Restoring antiquities has made sculptor Nguyen Van Tuan a national hero
Besides preservation work at Tay Phuong Pagoda, the oldest religious building in Vietnam, Nguyen Van Tuan has designed, restored and embellished hundreds of religious works in many historical and cultural sites nationally. His most notable efforts are the Dragon bas-relief in Thay Pagoda and the pillar and statues of holy creatures of Hoe Nhai Pagoda, one of the relics celebrating the millennial anniversary of Hanoi.
Tay Phuong Pagoda in Thach Xa Commune on the outskirts of Hanoi impresses visitors with its unique sculptures, especially the statues of holy creatures at its base.
Skilful local craftsmen created the sophisticated statues, and over the years their descendants have taken up the task of preserving and embellishing their work, one of whom is 62-year-old Nguyen Van Tuan.
Most of the time Tuan can be seen working in the small workshop next to his house.
Tuan’s introduction to the job came at age 13, when he was observing his grandfather and father carving sculptures for churches and shrines.
During the war the traditional craft of bas-relief in the Thach Xa fell into obscurity, since many artisans were called to duty on the battlefield. But in 1976, returning home from combat, Tuan continued in the footsteps of his father, aspiring to save the traditional talents at risk of being lost forever.
His reputation has since spread far and wide. Since 1980 Tuan has received commissions to restore and embellish many buildings of high historical and cultural significance.
“A bas-relief artisan must at the least have a gift, passion, determination and patience,” he says.
It’s the materials that make the traditional craft of bas-relief in Thach Xa unique, having been produced in the same way for more than 200 years.
They include hand-made poonah paper, lime and molasses. After the paper is soaked in lime, it’s mixed with molasses and ground thoroughly to create a type of plaster, which is then used to create beautiful work that can endure any weather conditions.
On receiving a new commission, Tuan travels to the site to assess the job. If new pieces are needed, he has to carefully study the scale and the history of the setting in order to restore the bas-relief work to its original quality.
All the statues of sacred creatures he’s restored originated in the Tran, Le and Nguyen dynasties centuries ago. But he’s also come up with his own form of art – 3D bas-relief portrayals of the scenery of rural Vietnam. In this way Tuan has become an artist in his own right.
He first sketches out his design, then creates the bas-relief and finally starts to shape the details – a tree, a boat, or a tiny house as seen from afar. The finished work is covered with a layer of oil paint or Chinese ink to create the illusion of depth.
The statue of a holy creature, which can be seen in many Vietnamese religious buildings like pagodas or communal houses.
“The most difficult part in making a bas-relief picture is envisioning the idea and layout in order to ensure harmony and a reasonable ratio of space between every detail,” he says.
It usually takes him 10 days to finish a piece, the price of which can range from five million to 10 million dong (Bt7,800 to Bt15,600) depending on the complexity. His pieces have been exhibited at festivals around the country.
Tuan is now trying to pass his passion on to the next generation of artists, not only within the commune but also in nearby provinces too.
Under his guidance, more than 200 young craftspeople have been introduced to the traditional process, and about 50 have become proficient. His second son, born in 1983, has taken up his father’s work.
An association of bas-relief sculptors has been established and the commune has become a regular location for them to exchange and enhance their experiences.
Tuan’s dedication to preserving and promoting the traditional trade of his hometown was recognised when he received the title of Hanoi Artisan, granted by the chairman of the city’s People Committee in 2013, and Eminent Handicraft Artisan, bestowed by the state in 2016.
“Religious bas-relief will not fade into oblivion again,” Tuan says. |“We villagers have been doing our ancestor’s traditional work for years. Now I’m considered the oldest |artisan in the village, but there |are still many years ahead for me to train the next generation of sculptors.”