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Thang Long reimagined

For years, Trinh Quang Vu has collected and deciphered images of the capital city in the 17th and 18th centuries. The culmination of this research can be seen in an exhibition of 53 paintings located in the Ha Noi royal citadel.

Leaving behind the teeming and hectic life of the capital, I stepped into the silent atmosphere of the Ha Noi royal citadel on a fairly cold morning of February. Wandering around, contemplating the relics, I found myself in front of Dien Kinh Thien (Heavenly Palace), which was built on Nung Hill under the reign of King Le Thai To. As soon as I approached the ancient dragon-decorated veranda, I was astounded by the fabulous array of dark-coloured paintings that covered the two long walls. I had undoubtedly found the art exhibition described as a historical restoration of Thang Long, which has reached prominence in national newspapers of late.

Reviving history

The paintings were the same as the photographs in the newspapers, but seeing them in the citadel, in person, changed my feelings about the works. Here, I felt much more influenced.

In the tranquil ancient palace, 53 large oil paintings unfolded before my eyes with lively images of Thang Long architecture, ceremonies and daily life of the 17th and 18th centuries, inspiring the feeling of a mystical past.

Above the rest, the magnificence of Thang Long under the Le and Trinh dynasties was revived in the two paintings named Lau Ngu Long (Five Dragons Pavilion), from an anonymous work, and Thang Long – a panorama from the Red River’s northern gate, based on a drawing by John Guy from 1672.

Showing Thang Long from eastern and western perspectives, the two paintings are quite dissimilar. With fog-shrouded mountains in the background, a river full of boats in the foreground and ancient quarters between, the anonymous work described a more-crowded Thang Long and intricate architecture. It appeared to be Thang Long in a later period. Comparing the two, I not only saw a capital changing through time, but also a view of Thang Long through a foreigner’s eyes.

"The artists in this exhibition were not actually artists but were foreign businessmen or clergymen who came to Viet Nam in the 17th and 18th centuries. They were of different nationalities including British, Belgian, Portuguese and Dutch," said painter Trinh Quang Vu, who initiated the restoration project.

Vu’s journey to recover the history of Thang Long through images stemmed from his passion for fine art. As a cinematic artist, Vu also has worked with a broad range of historical and architectural documents, which helped him develop a wide knowledge base in Viet Nam’s history. He often wondered why there was no clear picture in history of the ancient capital, while books about Thang Long in the 17th and 18th centuries abounded. From this thought, Vu embarked on a restoration project of Thang Long in his own way.

Spending over 20 years collecting old postcards and pictures related to ancient Thang Long, Vu hit a number of obstacles while clarifying his sources and "decoding" all the information in each. Support from family and friends and his own ingenuity usually got him over these bumps in the road, but the serendipitous nature of historical research has occasionally reared its head in Vu’s inquiries. Vu’s meeting with Swiss filmmaker Philippe Nicolet is exemplary of this.

In 2004, Vu had a chance to speak with Nicolet. The filmmaker revealed he was following the trail of the great Swiss traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier to make a historical film. Among the documents of Tavernier that Nicolet had were some paintings of mandarins under Le and Trinh dynasties, and, more importantly, a book on Tavernier was full of valuable documents related to Thang Long in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nicolet and Vu met for three hours, and some days later, Nicolet went to Vu’s house to give him a copy of Tavernier’s travel journal. The pictures in the journal provided invaluable guidance for the completion of Vu’s research, which led to the collection of images at the exhibition.

Praise and blame

After 12 years of research and two months of work with artists from the Viet Nam Fine Arts Association, 53 paintings were finished – replicated from postcards and pictures – for the visual art exhibition, which was launched on January 25 in the ancient citadel in Ha Noi.

With many unique paintings, such as Nghi Le Chua Trinh Xuat Hanh (the Trinh Lords’ Departure) and Xa Gia Vua Le Xuat Cung (The King Le’s Palankeen Chariot Leaves the Palace) or pictures of the four gates of Ha Noi’s ancient citadels, the exhibition has received much public attention.

Visitors have left with two different opinions. Professor Phan Huy Le still doubted the authenticity of the images in some of the paintings. "In my estimation, some of the pictures do not even show Ha Noi’s topography. One is very much like the landscape in the ancient Quang Ninh trading port," the renowned historian said.

This is understandable, as some of the originals were from unnamed sources.

Some visitors commented that Thang Long in the 17th and 18th centuries would not have had two and three-storey houses.

Supporting this observation, Professor Tran Lam Bien, an ancient arts specialist of the Ministry of Culture and Information’s Heritage Department, remarked: "Ancient Thang Long couldn’t have had three-storey houses as depicted in the pictures, because in the feudal mindset, that would have gone against the King – people’s houses couldn’t be higher than the palace."

Despite such problems, the positive side to the exhibition is undeniable. A lay-visitor, Nguyen Thuy Linh, who is a student of the Ha Noi University of Foreign Studies, elaborated: "I learned a lot about Thang Long history in high school, but I have never seen any clear illustrations. For me, seeing the paintings in the exhibition had an enormous power of persuasion and they helped me understand the capital’s history in more than words."

Renowned historian Le Van Lan, who also came to the exhibition, shared a similar feeling: "The set of paintings can serve as a valuable historical basis for Vietnamese and foreigners to attain a more comprehensive vision of the capital’s past, and it could provide a point of reference for literature, the arts, theatre and cinema. In contemplating these paintings, however, viewers should understand that these are the ancient landscapes seen through the western eye, which requires imagination for a reverse reflection to see through the Vietnamese eye."

Taking into account both views, Vu and his companions’ efforts in investigating and producing this exhibition are a more than worthwhile observation; in addition, the exhibition possibly suggests a new method of preservation and restoration for Viet Namhistory.

Vietnamnews - (28/02/2006)

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