VIETNAMESE ART, AN OVERVIEW
Through the Upheavals of History
Compared to other Asian countries, and according to several art commentators, Vietnam
was the earliest to merge into the the main stream of modern art, as defined by
the West, in both form and content. Such a fact can be easily seen with the coming
into existence of Ecole Des Beaux Arts (Indochina's School of Fine Art) in the early
1930s, with the presence of professors from France.
Western style in technique and the use of color was what the first student generation
trained in this school obtained. The techniques however were employed by the graduate
artists to depict the aesthetic essence of Viet-narn, especially the freedom and
generosity of an Asian soul. Such a fundamental beginning had laid the foundation
for the younger genrerations to follow and again led to their success.
In the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, the first generation of Vietnam Is modern artists
joined in the international market of art and was highly evaluated, in Vietnam as
well as overseas. From then on, they gained good reputation and were honoured the
masters of Vietnam' s modem art. Among them were To Ngoc Van, Nguyen Phan Chanh,
Nguyen Gia Tri, Bui Xuan Phai, Le Pho, Tran Van Can, Nguyen Do Cung, Nguyen 'I'ien
Chung, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Duong Bich Lien, and so on.
At present, members of' the first generation have all gone, except two artists,
Nguyen Tu Nghiem (Ha noi), and Le Pho (Paris); nevertliciess, their names leave
become almost immortal in Vietnam's art history.
The wars against the against colonialists and the U.S. imperialists unintentionally
parted Vietnam's modern art into various styles, each of which has its own way to
proceed toward perfection. This was most clearly seen in the differences found in
the works of art of the North and South during the separation of Viet-nam, the fierce
struggles an people's fighting spirits were reflected on the one hand whereas realism-criticism,
romanticism, and escapism into the dream of peace pervaded the art landscape of
the occupied South.
Without mentioning the historical situation of the country (temporary separation
period between 1954-1975 and a pre-renovation period between 1975-1990), Vietnam'
s contemporary art bas always experienced two parallel processes of integration:
1. The integration and catching up between the Northern and Southern styles.
2. The integration into the international maket of modem art write preserving the
traditional genres and the mythical nature of the Oriental. Vietnam' s contemporary
art was heart of a nation that underwent relentless upheavals. Peace regained from
the wars of national defence has become a unique source of living materials never
seen in art else where. And such materials leave provided artists now and in the
future powerful inspiration.
Past and Present ...
In Northern Vietnam nowadays, the tradition of Dong Ho Paintings, or the "self-portraits"
of Vietnam' s earliest folk painting traditions, are well preserved. In 1024, there
existed 2,000 paintings of Buddha which served as the foundation of the presently
- popular Dong Ho Paintings. And from Dong Ho Village, where stands the great 18-century
tombstone produced in Canh Hung Dynasty, on which details of the painting trade
were recorded, 17 different clans specialized in wood-block have supplied the market
with paintings and sculptures depicting history, daily activities, landscapes, social
courtesies, proverbs, ritual ceremonies, caricatures, etc. to convey popular philosophy.
Over time and at present, the Dong Ho traditions are reflected, in various decrees
and in both content and composition, in the works of contemporary artists. It could
be said, perhaps, that the very touch of popular traces have distinguished Vietnam'
s contemporary art from that of the world.
Before 1975, the Northern contemporary art developed in the direction of socialist
realism, with the establishment of the Resistance School of Fine Art in the early
days of the revolution in the 1940s, and the fighting and working spirits are still
depicted in paintings of resistance artists, most of whom are now retired soldiers.
These works in the eyes of art collectors reflect the nostalgia for Vietnam' s lat-
est era of heroism. Without seeing the collections of.Art by Vietnamese veteran
artists, it would be difficult for us to imagine the longings of an artist behind
bars gazing the beaches on Con Dao and Phu Quoc islands, or the spiri. tual power
of Vietnam shrouding over the Ca Mau Mangrove Forest, Sat For- est, and rubber plantations
in the Southeast, or on the Hochiminh Trail along Truong Son Ranges when the troops
During our nation' s struggle for independence and freedom, 45 painters and sculptors
from the School of Fine Art and Decoration and the Saigon College of Art took part
in the revolution. As participants in the revolution war, the two generations of
teachers and students fostered the same patriotic zeal and artistic creativity during
the war-time reality.
After 1975, nine out of 45 had fallen down and most of the rest 36 are still invoked
in art. Many of them are professors at the Ho Chi Minh City College of Fine Art,
and at the same time working artists, Co Tan Long Chau, Le Van Kinh, Nguyen Sang,
Huynh Cong Nhan, Quach Phong, Nguyen Van Son, Le Vinh, Hoang Tram... are a few examples.
Their epic works on the 30 years of history have been highly evaluated by art collectors.
Many private and joint galleries run by the resistance artists have attracted a
great number of viewers, and many of their paintings were financially successful.
Also before 1975, the painting of the temporarily occupied Southern Vietnam had
made a lot of progress with the Saigon College of Fine Art, Binh Duong and Bien
Hoa Schools of Fine Art and the School of Fine Art in Hue. The successful artists
in the international market of art include Thai Tuan, Ta Ty, Duy Thanh, Ngoc Dung,
Vi Y, Ngo Viet Thu, etc.
Between the 1960s and 1970s, members of the Young Artist Association including Nguyen
Trung, Lam Triet, Nghi Cao Uyen, Ho Hun Thu, Nguyen Lam, Nguyen Phuoc, Do Quang
Em, Trinh Cung, etc. brought about a fresh breeze of creativity, gaining a good
reputation in Vietnam and the outside world. Presently some of them are living in
the U.S., sculptors Mai Chung, Duong Van Hung and painters Nghieu De, Nghi Cao Uyen,
Lam Triet, Nguyen Phuoc, etc.
Those remain in Vietnam, Ho Hun Thu, Nguyen Trung, Trinh Cung, Do Quang Em, Nguyen
Lam, Cu Nguyen, together with Lam Triet who recently returned from overseas, have
become a valuable core group. Besides, that the young artists of surrealism, semi-
abstract and abstract schools of art under the instruction of Nguyen Trung and Ca
Le Thang, have injected a new atmosphere of creativity, and helped accelerating
the integration of Viet - nam' s contemporary art into the world. This has been
a spontaneous act which utilises the cream talents of the North and South youth
just as they set out to achieve when coming to the world of art.
Vietnamese art in the world and domestic markets.
Between 1988 - 1990, which may be seen as a landmark, in Vietnam and especially
in Ho Chi Minh City an art market came into being. Earlier, in the early 1980s,
some overseas Vietnamese from The U.S., Australia, and Canada came back to collect
paintings of famous artists of pre-1975 Saigon, e.g. Ngoc Dung, Thai Tuan, Vi Y,
Duy Thanh, etc. and of such renowned artists as Nguyen Gia Tri, Bui Xuan Phai, etc..
Their activity gradually became a catalyst for the emergence of an exciting art
market from 1990 on.
Before 1990, it was scarce for an artist to sell his painting for over USD 1,000.
Since early 1992, bower, the prices of Vietnam' s paintings soared up significantly
due to their distinct quality. The price of about 3,000 USD for a painting was quite
common. In 1993, Ho Huu Thu' s abstract lacquer paintings were sold at the price
USD 15,000 to a Japanese collector. At the end of 1995, in La Vong Gallery in Hongkong
the realistic oil-painting "The kettle and the Tea-cup" by Do Quang Em
was sold at USD 50,000, breaking all doubts on the prices of the artist' s paintings
in the domestic market and providing a stimulus for other artists.
Also from the year 1990, when many Vietnamese artists were asked by collectors,
galleries and the World Cultural Association to display their paintings at international
exhibitions in the U.S., France, Denmark, Australia, Hongkong, Singapore, Japan,
Malaysia, and Thailand, their artistic skills were highly evaluated by the intenational
art community. From then on a translation market appeared with the increasing number
on international collectors coming to Viet - Nam to buy paintings on the spot, and
to invite individual artists or groups of artists to participate in overseas exhibitions.
These undertakings have enabled Vietnam' s art to quickly rejoin the art world after
years of interruption... However opportunities for the majority of artists to exchange
with the world are still scarce. For some gifted artists, their difficult financial
conditions are a major obstacle as they do not easily have opportunities to come
into contact with art collectors.
Equal opportunity for the artist community in terms of participation in domestic
and international exchanges, especially for the visual arts, is an essential precondition
for the artists to get to the summit of their creative work. That is a target for
the world in general, and for Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City in particular. The requirement
has been acknowledged by the cultural and arts authorities, the various associations
and groups including the Association of Visual Artists, the Writers' Association,
the Re- porters' Association, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Association and so on,
but the ongoing activities have not brought much results.
Since late 1,991 and carry 1992, any- how, in Hanoi, Hue, Da Nang, and especially
Ho Chi Minh City, galleries have sprung up one after another and exhibitions have
taken place every week, expressing a novel vitality to Vietnam's contemporary art
both at home and abroad.