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The Complex Tale of Vietnamese Modernism

Le Thi Kim Bach, "The Painter Nguyen Gia Tri", Lacquer on wood, 2002
Le Thi Kim Bach, “The Painter Nguyen Gia Tri” (2002), lacquer on wood (courtesy Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum)

Vietnamese contemporary art has received a fair amount of press recently and that’s a good thing. However, most Vietnamese artists who are reviewed either studied abroad or have had the opportunity to travel abroad, or grew up outside of Vietnam before returning home. Vietnam itself has a very clear, complex, and fractious history of modern art involving indigenous forms like lacquer and silk art, as well as influences from French colonialism, American imperialism, Marxist-inspired propaganda art from both China and Russia, and, now, post-colonial globalism.

It Began With 1,000 Cuts

The Martydom of Joseph Marchand, artist unknown, Marchand. Photo Wikipedia Commons, photo from a painting at Missions Etrangeres De Paris (MEP) 1860
“The Martydom of Joseph Marchand,” artist unknown, Missions Estrangeres de Paris (MEP) (1860) (courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

Vietnam was under Chinese domination for roughly 1,000 years. Though Marco Polo did visit, it was mostly Portuguese and French missionaries who had access until Emperor Minh Mang decided Catholicism conflicted with prevalent Confucian social order, and banned missionaries. In 1835, the French Catholic priest Joseph Marchand revolted against that ban and was tortured alive for his efforts with 1,000 cuts (Chinese torture). His treatment did not fare well back in France, and the French retaliated by invading Vietnam in 1858, colonizing the entire country by 1862.

Not every Frenchman was interested in total domination, especially Sorbonne graduate Henry Oger who was so entranced by traditional Vietnamese woodblock prints that he compiled an encyclopedia of 4,577 early 20th-century prints from around the Hanoi area, including the famous print production village of Dong Ho. Just like their modern propaganda counterparts, these simple prints critiqued injustice, though woodblock printmaking declined after the introduction of the printing press.

"Social Justice", Contemporary print from Dang Ho Village, Vietnam
“Social Justice,” contemporary print from Dang Ho Village, Vietnam (courtesy Dan Ho Village)

From French to Vietnamese Modernism 

In 1913, L’Ecole de Dessin was founded in Saigon with an enrollment of 15 students, training Vietnamese craftsmen in drawing, etching, lithography, and decoration that helped staff the ranks of emerging press, including popular and journalistic endeavors. In 1920, French artist Victor Tardieu, who had studied along with Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault at the L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, won the Indochina Prize enabling him to travel to Vietnam in 1921. There, he met Nam Son (Nguyean Vaen Thoi), an accomplished ink painter. Tardieu encouraged Nam Son to study art at the l’Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de Paris from 1924 to 1925, where Nam Son was exposed to works by Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Nam Son then returned to Vietnam to found the L’Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine or FACI (Fine Arts College of Indochina) in 1925, thus launching, along with Tardieu, Vietnamese Modernism.

Nam Son's museum card, courtesy Sophiesarttour.com
Nam Son’s museum card (courtesy Sophiesarttour.com)

Tardieu, who stayed in Vietnam until he died in 1937, encouraged his students to paint people, landscapes, and ancient temples. Drawing classes used plaster busts of classical Greek and Roman statues, a practice still part of the art curriculum today. The idea of linear perspective was introduced, and oil painting became the standard medium. Faculty from the School of Medicine taught anatomy, and scholars were brought in to teach theory. At this point a new word entered the Vietnamese language: “artistic painter,” as opposed to a traditional craft painter. Artisans and storytellers who had been trained in the Confucian system of copying from a master were now free to express individual feeling. For the first time, artists signed their names on their works, denoting individual authenticity.

To Ngoc Van, "A Girl by Lilies", 1943, courtesy  Asiaart.net
To Ngoc Van, “A Girl by Lilies” (1943) (courtesy Asia-art.net)

Modern art implied a new liberalization, and Impressionism, imported from France, remained the main style. The first painting to scandalize society was To Ngoc Van’s “Young Woman by Lilies” (1943). Though it used a Neo-Classical rule of composition by thirds, the close cropping of the subject’s body with its emphasis on what was then considered a ‘come hither’ pose with open, sultry lilies in bloom, as well as its use of strong colors was highly unconventional.

Nam Son would also invite Joseph Inguimbety, the head of FACI’s painting department, to paint at the Temple of Literature. There, Inguimbety was deeply moved when he saw the ancient lacquered temple wooden alter boards. Lacquer, used in Vietnam as early as the 3rd century BC, consists of 20 to 30 layers of built-up resinous sap from the Sumac tree that can be colored with natural products like sulfurous yellow stones or beetle nuts. In 1928, Inguimberty and master craftsman Dinh Van Thanh incorporated lacquer painting into the fine arts curriculum, a practice that still continues, making Vietnam the only country in the world to use lacquer not just as a craft, but as an art form. Tardieu also incorporated Chinese silk painting and Japanese woodcuts, helping to train Nguyen Phan Chanh in silk painting and influencing artist Tran Van Can to create the woodcut “Hair Washing” (1943), another scandalous work, as portraiture was a form reserved for the Emperor, not wanton looking women.

The End of French Colonialism

Tran Van Can, "Hair Washing" 1943, courtesy Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum
Tran Van Can, “Hair Washing” (1943) (courtesy Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum)

In 1940, the Nazis invaded France and installed the Vichy government, which allied with the Japanese, who by 1941 had seized complete control of ‘French Indochine.’ In 1945, the Japanese wrested control of Vietnam entirely away from the French, and FACI was shut down. When the Japanese surrendered to America, ending World War II, the communist leader Ho Chi Minh slipped into the power vacuum. On September 2, 1945, he declared independence, citing the American Declaration of Independence and the right to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” This was the end of the colonial period, and the beginning of the nationalistic war of resistance under the Vietnamese Communists. The French retaliated by starting the first Indochina War in 1946, and Ho Chi Minh’s government evacuated to the North living in a series of caves for eight years. This marked the beginning of Communist-inspired Vietnamese propaganda art.

Diep Minh Chau "Uncle Ho Goes Fishing In Viet Bac" (excerpt), 1951, Courtesy Ho Chi Minh National Fine Arts Museum
Diep Minh Chau “Uncle Ho Goes Fishing In Viet Bac,” detail (1951) (courtesy Ho Chi Minh National Fine Arts Museum)
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