Northern Vietnam features a traditional style of woodblock printing that is of uncertain age and origins. The style may date to the fifteenth-century Lê Dynasty, or possibly to some time in the 13th century, of the Lý or Trân Dynasties (Ha 2010, 9). Whatever the origins, the art form survives to this day, though in distinct variations and with a rapidly diminishing following. There are very few practitioners of the art still remaining (Quang 2011).
The earliest and most primitive variation of this printing style, and the one from which the other two are derived, is Dong Ho painting, named for the Dong Ho commune (specifically, Dong Mai village) where it seems to have been born. Dong Ho paintings are notable for their use of natural materials in their paper, paint, and pigments (Nguyen). The paint base comes from sticky rice glue, while the pigments have a variety of natural sources (Ha 2010, 12). Red comes from the stone or rock of nearby mountains; black comes from burned bamboo leaves (Nguyen) or rice straw (Ha 2010, 11); yellow from sappan wood and flowers of the Saphora japonica tree (NEM), also known as hoa hoe; white from sea shells (Nguyen). Do Duc (2012) also identifies as pigment sources yam, ginger, pagoda tree, danh danh fruit, and earleaf acacia, though no further documentation of this could be found. The paper is made from the bark of the dzo tree (Nguyen), and is known as rhamnoneuron paper, or butterfly paper (Ha 2010, 11). The paper is covered with a thin layer of powdered shell (NEM).
To produce a painting, the image to be created is first sketched on paper by means of Chinese ink and a feathered pen. This is transferred, in reverse, to a wood block, which is then engraved with the desired image. Wood blocks are of persimmon, magnolia, and long muc wood, and the artisan uses several different types of chisels. The painting will be produced by using this block as a stamp to apply black ink. Colors are added by means of additional stamps, one for each color. These color stamps are made of yellow magnolia wood (NEM). Any number of prints will be manufactured in this way. Additional painted details can be added to individual painting by hand, thereby making each piece unique (Ha 2010, 10, 11).
The two derivative variants of this technique are Hang Trong painting, named for the Hanoi street on which it originated and once flourished, and Kim Hoang painting, named for its native village. Hang Trong paintings have finer details than their Dong Ho counterparts, and a more sophisticated use of color. Colored paints are applied with blocks, but also by means of a brush dipped in water, allowing the artist to achieve various effects. After printing the black outline, but before applying colors, the paper is strengthened by gluing additional sheets to it. Kim Hoang painting technique allows for sharper lines, and therefore better detail, in its printing blocks than can be found in Dong Ho paintings, and is printed on red paper. The Kim Hoang method also involves a color application technique in which different sides of a brush are dipped into different colors, allowing colors on the painting to blur (Ha 2010, 13-21).
Kim Hoang paintings are printed by ordinary households during the eleventh and twelfth month of the lunar year and are used to venerate ancestors. Dong Ho and Hang Trong paintings are printed by artists dedicated to the craft, and are sold in the month or two leading up to Tet, to celebrate the lunar New Year. The popularity of all these painting styles has declined significantly since 1945 (Ha 2010, 9-17); Hang Trong painting now has only one remaining practitioner (Quang 2011).
The woodblock printing nature of all these techniques has resulted in the repetition of certain images over the centuries. A particular representation of the four seasons, stereotyped images of fictional characters such as Kieu and Thach Sanh, four female musicians, and others all find expression in each of these art forms. The image of four female musicians is known as Tô Nũ, and its representation in the Dong Ho style appears at the top of this post.
The first thing to understand about this painting is that it represents the contribution of two distinct artists, separated by a great deal of time and, almost certainly, space. The earlier artist was responsible for its form and composition, the latter only for its colors. Women in this same exact dress, with the same instruments and the same poses, appear in Hang Trong painting. Even the fingering of the instruments has been faithfully preserved. (See Ha 2010, Quang 2011, or Do Duc 2012 for a color image of the Hang Trong version of Tô Nũ.)
The sense of line has not. The Hang Trong version of this painting features lighter lines and sharper detail, and is obviously derived from a different original drawing. Nevertheless, the poses and postures, as already described, are identical.
So, it was some earlier artist, in some unknown past, who chose to draw the women with their feet pointed in the directions we see today, with the arms and fingers in their present positions, with their heads either turned or in line with their torsos. All of these details are identical across the Dong Ho/ Hang Trong divide, and must represent the contributions of a common source.
There is one major difference in the Dong Ho and Hang Trong versions of Tô Nũ. In the Hang Trong version, there is a pedestal supporting a vase with a blooming flower behind each woman. Each flower is particular to a season, and from this we know that each woman represents a season. In the Dong Ho image shown here, those seasons are, from left to right, autumn, winter, spring, and summer (Do Phan 2012). For a painting sold and used to celebrate New Year’s, this emphasis on a year’s seasons is fitting.
The women’s postures are not entirely arbitrary. Two stand with their heads in line with their torsos; Spring facing slightly to the right, and Summer slightly to the left. These are seasons of growth, when all is correctly aligned. The other two women stand with their torsos facing in one direction, and their heads in another; Autumn to the right and Winter to the left. In autumn and winter, nature takes on a certain twist, and what once grows now dies for a while. Insofar as there are two artists responsible for this image, it is the earlier one who gave the women the postures that they have.
The colorist, the later artist, is not entirely without means to express himself, and the painting presented here carries with it a muted message of prosperity and stability. The colors in all of these paintings—Dong Ho, Hang Trong, and Kim Hoang—are free to vary. In one famous Hang Trong version of Tô Nũ, winter’s dress is a shimmering white, and all the dresses are of single, solid colors. Given that freedom, our Dong Ho artist chose to garb Spring in yellow. Of all the pigments used in this art form, only yellow is seasonal; it comes from a flower that blooms in late summer. All the other pigments come from sources that are available all year. Yellow pigment must be gathered and saved, until such time that painting is ready to commence. One cannot gather this pigment whenever the desire to produce a painting happens to hit; preparation on the timescale of months, at least, is needed. This kind of foresight cannot happen without some stability and prosperity.
This may seem trivial, given that the producers of these paintings practice this as a vocation, year after year. But it draws attention to the fact that spring is as far from late summer as one can get; the artist garbed Spring in the one color she would be least likely to have. As a practical matter, producing a painting in this way is no great challenge, but to one who knows the sources of the pigments and the meanings of the women, there is a conceptual contrast that is plain to see. The most yellow is found in the last place it would actually be. The colorist, working with wood block printing and constrained to a centuries-old design, can still exercise powerful control over his artwork.
Do Duc. “A Lost Art.” Heritage Fashion, Apr-May 2012, 114.
Do Phan Anh, personal interview, April 22, 2012.
Ha Nguyen. Hanoi Fine Arts. Hanoi: Information and Communication Publishing House, 2010.
NEM National Ethnology Museum. Dong Ho Woodblock Pictures. Exhibit plaque on the first floor of the museum. Examined Apr. 20, 2012.
Nguyen Huu Sam. Dong Ho- The Village of Folk Painting. Dong Ho Village, Thuan Thanh District, Bac Ninh Province. Publisher unknown, date unknown.
Quang Minh. 2011. “Bleak Future for Hong Trong Paintings.” Saigon Giai Phong, Feb. 3. http://en.baomoi.com/Home/cultureart/www.saigon-gpdaily.com.vn/Bleak-future-for-Hang-Trong-paintings/108011.epi Accessed April 22, 2012.