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Vietnam's Lacquer Masterpiece Damaged by Dish Soap During Cleaning

Nguyen Gia Tri's lacquer painting 'Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac' was named a national treasure by the Department of Cultural Heritage in 2013.

In December 2018, the painting was taken off display at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum for cleaning and then returned in February 2019. However, the museum noticed signs of peeling paint and other damages.

According to a recent assessment by the Arts, Photography and Exhibition Department on the conditions of 'Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac,' the artwork was significantly damaged by overzealous use of dish soap, 2000 grit sandpaper and powdered cinnabarite during the cleaning process, Tuoi Tre reports. The museum commissioned a local lacquer craftsman to conduct the cleaning.

Representatives from the department concluded that the outer paint has been scraped off, which also removed the intricacies and mystical aura in Nguyen Gia Tri's work. Vi Kien Thanh, the leader of the inspection team, criticized the HCMC Fine Arts Museum's decision to commission a lacquer craftsman to clean Tri's painting.

A detail of 'Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac' before (left) and after (right) being cleaned. Image by Nguyen Xuan Viet via Tuoi Tre.

"A lacquer craftsman and a lacquer artist hold different views on art and aesthetics," said Thanh, adding that "the museum should have commissioned a renowned lacquer artist or someone who has personally worked with Nguyen Gia Tri before."

Nguyen Xuan Viet, a student of Nguyen Gia Tri, said that restoration is possible but the final result will only be able to resemble 80% of the original painting. It will take half a year to restore some of what has peeled off.

'Vuon Xuan Trung Nam Bac,' Vietnam's largest lacquer work, took Nguyen Gia Tri 20 years to finish and is considered one of his greatest works. It depicts a spring festival with revelers donning different traditional costumes from localities across Vietnam. The HCMC administration bought the masterpiece in 1991 for US$100,000 and it has been on display at the Fine Arts Museum ever since.

[Top photo via Phan Nguyen]

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