A Rare Rescue Mission

For the past five years, Adrian Jones and his research team have traveled around Vietnam collecting old tubes of oil paint, unused canvases and old paper—in fact, pretty much any art material they can find that has been produced since the 1940s. They have also been interviewing elderly artists to gain a better understanding of their techniques. Their goal: to staunch the deterioration of Vietnamese artworks. Jones's Witness Collection, a private arts organization, is sending the materials and information to a team of researchers at England's Northumbria University who are dedicated to preserving Vietnamese paintings endangered by the country's harsh tropical climate, lack of financial resources and poor previous conservation efforts.

They need to work fast. According to Ng Xuan Tiep, a specialist at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi, half of the museum's 6,000 works are in need of repair. "There are 50 to 70 pieces of art so heavily damaged they could be already potentially lost," he says. "The truth is that we cannot wait anymore. Some paintings are already beyond repair."

Vietnamese painters have always been highly skilled technically, and their works from the first part of the 20th century show influences by the French impressionist masters. From the '40s onward, artworks turned more realist and patriotic, describing the national struggle for independence from France and the rise of communism. Beyond their artistic value, some of these endangered works also have historical significance. Among the most heavily damaged are "Mechanical Worker," an oil painting made by Nguyen Do Cung in 1963, and "Go to the Field," a silk painting by Nguyen Phan Chanh, one of the leading silk painters of the early 20th century.

The paintings have never had it easy. When the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi was established in 1966, its works were housed in a colonial-era building not really suited to the purpose. The museum had meager finances, and environmental controls such as air conditioning were not a priority for the communist government. In the late 1990s, the museum's windows were removed to improve ventilation, but that brought a new set of problems: outside pollutants. Scientific analysis has found the paintings to be contaminated by sulfur-dioxide pollution, thought to be from the widespread use of coal cooking fires in Hanoi.

Vietnamese paintings often incorporate unusual materials and techniques, making the task extra-challenging for conservators. Some artists added egg yolk to the ground to prime the canvas, which made the paint brittle, or used textile dyes in place of Chinese ink, says Jean Brown, who is leading the Northumbria project. Materials like animal-based glue— traditionally used in canvas preparation—swell and shrink in response to the fluctuations in relative humidity, weakening a painting's structure, says Sally MacMillan, who recently completed investigative works on two Vietnamese paintings dating from the '60s as part of the Northumbria project. "During Vietnam's isolation years, artists had little access to high-quality materials, so they improvised," says Jones, whose Witness Collection holds the largest single grouping of Vietnamese paintings outside Vietnam. Of the 1,000 works in the collection, he has lent Northumbria 40 for research.

But one advantage of the centrally planned state is that most artists used the same sources for their materials. Jones says testing has shown that the paint samples were manufactured primarily in East Germany and China, while paper came from the Soviet Union and even, surprisingly, from France, showing that a relationship with the former colonial power still existed. "This has made life much easier for conservators because it's the same material used by everybody," Jones explains.

Determining what's in the paintings is the first step toward figuring out how to repair and preserve them. Because they include some non-European materials, Western approaches to conservation are often inappropriate, Brown says. To strengthen the paint layers, for instance, an adhesive or "consolidant" is typically introduced into the unstable areas. But some of the paint is so brittle that it won't support traditional Western consolidation techniques. Brown says the discovery of sulfur-based atmospheric pollution is important because the salts of the zinc sulfate are soluble in water, which at least helps rule out using a water-based solution to repair the paintings. So far, testing is still continuing to try to find a suitable technique.

Today, the windows are back in the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi and climate controls have been installed, though they are still not on a 24-hour cycle because of the high running costs. For some works, it may already be too late. Now it's up to the scientists to help prevent Vietnamese painting from becoming a lost art.