When Ho Chi Minh, the father of current-day Vietnam retreated north to regroup during the French Indochina war of 1946, he was accompanied by a number of artists. The Communist resistance movement spawned a new type of aesthetic based on national identity pitted against imperialism and colonialism. China, the first to support Ho Chi Minh’s struggle, sent propaganda officers to whip exiled, French-influenced bourgeoisie artists into shape through bouts of rigorous, ideological self-criticism. Trường Chinh, Ho Chi Minh’s right-hand man and the General Secretary of the Party, read a paper at the National Cultural Conference in 1948 advocating Socialist Realism as the prevailing style against western modernism, meaning Impressionism, Surrealism, Cubism, and Dadaism. Artists who could not tolerate this approach decamped back to the south.
France lost the war in 1954, and at the International Geneva Conference Vietnam was split in half. The north was awarded to the Communist-backed government of Ho Chi Minh, and the south came under Emperor Bao Dai, and later his prime minster and successive waves of dubious politicians. FACI, the first art school of Vietnam that opened in 1925 and closed in 1945, was re-established as the Fine Arts College of Vietnam directly under the Ministry of Culture and Information. The college’s expansion was yoked to the Soviet Union under the doctrine of Marxist-Leninism. North Vietnamese artists were sent to study Soviet Social Realist art, and Soviet teachers were imported to teach at the school.
In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson sent US troops to staunch the growing “Communist menace” looming from North Vietnam. Artists were recruited to accompany Viet Cong combat troops and wage their war of resistance. Poster propaganda art became the prevalent North Vietnamese style, and artists were sent to live with peasants and workers and portray them in a favorable light. Artists also accompanied guerrilla soldiers into the field, and carried their own weapons, dried food, as well as spent bombshell casings that they used to protect their rolled-up artworks against the extreme, dangerous conditions. Paper and supplies were scarce. Ink might be mixed from gun grease and burnt pot scrapings. Some drew and wrote on the back of betel leaves. When paintbrushes ran out, pineapple roots were substituted. The color orange was mixed from turmeric or rust, yellow was extracted from malaria medicine, and red from local rocks. Sketches had to be created on the fly beneath a sky discharging B52 bombs. The war, for the most part, was kept out of Saigon where French and even a smattering of American artistic influences prevailed until 1967, when riots broke out against the Americans.
The Vietnamese war ended on April 30, 1975, and the North Vietnamese Communist Party took control of the country. Thousands of South Vietnamese fled by boat. This spurred a new set of pressures on artists who stayed behind. Many destroyed their works in order to escape political retributions. By May, cultural workers were gathered into groups according to their specialties: literature, music, or performing and visual arts. Southern artists underwent two months of mandatory ideological re-education on Marxism and culture for eight hours a day. Well-heeled southern artists were stunned by gun-toting comrades orating on ideology for hours on end. The artists were ordered to paint ports, agriculture, and industry by extolling the glory of the worker.
Art students at the National College of Fine Arts of Saigon became part of the Military Reserve Forces. Most of the school’s teachers were sent to reeducation camps. When they were released, they found reintegration back into society difficult. Nude statues were declared offensive, and destroyed. Another casualty of ideological dictates was art books, deemed “bourgeois,” leaving artists with little access to innovative developments.
Trường Chinh became President of Vietnam from 1981 to 1987, haranguing artists to toe the party line. Still, the impressionistic and romantic French influence of the southern artists and the more realistic depictions of the northern artists did lead to an exchange of styles and techniques, even if in subtle ways.
Meanwhile, Vietnam implemented misguided policies that led the country from being a rice producer to a rice importer. In 1986 Doi Moi, or economic and artistic reform, was introduced to counteract severe economic decline. By the early 1990s the Soviet Union, which was Vietnam’s chief benefactor, collapsed, and the international art world, long kept at bay, came pouring in.
This is the second installment of a series of articles on Vietnamese art. You can read the first here.