What the eyes say

Mr Lợi at work
Photo: Pham Thi Kim Thanh

Vietnam Heritage, August-September 2011 -- Truyền thần artists are essentially copiers of pictures of the dead to go on altars. Truyền thần literally means to ‘convey spirit’. Mr Từ Hoa Lợi, 75, who has been in the trade for nearly half-a-century and is one of only a few truyền thần artists left in Saigon.
A man recently asked Mr Lợi for a portrait of his great-grandfather from a 9 cm-by-12 cm photograph of the whole family taken generations ago. A face the size of an orange pip was rendered A3-size. In another case, Mr Lợi was picked up by car to go to Cu Chi, a distant Saigon district, to draw a soldier who had died for his country. Several grandchildren were lined up, their inherited features pointed out and a composite made.
Mr Lợi says the hardest part in truyền thần is the eyes. The picture must reveal the life of the eyes. His tools are a pencil, bamboo shafts whittled and beaten at the end into brushes for polishing, shading powder usually black but sometimes coloured and an easel (one he has had for 20 years). An A3 portrait of a family member costs VND300,000 ($15).
He sets up in front of 596A Dien Bien Phu Street, 50 metres east Nguyen Thien Thuat Street, from 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. and from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., from Monday to Saturday. He devotes part of the day to physical exercise and painting for fun – subjects like Marilyn Monroe, Balzac, Shakespeare and Saigon scenes.
Mr Lợi graduated from the Hanoi Art College in 1959 and worked with the Đoàn Xiếc Trung Ương [Central Circus Group], specializing in portrait-drawing and designing sets.
In 1982, he left the circus group and went south with his wife. Specialising in portraits, in 1990, he set up where he is today. People from government offices, knowing he had once worked for the Central Circus Group, had him paint Ho Chi Minh, Marx and Lenin for their offices. ‘I have drawn hundreds of pictures of President Ho Chi Minh and know his every detail,’ he says.
One of his main sources of income in the early days was reproduction of portraits of relatives used in ancestor-worship. Some people wanted reproductions of photographs of themselves taken when they were young. Demand was strong and a portrait more expensive than today. His shop was frequented by rich families.

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