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By Bao Ngoc
There is a folk painting school based in Dong Ho Village, Bac Ninh, that has been been thought of for generations among Vietnamese nationals as the essence of Vietnamese folk culture. The paintings have charm, unique colours, harmonious textures and sharp-witted perspectives, plus they are created with totally natural materials. This produces a sense of visual coziness that is perhaps found only in Vietnam. Dong Ho folk paintings are known as the woodcuts of Dong Ho paintings. Each painting is the embodiment of the versatile creativity of artisans in Dong Ho Village. They all seem to express the rich, non-material life of diligent peasantry.
It is so rare to see a painting school that depicts that traditional agrarian society of Vietnam so well. We see the humble, ordinary life of the genuine peasantry, their traditions, customs and distinct activities. Dong Ho paintings mirror familiar events in the ordinary lives of commoners and reflect their wishes for a happier and more affluent situation.
The graphic language of these paintings is quite comprehensive and simple. Each painting conveys a clear message to meet spiritual, mental and emotional demands of various castes. In addition to their texture and lines, the folk essence of Dong Ho paintings lies in their colours and the material of the paper. Diệp paper is used and colours are natural hues extracted from plants, including black (pit coals or bamboo coals), green (copper rust, indigo leaves), yellow (Japanese pagoda trees) or red (vermillion pebbles, brezel wood).
To complete a painting, it an artisan must follow certain steps – applying glue on the paper, drying the paper, brushing it with crumbled oyster shells (điệp) and drying the paper again to get rid of the điệp. Artisans must apply colours in turn while printing a painting. Five colors correspond to five prints. To create such folk artwork, artisans must go to great lengths and can’t hesitate because of bad weather or the hard work. As a result, each painting completed reflects the sentiments and sincere wishes of these genuine woodcutters.
Nowadays, the famous Dong Ho paintings are found in many places and have familiar themes such as The Rat Wedding, Glory and Fame, Ancestral Homage Ceremony, Peace All Over the World, Collecting Coconuts or Tending Buffalo and Blowing Flutes. These names alone suggest the peaceful rural landscape, cordial ordinary activities and invaluable moral lessons. Many are fond of collecting Dong Ho paintings while others just love looking at them. There are lots of marketplaces with Dong Ho paintings on sale in the Lunar New Year. It is assumed that to carry Dong Ho paintings home is to bring good fortune and make wishes of peace and good luck to the entire family come true. The reason why Dong Ho paintings prove so ageless and enticing for generations of Vietnamese locals and foreign visitors, is the themes of these paintings sincerely reflect the rustic, simple life and cultural traditions of Vietnam.
Dong Ho paintings are a national treasure, a cultural heritage and also a ubiquitous medium of fine art in the folklore of Vietnam.