This article was written for Word Vietnam magazine, September 2013.
Ancient civilizations of the Red River Valley, in the clay-rich north of Vietnam, learnt from China how to fire pottery. Khmer and Champa ceramics also influenced Vietnamese craftspeople. After the Chinese domination of Vietnam ended, during the Ly and Tran dynasties, Vietnam created the most sophisticated ceramics of Southeast Asia. In the 14th century, Japanese tea masters treasured their Vietnamese imports. European merchants traded vases from Bat Trang, a pottery village near Hanoi. But history praises and then dismisses. By the early 20th century this was all forgotten and Vietnamese ceramics were written off as provincial. But in 1997, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese ceramics dating back 500 years were found in a shipwreck off Hoi An, history paid attention again. Vietnamese ceramics really are special. Distinctive patterns include combinations of dragons and flowers, a duo not seen in Chinese pieces.
More recently, international art collections are buying some of the ceramic pieces created with tradition and wit by contemporary artist Bui Cong Khanh.
From 2012, Truong Sa island boasts a national record: the largest ceramic mosaic, a giant Vietnamese flag. Designed by artist Nguyen Thu Thuy, the 310.000 piece mosaic weights 3.5 tons. At 25 metres in length, it is so big it can be seen on satellite images.
2 Dong Ho woodcuts
Folk art has been celebrated as testament that the masses, not the ruling elite, are the makers of national culture. Historian Tran Quoc Vuong claims that ‘all the characteristics and superiority of Vietnamese culture are crystallized in the culture of villages’. Clans around Dong Ho village, in Northern Vietnam, made the village famous centuries ago for its woodcuts, a hand-made precursor to photocopies. An artisan carves lines onto a flat block of wood, covers it with ink and prints onto paper. Rustic pictures of proverbs, ritual ceremonies or daily scenes were displayed on walls. Some images symbolised good fortune or guarded the house, other prints alluded to social injustice. Smaller, joss-paper pictures of houses or vehicles are burnt as offerings.
3 Indochina Fine Arts School
Art, you might think, would offer some therapeutic solace when your country is experiencing a traumatic confrontation with an invading culture. In colonial times, artist To Ngoc Van, one of the ‘Four Masters’ of Vietnamese painting, wasn’t merely consoled by art. He saw art as an active instrument of change. Art, he felt, was a journey into new ways of understanding. His colleague Nguyen Gia Tri, like many of the poets and writers in 1930s Vietnam, wanted to ‘wash the eyes of the public, to enable them to see in brighter, clearer, newer ways’. Art enabled new ideas to be integrated with the old ones, and to extract the best of both worlds.
The Indochina Fine Arts School, inaugurated in 1925, married French liberalism and Vietnamese traditionalism, and gave birth to Vietnamese modern art. The two French founders, Tardieu and Inguimberty, strongly encouraged their art students to preserve their heritage by adapting local traditions. The school operated for only 20 years, but with irrevocable influence. For some time, this influence was a bone of contention, due to resentment towards French occupation. Now the institution is accepted as the catalyst of the nation’s modern art. The School’s graduates are highly revered artists who have put Vietnamese art on the international art market.
Laksa, a Sanskrit term meaning a hundred thousand, is where out word ‘lacquer’ derives from. Gum lacquer is a sticky substance secreted by insects. Obviously you’d need a hundred thousand or more to get any useful quantity of the gum. But in Vietnam the lacquer is plant-based, secreted by one of several varieties of native trees. The genuine product is a treacle-thick sap used to make wood waterproof. The urban myth is that the ubiquitous shiny vases and decorative paintings sold in every tourist shop across the country are ‘lacquer’. They are made with polyurethane resin, a toxic chemical compound that should not be used to serve food in.
Since Asian prehistory, lacquer was a resistant and decorative way to preserve wooden objects. Temples and palaces gleamed with the luster of lacquer, encrusted with mother of pearl or gold leaf patterns, captivating intrepid traders from the West. In the 1600s, ‘Chinese varnish’ became so popular with European high society that a fake lacquer was invented in Italy.
Whilst Japan and China argue over who developed the finest lacquerware, Vietnam turned lacquer into a Fine Art. After seeing the rich, glossy colours of the lacquered altar of the Temple of Literature, the art teacher of the Indochina Fine Arts School suggested to his students that they should try to paint with lacquer. They did. Traditional lacquerware technique met modern art, and history was made. Less than a century later, Vietnamese art is famous more than anything for its lacquer paintings, and Nguyen Gia Tri is the most respected lacquer painter.
Central, South and North Spring Garden (1988) by Nguyen Gia Tri.
Lacquer on wood, 200×540 cm. Collection of the HCMC Fine Arts Museum.
5 Silk Painting
The fragility of fine silk probably means that considerable silk paintings have been lost since the technique was adopted from China around the 3rd century. Vietnamese silk painting had its heyday in the 1920s, when misty, soft, images were created by Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984), ironically, because he wasn’t doing so well at mastering oil paint. After he exhibited his lyrical silk art in Paris in 1931, his career took off and he became an international sensation from Milan to Tokyo. As the master of Vietnamese silk painting, his success continues. Earlier this year one of his works fetched record prices ($380.000) at an art auction in Hong Kong.
The delicate art of silk painting is used with reinvigorated panache by contemporary Vietnamese artists Le Hoang Bich Phuong and Bui Tien Tuan, among others.
6 Soldier Artists
In 1950 a new art school was set up in Viet Bac, the Resistance Zone, to train artists who could produce easy to understand visual messages to unite the people into rising up against colonial rule. Artists were seen as the soldiers of the front that was the cultural battlefield. Some of them also fought in combat, as well as recording the revolution’s progress in a pre-gadget age. The art school was spearheaded by To Ngoc Van, the artist whose education at the Indochina Fine Arts School had made him see art as an instrument of change. He died before the 1954 victory of Dien Bien Phu. The Resistance Class operated for 5 years, flourishing due to its isolation from the outside world and the fervour of its mission.
7 Propaganda Art
National art workers were recruited by the Ministry of Information in 1957 to make ‘real art’. Their propaganda posters were bright, original and direct, just what is needed to motivate and persuade effectively. Images of brave, defiant and hard-working people were painted with tempera on paper, and sometimes copied by amateurs to disseminate them on walls and bridges all over the country. The ‘scientific, national and popular’ style that could ‘portray the truth’, was officially defined as Socialist Realism, since its debut in the International Fine Arts Exhibition of 1958.
At present there are fewer than 10 full-time propaganda artists left in Vietnam. One still active is Luang Anh Dung, who says he loves the job he has been doing for 30 years, because it has the power to help people understand government policies. In post-reform Vietnam, his images show not only the soldiers and farmers that inspired previous generations; now we see computer programmers and office workers as symbols of development and economic growth.
Digitally printed images, sadly, loose the charisma that made the original hand painted propaganda posters become collectors items.
8 Abstract Art
Vietnamese paintings of the 1930s frequently show 19th century European techniques. But flashes of Picasso’s influence made it into some works inclined towards new ways of expressing reality. Ta Ty (1922-2004) had been a Revolutionary artist, but has become better known for experimenting with non-representational art. By chance, he was able to see a French magazine with pictures of European Avant-Garde art. He must have been jolted, but he relished the intellectual aspect of trying to understand these paintings. Curious to explore, he tried it for himself.
In Hanoi, a 1951 solo exhibition of Ta Ty’s cubist paintings caused some controversy, as you might expect if you show pictures that people don’t understand. Party Secretary Truong Chinh fiercely opposed the new painting styles. Despite the critique, Ta Ty, was keen to investigate the potential of these breakthrough artistic ideas, and by the 1960s, he was making abstract art. Few other Vietnamese artists have become abstract painters, perhaps disappointed that abstract art was banned from national exhibitions until 1990. All over the world, abstract art has been accused of evil wrongdoings by detractors who like to know what they are looking at.
Aside from the artist’s estate, some of the few remaining works by Ta Ty in Vietnam can be found at Tu Do gallery, 53 Ho Tung Mau, District 1, HCMC.
Growing (1972) by Ta Ty. Oil on canvas, 170×320 cm.
Collection of the HCMC Fine Arts Museum.
9 Dinh Q. Le
‘Culture is a basic need’, declares the cover of the Prince Claus Fund brochure. In 2010, the Dutch foundation awarded a generous prize to artist Dinh Q. Le, for ‘exploring different constructions of reality, providing inspiration and practical opportunities for young artists, and for advancing free thought and contemporary visual expression’. Le’s artworks have challenged dominant American perceptions of the Vietnam War, by showing the damage done to Vietnam.
As a child, this artist from Ha Tien learnt from his aunt how to weave grass mats. As a university student in the US, he used that same weaving technique with large photographs, some of which are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Le was the first Vietnamese artist to have a solo show in that seminal institution. Dinh Q. Le is also co-founder of the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts in the US, and San Art, in HCMC.
Dinh Q Le receives the
Prince Claus Award
in Saigon in 2011.
10 Art Residencies in Vietnam
Artist-in-residence programmes are cultural exchange initiatives. A number of institutions all over the world fund artist residencies, giving artists anything from a small room to a several thousand dollars to buy art materials. They give creative practitioners the opportunity to work with other people, develop new art projects and share their ideas within a new community. Vietnamese artists have been invited, over the years, to work in other countries, from Japan to Germany, for a few weeks or months at a time.
But since May 2012, a residency programme exists in Vietnam: San Art Laboratory, in HCMC. Focusing on the talent in home territories (as yet, the programme does not fund international artists), it provides studio space, a stipend and a whole lot of expert artistic support to young Vietnamese artists. Six artists have benefited so far, and two more are currently starting their residency. The public gets access to Open Studios, artist talks and exhibitions, and the artists get everything they need to concentrate on their art for some months. Culture is shared!
Text and photos by Cristina Nualart