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Vietnam’s ‘national treasure’ painting severely damaged after cleaning

Wednesday, April 24, 2019, 11:02 GMT+7
Vietnam’s ‘national treasure’ painting severely damaged after cleaning
‘Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac’ by Vietnamese painter Nguyen Gia Tri after cleaning. Photo: Mai Thuy / Tuoi Tre

A lacquer painting by renowned painter Nguyen Gia Tri has suffered from irreversible damage after the artwork, considered a national treasure of Vietnam, was removed for a scheduled cleaning at a museum in Ho Chi Minh City last year.

Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac (Spring Garden of the Central, South and North Regions) was the final work of Nguyen Gia Tri, done over a period of 20 years between 1969 and 1989.

The lacquer painting depicts girls in traditional costumes of central, southern and northern Vietnam interacting with nature and their surroundings.

It is listed as a national treasure by the Department of Cultural Heritage for being the epitome of lacquer arts in Vietnam, done over the longest period of time by one of the leading pillars of Vietnamese contemporary arts.

Painted during a transition from wartime to peacetime in Vietnam, the painting reflected Tri’s wish for peace in his country and happiness for his people.

At 540cm x 200cm, Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac is also the biggest lacquer painting ever done by a Vietnamese artist.

In 1991, the painting was bought by the administration of Ho Chi Minh City for US$100,000 and handed over to the municipal Museum of Fine Arts in District 1 for display and preservation.

‘Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac’ by Vietnamese painter Nguyen Gia Tri before cleaning. Photo: Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

‘Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac’ by Vietnamese painter Nguyen Gia Tri before cleaning. Photo: Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts

Irreversible damage

According to a source of Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper, Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac was removed for cleaning around late December 2018.

Some workers were hired to clean the art piece without the supervision of artists or those with knowledge of the significance of Tri’s artwork, the source said.

The cleaning process took roughly two months to complete and the painting was once again put on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in February 2019.

Noticing major differences in the painting’s appearance before and after cleaning, the museum assembled a council of experts to help evaluate damage done to the masterpiece.

Nguyen Xuan Viet, one of Tri’s closest protégés during his final years, said the cleaning team not only damaged the painting in appearance but also “destroyed its artistic intent."

The gold colors on Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photo uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

 

The gold colors on Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photo uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

The gold colors on Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photos uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

“In lacquer arts, consistency [in artistic intent] is the soul of a painting,” Viet said.

“There’s no means of measuring damage done to a painting’s soul,” he added.

In photos of Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac before and after cleaning, it is clearly observable that the iconic gold color of the original painting has been replaced by white, making the art piece appear flat and shallow.

Siu Quy, vice-president of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association, considers “70 percent of the painting’s essence” to have been lost in cleaning.

“It’s a regrettable loss for Vietnamese arts,” Quy said.

The gold colors on Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photo uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

 

The gold colors on Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photo uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

The gold colors on Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photos uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

Viet, the only living person who best understands Tri and his techniques, has been considered for taking the helm in restoring the masterpiece to its former glory.

But even Viet admits he finds himself helpless in the mission.

“Even if I try to restore the painting, it will never be the same,” Viet said.

“Restoring 80 percent of the original painting would be the best possible outcome,” he added.

The overall depth of Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photo uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

 

The overall depth of Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photo uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

The overall depth of Nguyen Gia Tri's 'Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac' lacquer painting before (top) and after cleaning are observably different in these photos uploaded on Facebook by Pham Thanh Toan.

So far, no official statement has been made by the Museum of Fine Arts or the municipal Department of Culture and Sports on the condition of the painting.

Tuoi Tre has reached Trinh Xuan Yen, the museum’s vice-director, for comment but he refused to talk over the phone, saying he would answer the press in an official dispatch.

As of the time of writing, Tuoi Tre has not heard back from Yen.

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