During the past few years, Vietnamese Modern Art has assumed a more definite shape. ‘Doi Moi’, Vietnam’s Perestroika, introduced in 1986, allowed the creative artist more freedom. At the end of the eighties, this resulted in an explosion in Vietnamese painting. Hundreds of artists participated in various exhibitions which were held in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh-City, Hue, and Danang.
Just a few years ago, it was still impossible for Vietnamese artists to achieve international success. However, as a result of the recent economic developments in Vietnam, like the arrival of the foreign investors, the Vietnamese art market has grown dramatically and has attracted the attention of the foreign community.
By Renske de Jong
Vietnamese painting is mainly a twentieth century phenomenon. In contrast to other Asian countries, Vietnamese artists in the feudal period did not practise the art of painting, but devoted themselves to sculpture and the decoration of temples and pagodas. At the end of the nineteenth century, the French introduced the technique of oil-painting to Vietnam and in 1925 they established the ‘Ecole des Beaux-Art l’Indochine’ in Hanoi.
This marks the beginnings of a professional class of painters. The students at the ‘Ecole des Beaux-Art l’Indochine’ were given an education based on the traditional French model: they painted ‘after nature’ in a realistic and impressionistic style.
In the years before the August Revolution in 1945, Vietnamese painting was mostly represented by dreamy landscapes and scenes painted in the French style. As a result of the war against France, the separation of North and South Vietnam in 1954, followed by the war between the North and the South, the artists followed completely different courses. The artists from the North (under influence of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China) turned in the direction of the social-realistic stream, while the southern artists embraced western trends, influenced by the presence of the Americans. Nevertheless, neither the influence of the Soviet Union nor of the western countries was decisive in the development of Vietnamese Modern Art; the main concern for the Vietnamese artists was, how to survive the war and there was no time for experiments or development yet.
VIETNAMESE CONTEMPORARY ART
For half a century, Vietnamese art, especially in the North, was intended to serve the revolution. Artistic interests were of minor importance. Nudes, still-lifes, and abstract images were considered frivolous and egocentric, thus a betrayal of the socialist ideology.
These days, the contemporary Vietnamese artist is free to represent his or her innerself in his or her work. Despite this new liberal climate, Vietnamese art is not ‘innovating’ in a European sense. Vietnamese painting does not demand philosophical questions about the definition of painting itself. This springs from the indissoluble link between Vietnamese art and the political and social history of its country.
The contemporary Vietnamese artist does not direct his attention to the (western) preoccupation with changing of the ‘frontiers’ of art. Since ‘Doi Moi’ there has been a revival in the use of traditional elements. The painters are being influenced by the renewed interest in traditional village ceremonies and the renovation of historical sites, such as pagodas, tombs, and shrines. The artists are drawn visually to ancient motifs, and through these to the soul and spirit of the Vietnamese cultural traditions.
The past two years have been fruitful for Vietnamese modern art. The Vietnamese artist Nguyen Xuan Tiep (1956, Hanoi) received an invitation for the 1993 ‘Triennal of Asia-Pacific Contemporary Art’ in Brisbane (Australia); there have been two exhibitions of Vietnamese Modern Art in the Netherlands, organized by the Gate Foundation: in The Tropical Museum Amsterdam (October 10, 1993 – January 30, 1994) and in the Watertoren
Vlissingen (November 6, 1993 – January 15, 1994). Several galleries specializing in Vietnamese art have been founded abroad, including the Asia Horizons Gallery and Gallery Plum Blossoms in Hong Kong.
Specially important was the invitation which the Vietnamese artist Dang Xuan Hoa received in February 1994 to come to Boston (United States) for the ‘Indochina Arts Project’ (IAP). The IAP is a non-profit organization, founded in 1988, which promotes understanding between the people of the United States and Vietnam. In 1993 the IAP organized the exhibition ‘As Seen by Both Sides’, which was shown in January 1994 in the National Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi, and toured several cities in the United States.
The greatest change in the contemporary Vietnamese art can be seen in the work itself. There is a great variety. The artists are distinguishing themselves in style and technique. Not so long ago they worked for a collective goal (the revolution), now they are turning to their individual visions.