The way we learn about things is often through their representation, and luckily for Vietnam there’s a lot of that to go around. In the museums and souvenir shops there are many ties to Vietnam’s history, natural resources and future shape — here we look into how they’re assimilated into the images we see every day, and the stories they keep telling us.
The ancient civilisations of the Red River Valley, in the clay-rich north of Vietnam, learnt from China how to fire pottery. Khmer and Champa ceramics also influenced Vietnamese craftspeople. After the Chinese domination of Vietnam ended during the Ly and Tran dynasties, Vietnam began creating the most sophisticated ceramics in Southeast Asia. In the 14th century, Japanese tea masters treasured their Vietnamese imports. European merchants traded vases from Bat Trang, a pottery village near Hanoi.
But history praises and then dismisses. By the early 20th century this was all forgotten and Vietnamese ceramics were written off as provincial. In 1997, when hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese ceramics dating back 500 years were found in a shipwreck off Hoi An, history paid attention again. The find added to the world’s knowledge of ceramic art, showing distinctive patterns that combine dragons and flowers, a duo not seen in Chinese pieces.
And more recently, international art collections are buying some of the ceramic pieces created with tradition and wit by contemporary artist Bui Cong Khanh. Ceramics are keeping the locals enthralled too, like that constructed on Truong Sa island. From 2012, Truong Sa boasts a national record: the largest ceramic mosaic, a giant Vietnamese flag. Designed by artist Nguyen Thu Thuy, the 310,000-piece mosaic weighs 3.5 tonnes. At 25 metres in length, it is so big it can be seen on satellite images.
2) Dong Ho Woodcuts
Folk art has long been celebrated as a testament that the masses, not the ruling elite, are the makers of national culture. Historian Tran Quoc Vuong claims that “all the characteristics and superiority of Vietnamese culture are crystalised in the culture of villages”. Clans around Dong Ho in northern Vietnam made the village famous centuries ago for their woodcuts, handmade precursors to photocopies.
An artisan carves lines onto a flat block of wood, covers them with ink and prints onto paper. Rustic pictures of proverbs, ritual ceremonies or daily scenes are displayed on walls. Some images symbolise good fortune or guard the house, other prints allude to social injustice. Smaller, joss-paper pictures of houses or vehicles are burnt as offerings.
3) Indochina Fine Arts School
Art, you might think, offers some solace when your country is experiencing a traumatic confrontation with an invading culture. In colonial times, artist To Ngoc Van — one of the ‘Four Masters’ of Vietnamese painting — wasn’t merely consoled by art. He saw art as an active instrument of change. Art, he felt, was a journey into new ways of understanding.
His colleague Nguyen Gia Tri, like many of the poets and writers in Vietnam of the 1930s, wanted to “wash the eyes of the public, to enable them to see in brighter, clearer, newer ways”. This art enabled new ideas to be integrated with the old ones, and to extract the best of both worlds.
The Indochina Fine Arts School, inaugurated in 1925, married French liberalism and Vietnamese traditionalism and gave birth to Vietnamese modern art. The two French founders, Victor Tardieu and Joseph Inguimberty, strongly encouraged their art students to preserve their heritage by adapting local traditions. The original school operated for only 20 years, but with irrevocable influence. For some time, this influence was a bone of contention, due to resentment towards the French occupation. Now the institution — recently renamed the Vietnam Academy of Fine Arts — is accepted as the catalyst of the nation’s modern art, and the school’s graduates are highly revered artists who have helped put Vietnamese art on the international map.
Laksa, a Sanskrit term meaning ‘100,000’, is where the word ‘lacquer’ derives from. Gum lacquer is a sticky substance secreted by insects. Obviously you’d need 100,000 or more to get any useful quantity of the gum. But in Vietnam the lacquer is plant-based, secreted by one of several varieties of native trees, usually the cay son (wax tree). The genuine product is a treacle-thick sap used to make wood waterproof. The urban myth is that the ubiquitous shiny vases and decorative paintings sold in every tourist shop across the country are ‘lacquer’. They are in fact made with polyurethane resin, a toxic chemical compound that should not be used to serve food in.
Since Asian prehistory, lacquer has been a resistant and decorative way to preserve wooden objects. Temples and palaces gleamed with the luster of lacquer, encrusted with mother of pearl or gold leaf patterns, captivating intrepid traders from the west. In the 1600s, ‘Chinese varnish’ became so popular with European high society that a fake lacquer was invented in Italy.
While Japan and China argued over who developed the finest lacquerware, Vietnam turned lacquer into a fine art. After seeing the rich, glossy colours of the lacquered altar of the Temple of Literature, an art teacher at the Indochina Fine Arts School suggested to his students that they should try to paint with lacquer. They did. Traditional lacquerware technique met modern art, and history was made.
Less than a century later, Vietnamese art is more famous for its lacquer paintings than anything else, and Nguyen Gia Tri is its most respected lacquer painter.
5) Silk Painting
The fragility of fine silk probably means that a considerable amount of silk paintings have been lost since the technique was adopted from China around the 3rd century. Vietnamese silk painting had its heyday in the 1920s, when misty, soft images were created by Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892 to 1984) — ironically, because he was struggling at mastering oil paint. After he exhibited his lyrical silk art in Paris in 1931, his career took off and he became a sensation from Milan to Tokyo. As the master of Vietnamese silk painting, his success continues. Earlier this year one of his works fetched a record VND8.3 billion at a Hong Kong art auction.
The delicate art of silk painting is currently being reinvigorated by contemporary Vietnamese artists Le Hoang Bich Phuong and Bui Tien Tuan, among others.
Le Hoang Bich Phuong’s latest exhibition, Paeonia Dream, is being shown at Phuong My’s flagship store in Ho Chi Minh City (81 Le Thanh Ton, Q1) until Oct. 5
6) Soldier Artists
In 1950 a new art school was set up in Viet Bac — the ‘Resistance Zone’ — to train artists who could produce easy-to-understand visual messages to unite the people into rising up against colonial rule. Artists were seen as the soldiers of the cultural battlefield. Some of them engaged in combat as well, recording the revolution’s progress from the frontlines.
The Viet Bac art school was spearheaded by To Ngoc Van, an artist whose education at the Indochina Fine Arts School had made him see art as an instrument of change. He died before the 1954 victory at Dien Bien Phu. The ‘Resistance Class’ operated for five years, flourishing due to its isolation from the outside world and the fervour of its mission.
7) Propaganda Art
National art workers were recruited in 1957 to make ‘real art’. Aimed at providing motivation, their propaganda posters were bright, original and direct. Images of brave, defiant and hard-working people were painted with tempera on paper, and sometimes copied by amateurs who disseminated them on walls and bridges countrywide. The ‘scientific, national and popular’ style that could ‘portray the truth’ was officially defined as Socialist Realism at its debut at the International Fine Arts Exhibition of 1958.
At present there are fewer than 10 full-time propaganda artists left in Vietnam. One still active is Luong Anh Dung, who says he loves the job he has been doing for 30 years, because it has the power to help people understand government policies. In post-1985 Vietnam, his images show not only the soldiers and farmers that inspired previous generations; now we see computer programmers and office workers as symbols of development and economic growth.
But these digitally printed images, sadly, have lost the charm that made the original hand-painted propaganda posters into collectors’ items.
8) Abstract Art
Vietnamese paintings of the 1930s frequently show 19th century European techniques. But flashes of Picasso’s influence made it into some works inclined towards new ways of expressing reality. Ta Ty (1922 to 2004) had been a revolutionary artist, but has become better known for experimenting with non-representational art. By chance, he was able to see a French magazine with pictures of European avant-garde art. Curious, he tried it for himself.
In Hanoi, a 1951 solo exhibition of Ta Ty’s cubist paintings caused some controversy — many fiercely opposed the new painting styles. Despite the critique, Ta Ty kept investigating the potential of these ideas, and by the 1960s he was making abstract art.
Few other Vietnamese artists have become abstract painters, perhaps disappointed that abstract art was banned from national exhibitions until 1990. This is a common trend the world over — abstract art has been accused of wrongdoing by detractors who like to know what they are looking at.
Aside from the artist’s estate, some of the few remaining works by Ta Ty in Vietnam can be found at Tu Do Gallery (53 Ho Tung Mau, Q1, HCMC)
9) Dinh Q. Le
“Culture is a basic need,” declares the cover of the Prince Claus Fund brochure. In 2010, the Dutch foundation awarded a generous prize to artist Dinh Q. Le, for “exploring different constructions of reality, providing inspiration and practical opportunities for young artists and for advancing free thought and contemporary visual expression”. Le’s artworks have challenged dominant US perceptions of the American War, by showing the damage done to Vietnam.
As a child, this artist from Ha Tien learned from his aunt how to weave grass mats. As a university student in the US, he used the same weaving technique with large photographs, some of which are part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Le was the first Vietnamese artist to have a solo show in that seminal institution. He is also co-founder of the Vietnam Foundation for the Arts in the US, and San Art (3 Me Linh, Binh Thanh) in Ho Chi Minh City.
10) Art Residencies in Vietnam
Artist-in-residence programmes are cultural exchange initiatives. A number of institutions all over the world fund artist residencies, giving artists anything from a small room to large grants for art materials. They give creative practitioners the opportunities to work with other people, develop new art projects and share their ideas within a new community. Vietnamese artists have been invited over the years to work in other countries, from Japan to Germany, for a few weeks or months at a time.
But since May 2012, a residency programme has existed in Vietnam: San Art Laboratory in Ho Chi Minh City. Focusing on the talent in the home territories (as yet, the programme does not fund international artists), it provides studio space, a stipend and a whole lot of expert artistic support to young Vietnamese artists. Six artists from different parts of Vietnam have benefited so far, and two more are currently starting their residency. The public gets access to open studios, artist talks and exhibitions, and the artists get everything they need to concentrate on their art for some months. But the big winner in all this? Art, which these residencies help to grow in vibrant and unexpected ways.