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Walking down Hang Ngang Pho (street) in old Hanoi, I stopped at Nguyen Bao Nguyen’s storefront/atelier…drawn by his very realistic portraits of French and American actors, and other luminaries as well as of his walk-in clients. Nguyen is a Truyen Than artist.
Truyen Than portraiture originated in the small streets and alleys of Hanoi’s old quarter in the early 20th century. The simple black and white charcoal drawings meant to convey the essence and spirit of whoever or whatever their subject was in a simple fashion. The practice started as people wanted personal depictions of their relatives to use for ancestor worship. The artistic renditions of family members copied from old photographs quickly became popular, especially for wedding photos.
Nguyen’s craft is in drawing/copying old (or damaged) photographs in exquisite details; a painstaking task that can take him many days. Very cheerful, he announced that his English wasn’t too fluent, and his French was somewhat limited.
His store’s walls covered with his work, showing erstwhile French actors such as Jean Gabin, Yves Montand and even Alain Delon…Gary Cooper and John Wayne represent the United States.
Nguyen can’t recall how many portraits he has drawn over the past 52 years. He studied physics, not art…but preferred to earn a living as an artist since 1960.
Despite the current availability of imported ink in Hanoi, Nguyen still uses his own handmade ink which he learned to prepare when it was impossible to import foreign products. He burns scraps of rubber tires with a kerosene lamp, and uses the soot collected to create black ink.
“The city used to have over 300 Truyen Than shops,” says Nguyen. “But now they are no more than 10.” Will the Truyen Than art survive scanners and digital cameras? It’s doubtful.