by Barbara Cohen, Dec 1, 1994 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Woodblock craft is a time-honored art that holds a special place in Vietnam's cultural history. By the late 11th or early 12th century, the Vietnamese were already producing collections of Buddhist sutras through woodblock printing. The use of woodblocks for decorative purposes evolved later--in the late 18th century. Historically, creativity in the carving of woodblocks was discouraged. Instead, their primary purpose was to relate a well-loved and known story or theme. Since the emphasis was on recognition rather than artistry, older Vietnamese prints rarely carried the name of the artist. Instead, they bore the name of the location where they were produced.

Two separate styles of woodblock printing evolved at two locations in the Red River Delta. The village of Dong Ho in the Ha Bac province near Hanoi is well-known even today for its production of woodblock prints. The prints from this village reflect daily country life, and are executed with a coarse but fresh technique in bold, clear outlines. In Hanoi, Hang Trong Street produced a more urbane type of print. Dating from the 17th to 18th centuries, the subject matter in these prints was more elegant and the lines more subtle than those of Dong Ho village. In the woodblock printing process, the design is first painted on a wooden board which is then carved. After the artist engraves the pattern on the woodblock, he prints it on paper covered with a paste of ground sea shells. He then colors the picture with natural materials--black from charcoal, red from ochre, brown from yams, yellow from day lilies.

Painter Dinh Luc, whose woodblock prints are featured here, captures Hanoi's historic charm. From traditional festivals and temples to folklore and the 36 Streets, Luc's subjects evoke the Vietnam of his childhood. Luc creates his works in strong black ink on traditional thin do paper. All his works are square. Luc says that this is "a way to focus the viewer's attention for a deeper look at details." His pictures of old Hanoi life are conceived in modern settings with touches that evoke the past. Luc's woodblock depicting Hang Mam, a street historically known for its fish sauce, includes four little fish drying on a roof. In his print of Hang Thiec (Tinsmith Street), Luc shows tinsmiths squatting over their work in a tribute to the street's tradition. In other prints, he shows the familiar xoan tree which typically shades Hanoi's sloping tile roofs and women vendors in ba tam hats--the old style wheel shaped hats.

A native Hanoian, Dinh Luc aims to preserve the past heritage of his motherland. His works are truly Vietnamese in inspiration and execution.