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Restoring national painting treasure ‘Little Thuy’ a labor of love

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The severely damaged national treasure ‘Em Thuy’ (Little Thuy) painted by artist Tran Van Can has been painstakingly restored by foreign experts.

The restored artwork, bestowed national treasure status in 2013, is currently on display on the second floor of Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi.

Besides using professional lightning for display, ‘Em Thuy’ and other paintings, artifacts are held in a room with temperatures between 20 to 25 degrees Celsius and humidity from 50 to 55 percent all day and night.

In 2003, many degraded artworks here were in serious need of restoration.

‘Em Thuy’, created in 1943, was chosen as the first piece for restoration. At the time, the picture surface was obscured by dust, soot, smoke and insect feces. The canvas was blistering, flaking and warping. The old painting also suffered cracking while some sections had peeled due to hot and humid environmental conditions.

Caroline Fry – a painting conservator from the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation of the University of Melbourne, Australia – was invited to Vietnam to restore ‘Em Thuy’ in 2004.

The restoration process took place in the preservation laboratory of Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum, including seven steps prescribed by international regulations and standards.

First, the expert examined the current state of the original painting and took pictures of it. The next step involved using a heated knife to smooth the paint chips and placing silicone-coated paper on top, which would not adhere to the surface of the paint.

Step three involved using a cotton swab dipped in a triammonium citrate solution to gently remove varnish.

The expert discovered a layer of opaque varnish beneath the surface of the stains, raising suspicions of prior restoration attempts. This meant the paint had to be removed using chemicals. A paraloid B72 solution was applied to the surface to protect the artist’s original strokes. She also used a broom to remove dust on the back of the painting.

Step four involved treating the peeled paint. Fry applied a protective paint layer, restoring certain parts with watercolor and specialized pigments.

Thuy’s face – the soul of the picture – had suffered extensive peeling and damage, requiring intricate attention. Fry used watercolor to fill in the gaps, making it easier to remove in future, then used synthetic resin. The final coating was the exact same color, gloss and texture as the original.

Step five involved making a new frame, and patching surface tears with plastic stickers.

Besides, she repaired and reinforced the picture frame, especially corner joints, to provide stability before placing the painting in a new glass frame.

The final two steps included taking pictures and making reports. The entire process took the expert four months to complete.

The work was handed over to Vietnam Fine Arts Museum on June 28, 2004.

Currently, inspection and conservation of paintings and artifacts are carried out regularly. If a problem is detected, staff will report it to the repair and restoration center for immediate processing.

‘Em Thuy’ is one of the outstanding portrait paintings of the country’s modern painting. The work depicts Thuy, an eight years old real girl, with big round black eyes, plump lips, chubby cheeks and side-parted hair looking straight at the opposite person.

The little girl sat on the left side of the picture and her hands clasped on her lap. The brown rattan chair with curves creates a balanced composition for the painting. The light-colored clothes harmonize with the pale yellow wall behind.

According to the Department of Cultural Heritage, Tran Van Can’s artworks carry the influence of the typical European-style layout of the early 20th century. The ‘Em Thuy’ painting is recognized as a national treasure because it is unique and has been recognized by historical researchers. The work represents the art of realistic depiction, as well as the genre of Vietnamese portrait painting in the early 20th century. This artwork also contributes to reflecting the image of Vietnamese society before the August Revolution against the French and Japanese colonial rule in August 1945.

The character in the picture is Minh Thuy – the granddaughter of painter Tran Van Can. One day in 1943, when he saw his granddaughter wearing a pink Ha Dong silk shirt, he told her to sit down and act as a model for him to draw. At that time, Minh Thuy was studying at the École Brieux primary school for girls.

It took the painter several months to complete this masterpiece.

The work was first introduced at the exhibition in Hanoi in 1943. The painting later helped Tran Van Can win the first prize at the exhibition of Khai Tri Tien Duc Association (AFIMA -l’Association pour la Formation Intellectuelle et Morale des Annamites).

Later, due to the war, the family was evacuated, so the work was lost.

In 1964, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum purchased paintings from the family of photographer Do Huan for VND300.

At that time, the salary of newly graduated civil servants was only VND64 a month. The painting was then peeled, mottled, and had to be placed in a special preservation place.

Thuy is now 87 years old in real life, living with her children and grandchildren in Hanoi. She suffered from memory loss and many diseases of old age, no longer remembering when she was eight years old and sitting in the chair as a model for Can.

Expert Caroline Fry once said she was overwhelmed by the beauty of the painting when she first saw it.

“Even in poor condition, the work still exudes charm and is not an exaggeration to call the Mona Lisa of Vietnam,” she said.

Tran Van Can (1910-1994) was from Bac Ninh Province. He graduated as valedictorian of the seventh class (1931-1936) of Indochina College of Fine Arts.

The painter received the Ho Chi Minh Prize for literature and art in 1996 and many other professional awards.

By Hieu Nhan – VnExpress.net – July 24, 2022

Restoring national painting treasure ‘Little Thuy’ a labor of love
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