From Impressions and Expressions - Vietnamese Contemporary Painting

The origin of artistic visual expression in Vietnam, a hybrid like its Southeast Asian neighbours, can be traced back to its 2,500-year-old culture that started in the Neolithic Age and steadily developed until the end of the Iron Age when Chinese invaders entered from the north. By the second century BC, foreign influences started to infiltrate into the Dong Son civilization that is widely believed to have originated in Vietnam, and one of the lasting impacts was the introduction of Confucianism and the Chinese script.  

Culturally influenced by India, the Southeast Asian Hindu-Buddhist Kingdom of Champa, located in south central Vietnam, flourished from the second century AD until 1471, when its capital Vijaya, was conquered and its territories were finally annexed to Annam – the ancient name of Vietnam.

Thus, the cultural transpositions that occurred over the centuries resulted in architectural relics embellished with rich visual expressions translated through practices of divine worship into a cultural and artistic language that remained assured of itself. It became a presence that continues to impose itself through the Buddhist and Taoist traditions, even through times and different realities that were deaf to the voices of artistic expression. As is typical in most oriental cultures, aesthetics and cultural values take on a contextual meaning; they interact with each other and become a very literal reflection of life.

Connected to this cultural aesthetic is the transposition of Western utopianism that resulted from Vietnam’s colonial past. In the Franco-Chinese war of 1884-1885, France forced China to cede her sovereignty over the northern Vietnamese areas of Annam and Tonkin and declared the region a French protectorate. The Indochinese Union, ultimately formed in 1887, included Cambodia, and in 1893 Laos was added. However, it was the three Vietnamese parts Annam, Tonkin and Cochin-China that formed the economic and political backbone of French Indochina, with Saigon as its administrative capital until 1902 when it was moved to Hanoi.

Simultaneously, during this era, most of Southeast Asia -- apart from Thailand -- was under Western colonial rule. While the interests of the British in Malaya were purely economic and protected the rights of the Malay rulers, the French like the earlier Spanish colonialists in the Philippines, a nation under US control, sought to assert their dominance on a larger and more forceful spectrum. The influence of the Dutch, who ruled Indonesia for 350 years, was limited to the upper levels of society that adopted Western culture mainly through education. The French language was widely used in Indochina, and a new Western-style education system gradually began to erode the ancient Confucian system of competitive examination, which was eventually abandoned. The new introduced culture was strongly influenced by French and European values, and was felt in every sphere of life from customs to spiritual beliefs. This Europeanization was most noticeable in the fast-growing urban centres such as Hanoi, Saigon, Hue, Haiphong and Danang.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century during French Indochina’s golden age of political and economic hegemony, Western modern art activity started to surface. This was mostly evident in the architecture of the period – historic landmarks such as the Opera House in Hanoi still reflect the cultural identity of the period. At the same time, the European painting disciplines were also being introduced. For the French traveler-painters and government bureaucrats who documented their work through illustrations and paintings, the Vietnamese cultural landscape was rich in beauty of form, colour and light providing enormous variety and endless fascination.

At the same time, Vietnamese were being exposed to the European art traditions. Le Van Mien (1873-1943) was one of the first Vietnamese sent by the government of the protectorate to study painting in Paris. He painted in oils in the German classical style. His Commentary on a Literary Text is a genre painting in the Dutch fashion but the motifs used are indigenous to Vietnam. [1] By all scholarly accounts, this was an indication of the early steps toward a masterly synthesis of developments in Vietnamese contemporary painting. It was also during this period that French and European archeologists set out to study the history of Vietnam, most notably highlighted by their discovery of the Dong Son culture -- a culture richly embellished with art, the most notable being the famed bronze drums.

One of the most influential, early guideposts in Vietnamese contemporary art was the establishment of the École des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine in Hanoi by Victor Tardieu in 1925. Although the first art school had been established in Saigon in 1913, it would be overshadowed by the École des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine and the efforts of Victor Tardieu that were central to the identity of the art scene at the time.

The French artist Victor Tardieu (1867-1937) arrived in Indochina in 1920, having been commissioned by the French colonial administration to paint two large-scale murals for the University of Indochina and the Central Library, both located in Hanoi. After completing these murals, Tardieu settled in Hanoi. It is said that it was his fascination with the intrinsic beauty of the land as well as the aesthetics and skills of the local craftsmen that motivated him to lobby the French colonial administration to establish an art academy to train an elite colonial corps of artists. With Victor Tardieu as the Academy’s first president, its early curriculum was based on the European painting and sculpturing disciplines. Traditional Vietnamese art forms such as lacquer painting and silk painting, together with architecture, were added later.

For the conservative French administration, the prestige of establishing an art academy in Indochina not only anchored France’s position economically and culturally. More than producing “skilled artists,” the academy was also serving another purpose, providing exotic paintings for the colonial bourgeoisie as well as serving the interests of metropolitan France in Indochina. [2] However, in spite of the optimism surrounding Tardieu’s efforts, the conservative attitude of the French was characterized by considerable reserve in regard to the talents of the Vietnamese. It was due to his genuine passion for Vietnam, his appreciation of the traditional arts and his camaraderie with local artists, together with his ability to maintain a consistent dialogue with his more insular French colonial colleagues, that the academy was able to thrive.  

Just as significant for the newly established art community was the establishment of the Vietnam Revolutionary Youth League by Ho Chi Minh with the assistance of other exiled nationalists in Guangzhou, China, in 1925 – the same year as the École des Beaux Arts opened. The main goal of the movement was to liberate the stronghold of the colonial masters and establish independence from France. The movement and Ho Chi Minh’s efforts were strongly supported by Vietnamese intellectuals both in and outside of Vietnam. This rising nationalism served as a background for the start of a drive to reexamine traditional art while learning about modern Western art. It entailed a search by artists for identity as Vietnamese and efforts to find ways to use traditional Vietnamese silk painting and lacquer painting as idioms in modern art. [3]

The evolution of the new Vietnamese aesthetic owes itself largely to the enduring spirit of the native Vietnamese artists. Apart from the few who had benefited from firsthand exposure to the fine arts in Paris, the larger artistic community in Hanoi acquired mastery through developed academic skills that were committed to European values of beauty as defined by the instructors at the École des Beaux Arts. The result was that most of the very early artworks of this genre emphasized literal translations of the idyllic pastoral.

For Vietnamese artists active during the early twentieth century, the positive representation of their own rich traditional arts inspired sensitive treatments of the Vietnamese identity. The question of identity became paramount and allowed artists to reassess their own cultural values as well as the cultural shifts within Vietnamese society. And within this explosion of creativity, Vietnamese artists responded to both traditional academic art concepts and the cultural initiatives of their own craft heritage.

Artists started to blend formal European styles with Vietnamese sensibilities and experiences, giving rise to distinct forms of cultural expression and as a result redrawing the boundaries of fine art. In this manner, artists like Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984) were among the first to paint on silk using new techniques and styles that were alien to the traditional silk paintings, which traditionally had been purely decorative. Other renowned artists found a correlation between modern art styles and the traditional art of lacquer painting, creating works that moved beyond the styles and hues of traditional lacquer ware. The art of woodblock printing was also revived within this newly realized framework. And the merits of this new humanism, which was strongly influenced by the European impressionist and post-impressionist masters, were largely attributed to the pioneering spirit of Victor Tardieu.

Other progressive social movements, as practiced by the early twentieth century Vietnamese artists, supported these ideas concerning identity. These movements included several literary groups whose writings were positive contributions to the development of a uniquely Vietnamese cultural sensibility.

While this new milieu stressed new avenues for the Vietnamese, the French influence on the other hand was prominent, expounding itself emphatically at all levels of Vietnamese society. As a result, there was a tendency to create a distance between traditional customs and the willingness to adopt Western ideals.

Amidst all the reflections on a new cultural identity during the early decades of the twentieth century, the development of the arts would be overlapped by the efforts of Ho Chi Minh to seek a new socio-political order for Vietnam. The ravaging of the worldwide rift that resulted from the outcome of the Second World War opened for Ho Chi Minh new avenues of hope for liberating his nation. In 1941, Ho Chi Minh returned to Annam (North Vietnam) from his exile in China for the first time in thirty years and organized the League for the Independence of Vietnam or Viet Minh. Although Ho Chi Minh’s impact on Vietnam’s artist community would not truly manifest itself for a few years, the intense situation yielded passionate patriotism amongst many artists.

In 1945, the power balance in Vietnam took a dramatic turn. The Japanese, who had at that point of time entered the country through China, disarmed the French forces in Annam. The turbulent historic events that followed included Japan’s surrender, as a result of the Allies’ victory in the war, to Ho Chi Minh’s forces. This resulted in the Viet Minh announcing the formation of the provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), with Ho Chi Minh as president. He would continue to fight the French who reinvaded the country in 1946.

1945 was also the year that the École des Beaux Arts finally closed its doors.

The end of the Japanese occupation in Southeast Asia resulted in a simultaneous adoption of nationalism throughout the region. In the Dutch-controlled East Indies, the Republic of Indonesia declared independence and started a war against the Dutch forces. British-ruled Malaya, with the exception of Singapore, formed the Federation of Independent States in 1948 and started negotiations towards independence in 1957. The Philippines gained independence in 1948, although it continued to challenge the de facto American economic dominance. As a result of this shift in Southeast Asia’s political rhetoric, new cultural infrastructures were being established. These included the Art Association of the Philippines in 1948 and the Philippine Art Gallery in 1951, as well as the Nanyang Academy of Art in 1946 in Singapore.

After the 1945 revolution, many of the most talented and prominent artists left Hanoi and joined the resistance forces of the Viet Minh while others moved to the south and re-established themselves within the Saigon art community. In this new climate of a politically engaged art community, a new art college was established in 1946 in the jungle of Viet Bac north of Hanoi. To Ngoc Van (1906-1954), the first director, was himself a noted artist who once lectured at the École des Beaux-Arts. However, in his new role, in opposition to the sentimental pictures based on literary subjects, To Ngoc Van encouraged his students to observe life directly, in particular the ethnic minorities as well as the Viet Minh soldiers, and to render these subjects as simple, strong compositions. By adhering to this fundamental socialist philosophy, artists learned that their primary role was to serve the revolution. In effect, these artists were required to produce works shaped to a new identity defined by propaganda, thus sacrificing their own personal artistic identities and forms of expression along the way (see e.g. xx by Nguyen Thanh Minh). While numerous artists willingly embraced the ideals spelt out to them, the restriction on any form of expressionism drove other artists to break loose from the Viet Minh and flee south.

In 1955, the Vietnam College of Fine Arts opened in Hanoi at the original location that housed the earlier École des Beaux-Arts. This was followed by the formation of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association in 1957. While the new college became the beacon for art education in Vietnam, the role of the Arts Association was purely pragmatic. Under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, a major initiative was launched to link art to the political order so as to better connect with the masses. Although one of the primary objectives of the Arts Association was to promote equality amongst artists, differing views on the new direction of art resulted in opposing factions.

Often referred to as “The Four Pillars” – artists Nguyen Tu Nghiem (b. 1922), Bui Xuan Phai (1920 - 1988), Nguyen Sang (1923 - 1988), three students of the last course held at the École des Beaux-Arts together with Duong Bich Lien (1924 - 1988) were amongst the early artists who chose to look outward to the achievements and development of European art, while remaining close to their Vietnamese roots.  Their common experiences of suffering and their shared desire to evoke a sense of truth through their art, nurtured distinct artistic identities that continue to resonate today. The sufferings they endured were reflections of all Vietnamese at the time. Nguyen Tu Nghiem drew his inspiration from the traditional dinh and pagoda sculptures. The lyricism of Bui Xuan Phai’s expressionist spirit became most representative through his scenes of Hanoi’s streets. Duong Bich Lien continued to express himself in a classical tone. Nguyen Sang, nicknamed “The artist patriot” became known for his social-realist art. In this historical sense, through these four artists’ determination to distance themselves from “official art” and to continue their artistic practice with their personal views, the true spirit of Vietnamese art was kept alive.

Artists who did not align themselves with the decisions of the Arts Association were often isolated and not included in exhibitions and events that were solely organized by the Association. On the other hand, the Arts Association – an organization equated with party politics although never affiliated to the Communist Party -- gave artists who were deemed patriotic special considerations. Nevertheless, all members of the association were regarded as “art workers” and typically under the socialist system received a small wage – a policy that lasted until the early 1970s. Today, the Arts Association survives as a lasting record of Vietnam’s artistic legacy and with a current membership of more than seven hundred artists. It has developed a different outlook although it continues to support the efforts of artists in a very pragmatic fashion.

In 1963, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum opened under the Ministry of Culture. The core collection of works selected for acquisition documented the artistic activity as set out by the Arts Association. Most noteworthy in the history of the museum is its survival through the ravages of North Vietnam’s bloody war with America. The bombing of North Vietnam by the Americans in 1964 prompted an initiative by the museum’s management to duplicate all artworks and safely store the originals. Ironically, some of these duplicates still remain on display.

Vietnam was finally unified in 1975. The heavy-handed political emphasis of Vietnam’s dramatic history left art in a sadly staid and impoverished state. Until 1980, Classicism and Impressionism were the only outside art styles that made their way into Vietnamese painting. Because of the influences of social realism from the Soviet Union and China, abstract art styles and anything else that could not be literally translated were deemed subversive. While artists in the south had enjoyed greater freedom of expression, they lacked a scholarly foundation. [4]

[1] Nguyen Quan (1993): The Avenues of Painting in Vietnam - Tradition and Change. Contemporary Art of Asia and the Pacific.  Queensland Art Gallery, Australia.

[2] Nora A. Taylor (2004): Painters in Hanoi – An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art.  University of Hawaii Press,USA

[3] Toshiko Rawanchaikul (1997): Creation of a Tradition - The Birth of Modern Art in Southeast Asia: Artists and Movements - Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan.

[4] Luong Xuan Doan and Phan Cam Thuong (1996): Young Artists of Vietnam.  Fine Arts Publishing House, Vietnam.

Shireen Naziree

Art Historian and Independent Curator, Malaysia