Today printmaking and painting on silk are not as popular as they once were. For mid-career Vietnamese artist Vu Dinh Tuan the art forms are the heart of his complex oeuvre. His woodblock prints play with shadow and form as if in a sensual dance and his silk paintings of faces articulate a beautiful and gentle surrealism full of magical narratives.

By Ian Findlay

Although new media has become ever more important among young Vietnamese artists, there are still many traditional genres that are strikingly alive and central to maintaining much of Vietnamese art culture and history. Among these art forms are woodblock prints and painting on silk. This work lies in the hands of numerous exceptional artists of all generations for whom tradition is not to be discarded in favor of some passing cultural fad or trendy foreign influence. One such artist is the midcareer printmaker and painter Vu Dinh Tuan whose abundant contemporary artistic vision is enhanced by inclusion of numerous conventional subjects, motifs, and themes from birds to fish, from embroidery patterns to minority figurative art derived from ancient sources as well as important modern scholarship and personal experience. For Tuan wood-block printing and painting on silk sit at the very heart of his rich and stylish oeuvre, and both speak across cultural boundaries to timelessness of all visual cultures.

                This reach across time and place in Tuan’s art was commented on by the art critic Bui Nhu Huong, who pointed out in his 2009 catalogue essay for Tuan’s exhibition Life Is Beautiful: “He [Tuan] is openly and efficiently receptive to Oriental and Western influences, to modern aesthetics and the present-day sense of beauty with a view of finding our his own way and individual style.”1 Rick taking and experimentation as well as a deep desire to embrace life’s odd encounters are all referenced in Tuan’s wide ranging oeuvre. It is such things that draw one into his work.

            Vu Dinh Tuan, who was born in 1973, received his undergraduate and postgraduate education from Hanoi University of Fine Art. He also studied printmaking in Portland, Maine. Although he began as a painter, he became a dedicated printmaker at Art College, specializing in printmaking for five years, and so dramatically changing the direction of his life: “At Art College, I studied painting to become a teacher. That was to be my future,” says Tuan. “But I had a teacher who was a printmaker and became a major influence on my career. He encouraged me to print and he began to introduce me to international print artists. Through the work of these artists I saw the potential of the form.” Tuan felt that through woodcuts and painting on silk he would be able to create a singular vision of his society that was fresh and engaging. At the same time, he felt that he could ask important question about relationships and the world of dreams as well as examine cultures within his own society, among many others.

            What is at once arresting about Tuan’s recent paintings on silk is that they centered on enigmatic faces that exist within a series of fantastically elegant surreal circumstances. Surrealism in modern Vietnamese art is, of course, not new, but it was, for a very long time, overshadowed by the constraints of Socialist Realism and the sentimental and romantic art of the French School taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Art in Hanoi from 1925 onwards. The mystery and magic of Tuan’s surrealist paintings on silk are also present in his multi-colored and graceful woodblock prints. Where Tuan’s Silk paintings of faces, often androgynous, articulate a beautiful and gentle surrealism full of magical narratives, his woodblock prints play with shadow and form, the figures of which sometime move as if in a sensual dance and at other times the images and the aesthetic represent a more grounded and early reality. Nevertheless, both project something of the magic and mystery that lives within us and beyond the veil of the real world, places where questions of identity and freedom, love and hate, and joy and pain become entangled with magnificent dreams.

            We wonder sometimes how and why we dream. We often despair of the nightmares that slide into our unconscious minds and trouble us deeply over time. Few people know how to bring on the best dreams or how to assuage the horrors of nightmares. It is these strange oddities and dichotomies that are food for Tuan’s voracious imagination. His faces and heads are bathed in both beauty and disquiet, even fear and sheer terror that are not always obvious at first. The viewer is seduced by the intensity of his colors. His sensual, full-lipped faces are in reality ‘can vases’ within his silk. Each face hovers over the picture plane of imagined horizons.

            Each face is a surprise, rich in extraordinary and complex narratives that are metaphors for the eternal mystery of life as well as speaking to the fecundity of even the narrowest of imaginations. In Blue Lizard in Red Flowers (2011) is a full red-lipped face in leaf green and the eyes slightly out of focus stare out at us. The lizard is propped on a twig, its head cocked in the direction of some morsel of food. There are flowers and birds and plant life that set one wondering about the beauty of small gardens. In Finding the River No.1 (2012) the head of the turquoise blue face is swimming with a shoal of multi-colored fish heading off to an unknown destination. The face it lit by seven oil lamps placed on either side of the chin. These faces, with staring eyes, show no emotion, which is always the case, and which is unsettling.


Other faces have a variety of activities within their surfaces. One has snails crawling over its head and mouth as in The Love Garden No.3 (2012); Another face is made up of elegant swans as in Swan Lake (2012), and yet another face is caught in a fishing net full of yellow fish. The colors are rich blues, yellows, brown, black, and red. An old-fashioned oil lamp curiously suggests the lighting of each face.

                While these are rich and intricate tales, the one that is truly beautiful and quire outstanding is the minimalist work entitled Solo (2012). This is a face on which an undulating blue mountain-scape is exquisitely realized. Atop the head a single bird is perched, its beak open as if tweeting for the presence of another, or for food. This is a meditative work that lingers in the mind, perhaps as a metaphor for the solitary life.

                One may well think of the art of Salvador Dali (1904-1989) or even Max Ernst (1891-1976) when one looks into the magical worlds of Tuan’s faces and their stories. I am, however, encouraged to think of the fantastic children’s narratives by the great British writer C.S.Lewis (1898-1963). The rich specifics of Tuan’s tales speak volumes of his fecund imagination and his attention to each detail.

In his woodblock prints Vu Dinh Tuan takes us on other journeys that are just as magical as those found in his silk paintings. Some remind us of the art of Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and some speak of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), but all reference the visual wealth of his own unique Vietnamese culture. But these are voyages into the everyday, to times and places that have the miraculous flavor of the extraordinary that is an indispensable part of the ordinary. It is what we huger after, difference without anxiety, and continuity of the familiar without emotional interruption. One sees this to some extent in his works from Lady Series from 2011, where the movement is sensual, slow, and familiar to the imagination.

                Vietnamese woodblock art has a long tradition that embraces Dong Ho painting and bright Hang Trong prints and other print forms, many of which are common around Tet, Vietnamese New Year. These bright and colorful prints celebrate life, a decorative aesthetic, and traditional folk tales and popular philosophies that are woven into the fabric of the everyday. It such things that appeal to Vu Dinh Tuan for even in the gaudy colors and simple folkloric motifs he sees the potential to create a contemporary voice. And just as there is an elegance to his paintings on silks, there is a rough natural energy in his woodblock prints, whether it is of sensual ladies or luxuriating cats of the eroticism of elongated dancers stretched out on the ground.

Such subject and themes fitted Tuan’s desire to make woodblock prints. He says there were two major reasons to choose woodblock: “One is that I like drawing on wood. But to draw well on wood realty is difficult. And secondly, I feel that the language of print is very close to my character. It is a slow process and I take my time, which is important to get things right. In preparation I first draw the image, cut it into the wood, then color, and then print. All of this creates the rhythms of my prints.

“Sometime there are surprises that emerge in the images that are very different from painting. For woodblock it is easier to control the line than in etching because when working with metal or stone, the chemicals used during the process of printing can change the character of the line and the color is also affected. This is certainly not the case in painting on silk where I use watercolor. I don’t do very much in etching of lithography.

Even so, the preparation is all consuming. First, I sketch in black and white, which contains my knowledge of anatomy and movement in my head. I like to imagine the whole movement in my head; it is always helpful when I come to cut the line in the wood. Being completely familiar with what I want in my head helps. Of course, but they are usually minor. The second thing is drawing on the wood itself, usually soft woods that are easy to care for and have been traditionally used in Vietnam for many small prints. I sue industrial pressed board for large works that, too, is easy to handle. I use one board most of the time, often reducing it for each color, bit this depends on my subject. In my two Lady Series and Cats of Asia series, for example, I just used one board and pressed each color separately. My colors, however, are all watercolors.”

The way in which Tuan works his subjects and motifs in his woodblock prints is strikingly different from that his painting on silk. His subjects for the past four years have been people imagined and also of particular places. He says within these he has tried to focus “on what makes people connect with each other. The connection between man and woman, yin/yang, and the expression of a woman’s body as she moves.”

In looking at his works from 2009, such as the four works of Dance series, one sees the tough line of the body and the dark, harsh colors of the undulating bodies on the earth (almost surreal again.) They are almost studies of physical pain, but they are certainly observations of the connection between the female body and nature and its myriad forms.

The free flowing forms of the dancers in the Dance series give way to a more knowing and erotic physical presence and connection in works such as Lady with Shadow 2, Lady 23, and Lady with Shadow 4 (all 2011). The luxuriant sensuality of the woman against shadow creates certain mysteries, none that can be solved. But the shadow behind Tuan’s female forms acts almost like a hunraku puppet master in black costume who carries the figures through space as the narrative unfolds. At the same time, the shadow appears almost like another skin for the dancing women, who are never at rest.

One of the intriguing aspects to his ladies figures is the precise patterning on the body. According to Tuan, he began to do this in 2009. Before this he had many other prints on social themes. A series of woodblock prints from 2011, for example, are almost ethnographic in their vision and were influenced by ethnic groups such as E-De and Gia-rai of Tay Nguyen, an area in the highlands of central Vietnam. A work such as Beauty of Vietnam 1 (2011) speaks to this culture almost in an ethnographic fashion. The carvings and sculpture of the wooden houses fascinated him and are part of his extended Beauty series. But the patterns on the women’s bodies, which remind one of full-body tattoos, have come from a wide variety of sources, including old ceramic designs, the embroidery of traditional royal garment and court garments.

Vu Dinh Tuan’s influences and inspirations are many and varied, from the art of Le Mai Khanh to Le Huy Tiep etchings. But his experience as student in the United States was also deeply important. He says: “The techniques of lithography and etching I had learned in Vietnam. But in the United States it wasn’t about technique but about working on new idea and experimenting. In the United States, I was about content and style, coloring and the printing process, and so on among the student and teachers. The teachers were always asking questions, which is very unlike the process in Vietnam, to help one to think about the process in achieving the best result one could get at the time, and not just any result. The question was” Why do you do that? The second question was: Isn’t that similar to China? So I had to research my own culture, as I hadn’t done before and to see it in a different way. I really hat do think about what was Vietnamese culture and not Chinese of French. This experience has really stuck with me and it is in my work still.”

                Vu Dinh Tuan doesn’t like to put labels to his art. But he will simply call it fantasy with the head at the center. He believes that everything about human life can be found in a person’s face. It is a good place to start any personal voyage.


  1. 1. Bui Nhu Huong, catalogue essay Life Is Beautiful, translated by The Hung, Ph.D., published by Viet Art Centre, Hanoi, 2009; page 4
  2. 2. All quotations are taken from interviews with Vu Dinh Tuan in Hanoi on August 12 and 13, 2013