ASIAN ART NEWS, 1997
By Ian Howard
While Vietnamese artists are becoming more active participants in the international art world, they have not rejected their own cultures. As Vietnam changes rapidly, its best artists seek to confront change to create a vision that reflects modernity.
During the so-called revolutionary period, 1945-1975, which included wars fought against the French and Americans, materials for private art works were extremely scarce forcing Vietnamese artists to use only small quantities of the most basic materials. This led generally to a concentration on drafting skills and an understandable economy of line. It could be argued that, as a result of the commitment to extensive formal training at the Indochina Fine Arts College in Hanoi since the 1920s, linked with a focus on cultural and ideological story telling, the Vietnamese developed, within a figurative and decorative framework, works of unsurpassed political efficacy.
Since the defeat of the French in 1954, the northern regions of Vietnam were increasingly influenced by communist ideology and policies. In the visual arts this resulted in the most wholesale adoption of a social realist style of practice and choice of subject matter. In the south, influences from the international arena were increasingly available and readily absorbed. While the French influence diminished, it was rapidly replaced by that of other Western countries, predominantly the United States, but also smaller countries such as Australia.
After the unification of the country in 1975, Vietnamese artists of the north continued to work in social realist manner while those of the south adopted this more politically cohesive approach. By the late 1980s, the concept of national renewal had touched most aspects of Vietnamese life, allowing artists greater freedom to express, evaluate, and record more personalized experience and be exposed to new levels of international influence. Within a short period of time the country’s younger, professionally oriented artists, had abandoned this dominant figurative style allowing it to evolve into an increasingly experimental and usually abstract range of images.
The virtual absence of social realist work exhibited today suggests that either it was predominantly an institutionalized phenomenon; or that life experiences in Vietnam have undergone such a dramatic renovation over the past decade that this approach is incapable of representing it; or further, that the desire for change for its own sake (akin to fashion) is greater than the value ascribed to painting about life in Vietnam in a realist manner. It is likely that each observation is at least partially correct. The mood of the country, embracing change in so many areas, has perhaps dictated that artists, sensitive to the nuances of new ideas, abandoned images that are tied to a former ethos and ideology. In term of artistic depth and compreheniveness of expression it could be argued, however, that this has resulted in a deficit for Vietnamese art as many practitioners developed substantial skills, not to mention significant aesthetic and cultural statements, within the structures of a social realism genre…
By the late 1980, the Vietnamese prime minister, Vo Van Kiet decreed that there should be a more open door policy in the commercial and cultural life of the country. This allowed a new independence for artists, encouraged freedom to experiment, along with more open, and consequently increasing opprtunities, to exhibit and market their work. The result has been rapid expansion in the number of practicing artists, the range and scope of works produced, and steeply accelerating prices of both historical and recently produced Vietnamese art.
Experimentation over the past decade has resulted in a predominance of abstract or semi-abstract work appearing in the recently established galleries of each major city in Vietnam. However, figurative work has also been invigorated by acknowledgment and encouragement of the different sensibilities of individual artists. Do Quang Em is one of Vietnam most distinctive figurative painters. He combines a photo realist approach to rendering people and objects, with exaggerated light effects that heighten awareness of both the spacial context of the figure and the psychological drama unfolding in the scene. The deliberate artificialty, almost staged quality, of the linghting and the often averted gaze of his subject, implicates the viewer as voyeur. The intense psychological presence that Em constructs for his painted subjects is made palpable to the viewer through both the mystery and magic of his painstakingly acute technique.
Nguyen Thanh Binh continues the tradition established by master painter Bui Xuan Phai of chronicling urban and village architecture. Impressionistic visions have now been replaced by a more dominant conceptual structure that suggests the painting and it actual elements: the paint itself, the color, the texture, and shapes etc., are of equal status to the imaginary scene they depict. Although classified as a figurative artists, Binh in his work both describes the beauty of the scene and demonstrates the integrity of related structural elements inherent in painting…
The recent emergence of abstract art in Vietnam is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it can be seen as a clear indication of the country’s acceptance of contemporary international influences. Secondly, of even greater significance is the fact that the most intense artists have developed what could be described as a purely Vietnamese response to abstraction. The work of Ca Le Thang, a highly respected painter from Ho Chi Minh City who has long been active in the local professional arts association, is typical of this achievement. His evolution towards abstraction has been gradual with some oil paintings continuing to reflect elements of nature and landscape. His near obsession with surface and the ability of paint to create shapes on or within grounds produces works that hover between the abstract and the real, the imagined and the known. This dichotomy created by Ca Le Thang’s intense working of the surface parallels the depths of traditional Vietnamese experience released into an effervescent world of new and yet unimagined opportunities.
Describing the immaterial, making visible the invisible has often been the central challenge of artists. Nguyen Tan Cuong has guided the process of abstraction to explore a deeper relationship with physical world of objects. Chairs, windows, interiors with sculptures are barely recognizable in the emotionally charged atmosphere of Cuong’s paintings. The spirit of the object is seen to be at one with its surrounding and the viewer can easily be absorbed into this vision of a contrained yet seductive material world in which even the humblest of object is emotionally charged.
Complete freedom of expression is an invigorating yet daunting concept. Do Minh Tam, from Hanoi, is typical of many younger Vietnamese artists who have gone through a lengthy disciplined traditional training and now find themselves free falling into modernity. The painterly skills acquired by artists such as Tam are unleashed upon the myriad ideas available to them. As superbly executed, elegant, and experimental as this type of work is, it is not expressed through the most economical and poignant means. Rather, it appears as a means to an end which is not yet determined. This is not to suggest a lack of conviction, but rather a more subtle problem of unsure focus and purpose.
Although the overtly political social realist works of earlier decades are absent from contemporary Vietnamese art, work with a political dimension are still being produced. Dang Thi Khue’s paintings, for example, address issues of indigenous populations and the role of women in Vietnam today. Working as an artists and art historian in Hanoi her extensive knowledge has allowed her to remain comfortably within the figurative tradition whilst, at the same time, dealing with subject matter that is contentious. Her paintings forthrightly declare the presence of ethnic groups and their histories; the clarity of figures, colors, shapes, and patterns denying the viewer any change of escaping direct confrontation with the issues they provoke…
The work of this younger generation of artists challenging the traditional role of art producer in Vietnam. No longer is there the requirement for finally finished products that might be purchased by Vietnamese museums or collectors. Increasingly, an international audience supports and encourages painting within a style and of a scale not previously imagined… Although there are strongly pervading international influences, these are no greater than in most countries of the world. What is significant is that, consistent with the country’s long history, its best artists are able to distill ideas from near and far to use them to both confront and celebrate personal and public life in Vietnam today.