From Block to Beauty: The Intricate Art of Vietnamese Dong Ho Painting
The rich and fascinating history of Dong Ho painting spans centuries and reflects several cultural and political changes in Vietnam. This art form, born in the Red River Delta region in the 17th century, began as a simple way to adorn homes during festivities, but soon became a potent tool for propaganda during times of war and revolution.
With their vibrant colors, symbolic elements, and connection to traditional materials and techniques, these paintings offer a window into the cultural legacy of Vietnam, sparking inspiration in artists and enthusiasts alike. These masterpieces are more than just art; they are a testament to the resilience and spirit of the Vietnamese people, and an ode to their rich heritage.
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Glimpsing into Vietnam’s Cultural Heritage Using Dong Ho Paintings
The roots of Dong Ho painting stretch back to the 17th century in the Red River Delta region of northern Vietnam. It is believed that the art form was first created by the villagers of Dong Ho as a way to decorate their homes during the Lunar New Year Festival by infusing color and life into their surroundings.
In the early days, Dong Ho paintings were made using natural materials such as paper made from the bark of the do tree, ink made from charcoal, and colors derived from plants and minerals. The artists carved their designs onto wooden blocks, which were then used to print the images onto paper.
The popularity of Dong Ho painting grew in the 19th and 20th centuries, as the art form became a means of communication and propaganda during periods of war and revolution in Vietnam. Dong Ho paintings were frequently used to convey messages of patriotism and resistance, and many artists created works depicting the struggles of the Vietnamese people against foreign invaders.
The famous Đám cưới chuột (Rat's wedding), a popular example of Đông Hồ painting of Vietnamese art. It features a wedding march of rats with the rat bride and groom and other rat guests delivering gifts to a big cat in hope that the cat will leave the happy couple alone. (Public Domain)
During the French colonial period, Dong Ho painting evolved to include new subjects, such as portraits of famous Vietnamese figures and scenes from daily life. However, with the introduction of modern printing techniques in the 20th century, the popularity of traditional Dong Ho painting began to decline, and the art form became less prevalent.
Today, only a few families in Dong Ho village continue to practice the art of woodblock printing, and the paintings are highly valued by collectors and art enthusiasts around the world. The Vietnamese government has also recognized the cultural significance of Dong Ho painting and has taken steps to preserve and promote the historic art form.
Crafting Vietnamese Art, a Masterpiece with Blocks and Ink
Dong Ho painting is created using a woodblock printing technique, which involves carving an image onto a wooden block, applying ink to the block, and then pressing it onto paper to create a print, much like a large stamp. The process of creating a Dong Ho painting is time-consuming and requires a high level of skill and precision, as each painting is unique and reflects the individual style and creativity of the artist.
Creating a Dong Ho painting involves several intricate steps. First, the artist must create a unique design for the painting using pencil and paper. Next, the design is transferred to a wooden block, so the artist can carve the image into the block using specialized tools.
The artist then creates the ink to apply to the carved block image. The ink used in Dong Ho painting is made from charcoal, water, and other natural materials, such as rice paste and eggshells. After the ink is mixed until it has the desired consistency and color, the artist applies it to the wooden block using a soft brush, and then presses the block onto the paper using a small handheld tool called a baren.
The artist then repeats this process to create multiple prints of the same image. After the prints have dried, the artist colors them using natural dyes like indigo, turmeric, and betel nut juice. Finally, the finished prints are mounted onto a larger piece of paper or fabric, and are typically framed or hung as wall art.
Dong Ho paintings on old aged wall. (Hanoi Photography/Adobe Stock)
Traditional Symbols and Depictions in Dong Ho Paintings
The subjects of Dong Ho paintings have evolved over time, reflecting the changing cultural and political landscape of Vietnam. In the past, these paintings were primarily used for religious and ceremonial purposes, and often depicted scenes from Buddhist or Taoist mythology. However, with the advent of modern printing techniques in the 20th century, Dong Ho paintings began to feature new subjects, such as portraits of famous Vietnamese figures, scenes from daily life, and even political propaganda.
These paintings are also known for their simple linework and use of symbolic elements, such as different animals. For example, the carp represents good luck and fortune, while the phoenix symbolizes beauty and grace.
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Vivid Hues and Deeper Meanings in Dong Ho Artwork
Colors also play a significant role in Dong Ho paintings, as they are used to convey meaning and symbolism. Each color has a specific significance and is chosen carefully by the artist to enhance the meaning and message of the painting.
For example, the color red is associated with happiness, good luck, and prosperity in Vietnamese culture. It is often used in Dong Ho paintings to depict joyful events, such as weddings or festivals, and to symbolize good fortune and success.
Alternatively, the color black is associated with tragedy or sorrow and is often used to depict darker or more somber events, such as funerals or historical disasters. The mood of a Dong Ho painting can easily be deciphered by observing the colors depicted in it. Understanding the mood can also help viewers determine the meaning of specific scenes that are depicted in a painting.
Other colors commonly used in Dong Ho paintings include green, which represents growth and fertility, and yellow, which symbolizes royalty and wealth. Each color has its own unique significance and adds depth and complexity to the artwork.
In addition to their symbolic meaning, the colors used in Dong Ho paintings are often derived from natural materials, such as indigo, turmeric, and betel nut juice. This gives the paintings a distinct and earthy quality that connects them to the traditional materials and techniques used in Vietnamese folk art.
The Enduring International Appeal of Dong Ho Paintings
Today, Dong Ho paintings are prized for their artistic and historical significance, and are often collected and displayed as examples of traditional Vietnamese folk art. They offer a unique glimpse into the cultural traditions and beliefs of rural Vietnamese communities, and continue to inspire and influence artists and art enthusiasts around the world. If you ever get to visit Vietnam, be sure to check out some of these beautiful and unique paintings yourself!
Top image: Dong Ho Vietnamese art is an aesthetic symbol in Vietnamese culture. This painting is titled, ‘Good luck wish’: Lợn âm dương (Yin-yang pig). Source: Public Domain
By Lex Leigh
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