There are many ways to better understand a work in an exhibition space. For example, you can read articles written by curators, researchers, or critics, or learn about historical stories surrounding the works and the artists.
However, with this information only, it still does not always bring the most authentic and convincing feeling when observing art. To understand art, you can try to learn and experience art practice seriously.
To approach the practice of understanding as well as appreciating art, we had a chance to talk with artist Vu Do — an art educator in Hanoi. Vu Do graduated from Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA), and later founded The Painter’s Studio. Currently, he is researching pigments — an ancient painting technique of North Vietnamese from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The material is the foundation of an artist’s creative process
When it comes to materials, we often think of painting colors, and only a few people know the diversity and magic of pigments. By researching, Vu Do pointed out that pigments are the substances that make color. They can come from many materials that are very close to everyday life, such as the red color of clay, the black color of coal, or the green color of copper rust.
Since time immemorial, artists and alchemists have always searched for and discovered the most vibrant, diverse and sustainable pigments. For example, the blue headband — in the painting “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer — is made from pais lazuli, mined from Badakhshan, Afghanistan.
Ultramarine blue — the blue color brought from across the Mediterranean Sea was once more expensive than gold. Only the important details of expensive paintings were colored with these luxurious pigments. One example is the blue robe of the Virgin Mary in European religious paintings.
“Not only were they looking for pigments in nature, alchemists from the Middle Ages were also able to make artificial pigments. One example was that they heated sulfur and mixed it with mercury. From these, artificial cinnabar red was produced — the color that once could only be found from natural cinnabar quarries,” Vu Do shared.
With new discoveries, chemists at the end of the 19th century created a revolution in the industry of compounding paints and dyes. The new artificial colors are purer, more vibrant, and more sustainable. They have gradually replaced the traditional pigments that take a lot of effort to refine.
That said, learning about materials not only helps viewers gain knowledge of the artist’s technique and process of creation, but also enlightens them with historical stories of an entire period.
Art appreciation in Vietnam
From the very first days he started teaching, Vu Do realized that there was an invisible wall between the artists and the public. There are many misconceptions by outsiders about artists and the art industry.
People often label artists as eccentric, dreamy, working only when they feel like it, and sometimes unintelligible. There has always been an unfair perception towards many sectors in the creative industry, like artists cannot earn a good income.
“Personally, I want to let everyone see that this is a serious profession like any other. Artists also work at least eight hours a day, even without days off, and every aspect in this profession requires investment and hard work. Artists can also work very rationally and scientifically.”
General education in Vietnam today is not paying much attention to artistic appreciation. Drawing or music are only taught until the end of secondary school program, and only limited to stereotyped exercises such as drawing according to patterns, or basic coloring.
Studying or pursuing professional art education is often spontaneous or dependent on family factors (eg. students whose parents are artists). In Vietnam, we often know about the world of art through books and the internet. Or more specifically, we often enjoy art through our phone screens, where it is unrealistically filtered through many layers.
The overwhelming feeling when admiring the series “Water Lilies” by Claude Monet in the monumental space at the Musée de l'Orangerie (Orangerie Museum) in Paris, or the pain of jostling for hours to see “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre, are the emotions that today’s digital technologies can hardly reproduce. Afterall, not everyone has the opportunity to see these masterpieces with their own eyes.
Even the major museums in Hanoi — such as Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum or Vietnam National Museum of History — contain a huge collection of valuable and unique works, but they still have not really attracted the majority of the public and were not promoted for their inherent value.
Since then, Vu Do believed a more modern, friendly and educational approach will be the new direction.
Is personal style important?
Personal style in art is a very important aspect. But to find or attain this, he explains that people should focus on the process instead of the result. “It’s all about the process, not the product.”
“We can’t come up with any ideas by ourselves, in fact, we learn from those around us. Even Van Gogh was influenced by Ukiyo-e, a genre of Japanese art in the Impressionist period. We all draw inspiration from our surroundings and other cultures. After gaining knowledge and information, we would base on our personal choice to gather and synthesize them into a new one.”
However, for today’s young people, it is too early for them to shape their personal style. To be able to confidently say “My personal style is…”, you have to experiment, try new things and not be limited by preconceived notions.
Moreover, the world is always changing, and so are we. Just like how Marcel Duchamp stopped making art and focused on playing chess, and only after he died that humanity discovered a “treasure” that he had worked on in secret.
“Newbies should not care too much about personal style, but should try to see and find out what they are interested in and stick with it. Even if you can’t go far, the fact that you are taking risks and being curious is already encouraging. Then, even if you don’t find a specific style, you will still find out other new things.”
Making effort to enhance artistic appreciation
Museums, galleries, art centers, and the other avenues for art play an important part in enhancing artistic appreciation. These exhibition spaces, in addition to displaying artworks, also come with information walls, curator’s messages, and captions for artworks.
Vu Do believes that the captions for artworks play an important part in connecting art with the audience. The captions are not necessarily explanatory of the work. They can provide data such as materials, creation process, inspiration or historical stories. From there, the audience can contemplate by themselves.
The investment and design of art tours and interactive workshops for young audiences, alternating with other programs for adults, is also a direction pursued by many museums around the world.
Social changes and different influences also forced art transmission and enjoyment to adapt to new circumstances. Digital exhibitions, art events, and online art talks have gradually become more popular, and have unleashed the preeminent strengths of new formats.
In Vietnam there is also a strong development of art-loving communities. These groups not only attract people who love to learn about art, but also professional artists who have passion to share with their audiences.
“Everyone should have a foundation of knowledge in art history. From there, you can see an artwork with your own personal feelings and contemplations. As for me, recently I was attracted to the art heritage and conservation industry. More generally, understanding history is also like a bridge to bring you closer and further to the world of art,” said Vu Do.
Adapted by Thao Van