 1967 and has been working in wood-carving continuously since then. The talented artist graduated from the Hanoi College of Industrial Fine Arts in 1970, before being appointed as deputy director of the Museum of Fine Arts. In 2007 he was proudly conferred with the State Award for Literature and Arts, Vietnam’s second highest honor after the Ho Chi Minh Award. The old artist said woodblock carving seemed to be his destiny.“Being a painter was my biggest childhood dream. I have spent my whole life, more than 50 years, in pursuing this art form, as it’s not just a job but my passion, my destiny.”

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Dan has established his reputation as a unique folk painter (Source: The artist's official FB)

Dan initially studied at the Department of Large-scale Painting, which means he would have become a mosaic artist creating images with thousands pieces of glass or stone. But his career then turned a new page after he challenged himself with a totally different material- wood.  One of Dan’s very first woodblock paintings, titled “Paddy transplanting”, earned him many compliments and praise for its aesthetic values. He became a woodblock painter by chance. 50 years on, Dan has established his reputation as a unique folk painter. The Director of the Hanoi Museum of Ceramics, Nguyen Thi Thu Hoa, who has collected more than 100 works by the talented artist, said Dan links tradition with modernity. She said: “Vietnamese wood engraving is strongly associated with Buddhism as people were using woodblocks to produce printed sutras and portrait of Buddha. Later on, craftsmen developed the idea in folk woodcut paintings to express their lives and dreams. Now, painter Tran Nguyen Dan has combined those traditional values with a contemporary feeling. Instead of copying all the traditional techniques, he has created his own style, which is both traditional and modern. Dan is a prominent Vietnamese woodblock painter.”

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Some of Dan's prominent works on Thu Hoa's private collection (Source: Thu Hoa's official FB)

 Dan has updated the traditional style with contemporary nuances. Applying creative and modern techniques to the work, Dan’s paintings are simple, lyrical and soulful.“My artworks depicts the natural landscape and people such as the beauty of the countryside, a farmer and his buffalo, rice paddy fields, houses, the city’s architecture, ancient pagodas, and temples etc. Although the work requires strenuous effort, I think, when I love my homeland and look at the people around me with that love, I can transfer those feelings to my work and successfully nail it.”

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Applying creative and modern techniques to the work, Dan's paintings are simple, lyrical and soulful (Source: Thu Hoa's official FB)

The success of an artist depends on the capacity to show their inner voice and attitude towards people and life. The inborn talent, painstaking practice and unstoppable creativity have made Dan into one of the icons of woodblock painting. Having learned unique painting techniques, Dan has been studying and applying the best of traditional folk painters like Dong Ho, and Hang Trong, and sometimes, the carving techniques of Western countries. That’s why Dan’s works balance the traditional and modern while reflecting modern society.  Thu Hoa again: “Dan’s woodblock paintings are deeply infused with his national identity. Looking at his artworks, people can feel the soul of traditional folk paintings like Dong Ho, Hang Trong, and Kim Hoang, while recognizing the creation and personality of the artist.”

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Dan's woodblock paintings are deeply infused with his national identity (Source: Thu Hoa's official FB)

Producing a painting on woodblocks requires a lot of patience and skill.  First is knowing how to choose the woodblock. The block, made from decandrous persimmon trees, is one of the best choices as they are very durable and worm-resistant. After finishing a wood carved painting, Dan always keeps two versions, one in black and white, one in color. Filling in the colors is also another important step.  Traditional folk paintings do not have light and dark shades, but rather are printed in the original colors. The number of colors is limited, from four to six. But now, Tran Nguyen Dan has developed the traditional techniques and applies more colors with multiple shadings, so there are more colors. Researcher and painter Le Bich, who has studied woodblock painting as well as Vietnamese traditional arts, expresses his love for Dan’s works.  “I have a woodblock painting created by Dan. I love the way he uses the colors or combines different materials and techniques. For example, he often adds the yellow in order to give the works sharper shades. When drawing clouds in the sky with a warm white mixture, he uses scallop shell powder, which is common in Hang Trong or Dong Ho folk paintings. He applies the techniques of traditional folk paintings in his works in such a meticulous and specific way that few artists can match.”  

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Dan applies the techniques of traditional folk paintings in his works in such a meticulous and specific way that few artists can match (Source: Thu Hoa's official FB)

Traditional craftsmen have less choice of printed materials. Giấy Dó – poonah –paper, a hand-made material, is widely used in folk painting. Now Tran Nguyen Dan can print a woodblock painting with a variety of materials, for example, fabrics, silks, so on. Dan stands out thanks to his ability to apply new techniques and materials.“For me, wood carving and painting is a way to express my feelings and my aesthetic concepts. I print my paintings using different materials, including fabrics, silk, cotton, and so on as it provides me with a lot of new experiences. The woodcut painting has its simple beauty as the artist may create a masterpiece only with a woodblock and simple tools like knife, chisel.”

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The artist may create a masterpiece only with a woodblock and simple tools like knife, chisel (Source: Thu Hoa's official FB)

Duong Thuy Quynh, who is interested in this kind of art, admires Dan’s works.“The meticulous art of Tran Nguyen Dan really impresses me. The woodblocks and printings show his talent. His work not only captures the quintessence of Vietnamese traditional folk woodcuts, but also its artistic personality and creativity.”

Traditional woodblock carvings and paintings carry historical information about a society and its culture. Dan elaborates on the similarities and differences between woodblock paintings in Vietnam and other countries. He said: "Woodblock carving is a traditional art form, which is popular not only in Vietnam, but also in Asian countries, including China, and Japan. However, each country has its own version, with aesthetic concepts, and point of view, thus, having different effects. In Vietnam, woodblock painting is as simple and pure as the Vietnamese people’s life-style. The art has its own beauty and national identity. ”

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In Vietnam, woodblock painting is as simple and pure as the Vietnamsese people's life-style (Source: Thu Hoa's official FB)

Parts of the sophisticated Vietnamese woodblock techniques are lost when production is discontinued because of the rapid growth of modern society. Some techniques are not handed down to the next generation as the youth now pay less attention to this kind of art. Collector Thu Hoa has been wondering of how to revive the art form. She said:“It is important to raise people’s awareness about the role of woodblock painting in Vietnam’s fine art. It needs urgent protection because the wood-carvers are getting older. If we don’t take action, this kind of art will fade away or disappear as the case with Kim Hoang folk art painting. ”

This week, we’ve been talking about artist Tran Nguyen Dan and his passion for woodblock carving. We welcome your feedback at: English section, Overseas Service, Radio Voice of Vietnam, 45 Ba Trieu Street, Hanoi, Vietnam. Or you can email us at: englishsection@vov.org.vn Tune in to our English program on the Internet at vovworld.vn.  Good bye and See you next time.

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