Southeast Asian Art

Phan Thu Trang’s Memories

Phan Tru Trang is a Vietnamese artist who uses the careful strokes of a knife to paint vibrant images depicting her memories of Hanoi and the villages in which she grew up. Trang uses the interplay of color and light to create different atmospheres and sensations for each of her paintings; working with a limited palette, she chooses to use textures rather than colors to distinguish her subjects. Trang hopes to convey to her viewers not only the serenity and beauty of Vietnam, but also the character of the people dwelling there.

This painting illustrates a peaceful village community drenched in cool, pastel tones, perhaps enveloped by the gradually descending dusk. Sharp, thin strokes of paint piercing the ground and reflecting the image of the house both announce the downpour of rain descending upon the landscape and make the ground appear to be merely a film of water, giving the entire painting a surreal, dreamlike aura. A single tree dominates the image, the large cloud of leaves enshrouding the top branches bearing resemblance to bell flowers weighed down by the water while the shriveled trunk itself bends underneath their weight. The small leaves floating away from the tree, as well as the sway of the trees in the background, suggest that a gentle breeze blows through the scene. The villagers’ backs are hunched under the weight of the burden they carry, their feet lifted off the ground as though hurrying towards the comfort of their homes.

The entire painting itself gives off a sense of transience: the house and the trees simply fade imperceptibly into the background as though shrouded by mist. The strings of black emerging from the trees resemble ink dripping from a paintbrush; one might have though this oil painting was done in watercolor for the faded quality it exudes. Despite the rain, the painting is not dominated by feelings of melancholy. Rather, a sense of languidness and tranquility emerges from pitter-patter of the rain drumming against the ground and the hazy landscape. The indistinct borders of the painting suggest that the viewer is merely imagining, or perhaps dreaming of, the scene before him or her. The painting may be in the present for the viewer, but the ethereal charm that Trang endows it with evokes the sense that this is in fact a memory—at first recalled with great clarity, gradually fading into blurriness and finally oblivion, until what is left is a fragment of the reality with imagination filling in all the holes—a dream of a faraway land that leaves the painter herself questioning whether she in fact ever saw a place of such beauty, or if it was merely a whimsical fancy.

What do you think of this painting?