A brief history of Art in Vietnam

Beautiful art had been produced in Vietnam for centuries. It was created in sculptures of many media, woodblocks, ceramics, lacquer works, embroidered art, silk paintings, ink on rice paper, etc. It was stamped, inside and out, on every pagoda, temple and palace from one end of the country to the other. It was distinctly oriental based upon the art forms of the Chinese and Japanese, local in nature, but not uniquely Vietnamese, and not universally known.

That changed in 1925 during the period of French colonialism, when the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (Indochina Fine Arts College) was founded in Hanoi by French artist Victor Tardieu and his colleague, Joseph Igiumberty. They recognized the inherent talent of many Vietnamese artists, and opened the door for them to learn and develop techniques of the Western school of art to combine with their own traditional oriental style. This fusion thrust Vietnamese art and its artists into prominence both at home and abroad. While the school existed only until 1945, the artists it trained are considered the foundation artists of the modern school of art in Vietnam.

Just as the paintings of the French Impressionists were initially scoffed at by the official Salon de Paris, so too were the modern paintings produced in Hanoi, considered the cultural center of Vietnam. The new art was not greeted at its first exhibition in 1928 with great enthusiasm, as the preference of the public and the press leaned heavily toward art that continued to appear in the tradition and style of the notable Chinese and Japanese artists of the day. The works of foundation artists Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Nguyen Pham Chan and Le Van De were considered rough-textured, muddy-colored and lascivious. It was a departure from what the sophisticated Vietnamese art public considered quality.

In 1931 a colonial fair was held in France and the French public became aware of Vietnamese painting, and especially of the paintings on silk by Nguyen Phan Chanh. It was neither European nor Chinese, but an ethereal blend of both. The Vietnamese had been painting on silk for centuries with notable examples tracing back to the XVth Century, but the work did not depart in style from Chinese silk painting until the 1920s. With the work and foreign exhibitions of Nguyen Phan Chanh and others, the genre of silk painting found its own place in the modern art world. Meanwhile, the École continued to flourish until 1945 and its initial students went on not only to become highly recognized artists in their own right, but the teachers of new techniques to a new generation of artists.

The Vietnamese people were very proud and nationalistic. In 1954 the country’s communist leaders threw out the French colonists, as later they would force the United States military to leave their soil. Art of every form was used as a tool of propaganda and the artists were held back from the freer, bolder adventure that had begun in the late 1920s. In 1986 “doi moi,” or renovation occurred as a result of more liberal reforms that were put into place by Vietnamese party leader, Nguyen Van Linh. It was only then that artists felt comfortable going back to the more stylistic diversity in art which had earlier set them apart.


1. Piero Scaruffi, “A timeline of Indochina.” 1999

2. R. Randy Day, “Indochina,” New World Outlook, May — June 200l

3. Quang Phong, Quang Viet, and H.C., “Vietnamese Modern Paintings — The Pioneers,” Viet Nam Cultural Window, No. 29, August 2001

4. To Ngoc Van, “Role of Artists during Resistance Wars,” and “The First Step of Vietnamese Modern Painting,” from the book Painters of the Fine Art College of Indochina

5. Hon Que Houng, “Soul of the Homeland Through Artist Nguyen Thi Tam’s Silk Paintings,” 2004

Copyright © 2006 DONSA Asian Art. All Rights Reserved.

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