Vietnam Art Books -- Behind the mask (September 03, 2004)

Behind the mask (September 03, 2004)

A Hanoi artist's versions of traditional bamboo masks are so familiar that today you see copies of them for sale in souvenir shops everywhere. Meanwhile, Tran Hang discovers, the man himself has moved on.

Painter Vu Dan Tan is famous for his depictions of traditional Vietnamese bamboo masks. "To my mind, they are very much like children's toys. They fascinate me. I always wanted to have a proper collection of them, but unfortunately I couldn't afford to buy them. Making them myself seemed the best solution."

It wasn't that difficult to find the painter's house at 30 Hang Bong Street in Hanoi when I called on him one sunny afternoon recently. His home seemed to be one of the few small Old Quarter houses left among all the smart music and fashion shops. In contrast with the noisy, bustling street outside, it was quiet and peaceful inside, where a slim man in a simple T-shirt was concentrating on a painting.

Vu Dan Tan never received a formal artistic education. When he was young he was greatly influenced by his father, the playwright Vu Dinh Long, who had an enormous interest in art. His dad encouraged Tan to learn painting. When he was 16 he got the chance to study with the late Vu Manh Quynh, a lecturer at the University of Fine Arts.

He went on painting for a while, although without a great deal of success. But times changed, and so did his interests. At the age of 23, he began to find himself attracted to painting traditional bamboo masks, a subject that many Vietnamese people had all but forgotten about.

Tan said that the masks made by Ta Tan, famous both for his masks and his guitar playing, were what fascinated him first. "I can't explain why I loved them so much," he said. "Some masks depict good and some are evil, but they are all both beautiful and meaningful. I feel a great strength in the evil ones - they have a savage beauty.

"These ordinary masks manifest people's dream of perfection. People buy masks because they want to become stronger, happier and more perfect."

Tan tried painting African masks, but ultimately found he preferred Vietnamese ones. They preserve the old traditions, the work interested him - and foreigners bought them, so he was able to make a modest living from them.

Now 58 and sporting a long beard, Tan said he couldn't remember how many masks he had painted, or how long it took him to finish one - it all depended on his inspiration, he said.

The round bamboo baskets used to wash rice are the most important elements in Tan's work." I use closely-woven baskets sold in the market - they make a good frame."

In fact, bamboo or rattan masks (mat mo or mat met) painted in different colours to convey different emotions have been used to banish evil spirits in Vietnamese religious rituals for many hundreds of years. They are familiar objects on the stage, in traditional forms like tuong opera, and are also popular as household ornaments.

Today, though, the bamboo masks are giving way to a new fashion for glittery gilded or silver-plated substitutes, particularly in the big cities. Fortunately, in rural areas, and particularly among the ethnic minorities of the mountains, the tradition lives on.Tan's works are frequently copied and sold in souvenir shops. But as an artist, he himself has virtually abandoned the genre, instead spending his time painting more conventional pictures and playing the piano. He learned to play when he was young, but the American war curtailed his studies.

He loves to play his favourite classical pieces on the old piano that sits in a corner of his studio. He also composes songs, every one of them dedicated to his beloved Russian-born wife, Natasha. "Art is love and life is impossible without love. I'm always searching for something fresh as I believe that real beauty is always just around the corner."

Reprinted with permission from Nhan Dan Newspaper


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