Establishing the value of Vietnamese painting

Nhan Dan – There is still argument over the starting date of the modern period of Vietnamese painting. Is it marked by the establishment of the Indochina Fine Arts College in 1924 or does it fall between 1920 and 1923 when the first painting stamped with the signature of Nam Son was found? No matter which answer one chooses, the time has gone down in the history of Vietnamese painting for the appearance of many talented painters who nurtured and established value for Vietnamese paintings.
Among them is Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984), whose silk paintings have recently been listed as outstanding artworks by Christie’s, the world’s leading fine arts auction house. Despite his French training in drawing techniques, Chanh sought ways to illustrate the soul of the Vietnamese people through the profound and charming palette of silk paintings. In his paintings, rural Vietnamese people in that times are not merely ordinary individuals. They represent the stature of a nation with their modest, plain, friendly and sentimental features.

Chanh entered the Indochina Fine Arts College when he was over 30 years old. While his western-educated schoolmates plunged into noisy and gaudy urban areas, he explored the outskirts of Hanoi, which inspired him to produce the famous painting ‘Choi O An Quan’ (Children Playing Games).

Resolutely refusing to use his brushes to serve the intentions of French colonialists, he left Hanoi for a rural area where he lived as a teacher and pursued his interest in drawing ordinary people in silk paintings. His drawings were not selected to join the French authority’s fair in 1937-1938 and so he opened two individual exhibitions featuring silk paintings that told stories about unassuming people. This reveals a lot about the artist’s aura. His enduring attachment to silk paintings and the theme of rural Vietnamese people, particularly women, illustrates a deep and consistent love of his country.

Another important name of the period is Nguyen Gia Tri (1908-1993), who distinguished himself with glorious and warm lacquer paintings featuring Vietnam’s natural landscape and people. He is unique for his exclusive use of the captivating beauty of lacquer throughout his career. There may be an extraordinary bond linking him with the genre, as he once admitted, “I have worked with lacquer since it was found; thus, naturally, I have lived with it like a fish living in water”, in ‘Painter Nguyen Gia Tri Talking about Creativity’ by Nguyen Xuan Viet, a Literature Publishing House edition published in 1998.

It is likely that the more he worked with lacquer, the more he was aware of its ‘power’, which had previously been used only to produce fine arts products. In his works, the popular colours of yellow, red, eggshell and green are featured in an array of polished shades.
He did not abandon lacquer when he adopted the abstract style, his predominant style past the age of 50. He found freedom in the fantastic world of lacquer and a non-figurative painting language.

Nguyen Phan Chanh and Nguyen Gia Tri brought a breath of fresh air to Vietnamese painting through novel applications of traditional materials. The beauty of the country met the artists’ patriotism, soul and talent, contributing to their success.

The same formula has also been successfully adapted by other great names in Vietnamese painting such as Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Nguyen Sang, Bui Xuan Phai and Duong Bich Lien. The artists listened to the harmony between their souls and the country and then used painting as a tool to fully capture the concept.

Since the 1990s, the country has become deeply integrated into the world community, and the world seems to be flatter and more cramped. People are equal, but also more competitive at the same time. In this context, Vietnamese painting blossoms as a colourful garden. Many painters have created new formulas of success for themselves. Unfortunately, the success is seen to a certain extent as a product of commercialization instead of an outcome of pure art. The artists seem to prefer pleasing viewers’ taste to simply listening to the voice inside them as their predecessors did. Consequently, the traditional materials, including lacquer and silk, seem to have fallen off in popularity.

The blood ties binding the artists to their motherland have brought fame to many painters and granted exceptional vitality to their works. Once these ties are severed in the artists’ souls, the artistic value of their works will cease to command an enduring position in the minds of viewers and the history of painting in Vietnam.