The Life of Artists in Vietnam

From “Young Artist of Vietnam”, 1996 By The Hanoi Fine Arts Publishing House

Over a period of 30 years of peace from 1954 until 1984 – painting was a luxury. The concept, artists, was difficult to reconcile within the working-class professions. Still, graduates from Fine Art schools could find employment with some of the cultural bureaus in the provinces – if they were not at too high expectation. They received the same standard salary as any other official with a high school or university degree. Monthly rations included food, allowances for material (for clothing) and accommodation, though very basic.

The work performed by artists was simply as teaching elementary art classes in school, producing drawing or decorating government offices. Since offices generally did not require a lot of artistic work, they saw no need in employing an artist on a full time basis. However, the number of artists inVietnamat that time was so small that the painting profession was a respectable one.

The work is performed independently by artists, however, on the occasion of national art exhibitions, the cultural offices would materially support the participating artists in order to influence their creativity, directing them towards themes like the revolutionary struggle or the productive labor force. The organizing committee also gave priority to paintings with such themes. As a result, two different kinds of art emerged. Quite often one artist would practise both kinds at the same time. The first kind was art works to be made for national exhibitions or to please the committee. If lucky, one could win a prize or sell a painting to the national art museum. The order was to paint for one’s own pleasure. Both painting and making sculptures required a lot of expensive materials. While artists, with their small salary, had to travel around the country or do research of cultural and historical vestiges. As a result most artists were very poor. No artist even the most renowned ones or the teachers at the arts academy, had his own atelier. If one could get hold of some painting material it was to be shared among a number of friends. Vietnamese artists, thus, became generalists in the sense that depending on whatever material was available at the time they painted in oil, on silk, used lacquer, water colors or made wood prints – without being able to specialize in any style or technique. Everything was available, yet not all the time and in too small quantities.

There was a time lacquer painting lost their radiance for the lack of materials to protect them from being cracked or lack of silver and gold layers underneath the surface. Oil paintings ruined very quickly due to the climate and a lack of high quality colors. The arts academy had to concoct their own material by mixing local using line oil with water colors then squeezed it into an empty tooth paste tubes. There was very little painting material. And sometimes students had to trade their share for food. The economic difficulties made influence on many spheres of society. The artistic community fell apart. Some devoted themselves completely to their creative endeavors; others looked towards different ways to make a better living, mostly abandoning their artistic profession all together. Quite a number of mediocre painters entered into an official career. This had become a disaster for the development of Vietnamese painting in general when talents are ignored and at the same time state funds were allocated to the wrong places. In the 1980s there were a lot of conflicts happened in between artists which in fact created from the competition for distribution of fund. Many young artists could not get their work exhibited. When the committee for young artists was founded, three exhibitions; the first one in 1981, then 1985 and 1988; were organized, bringing to light new contradictions among the young artists themselves. The committee failed to satisfy everyone’s expectations or to accommodate everyone’s need.

Artists unlike writer, only cares about things around them where they could get inspiration to work crazily for an art work, then finally find the way to sell it. Study art at school is aside, most of artists have to continue studying on their own. Young Vietnamese artists tend to concentrate on essentialist or spiritual theories. Besides materialism, they also study on Kant and Freud especially Buddhist texts and the ” Book of Changes” which is an important Confucian work in Eastern philosophy. However the study could be said as haphazard and unstructured. Given this situation, quite often an artists work is influenced by the one publication on art he happens to own. There are also tendencies to return to folklore since is the only direct cultural source.

The lack of information and the village-like life-style have, in many respects, brought artists to a quite close knit group. A number of revered old teachers receive a constant stream of young visitors to their homes. Sincere art artists are admired. Artists with similar interests or from former class or former workmates get together to form artist groups. Through this relationship, the artists complement and learn from each other, even console each other after harsh criticism. Many daughters of old artists gradually develop an interest in the younger ones who visit their fathers and who might be famous one day, too. Many get married in this way among the local community of artists and the network of family relations among them becomes larger everyday.Vietnamis unique in this respect since all the artists throughout the country known each other as if they were living together in one village.

Every Vietnamese artist has experienced living in the countryside for a period of life. They have been taught about traditional art of the cultural vestiges like the village community house, temple and pagoda from the first lessons, which will stay with them for the years to come. However, this is almost contrary to what they will be taught on art in college or the arts academy. In school, the most dominant teaching methods, based on the Renaissance and Classic period, are long outdated. Moreover, teaching material is chronically in short supply. In all the art colleges sketching nudes is taboo. Inheriting from a richfull treasure of art from our ancients, the artists were still starving from lack of knowledge. Western life styles with the modern art that accompanies them floods into the schools seducing the students and made influence on them. Students just consume all the different styles and tendencies in the art without context or theoretical background. Vietnamese are generally very strong on “emotions“; one could specify further dash love, sympathy, sex, passion, and emotional bonds. These factors are the inner life of Vietnamese paintings, although on the outside they may have a borrowed form.

In the 1990, before and after the passing of the policy Doi Moi (renovation), an art market emerged. The price of one painting could be sold equal or even two or three times as much as the monthly salary. Artists began to neglect their official jobs, devoting themselves entirely to painting. Up until 1994 numerous artists have asked to leave their jobs at State offices, and now live entirely for their free creative work or any art related job on the free market. Many students no longer look for employment after graduation, some establish their own design studios, others open galleries or workshops specializing in painting on silk for ao dai, (the traditional dress still worn by schoolgirls today). Even students from the provinces come to the city to make a living.

The fine arts inVietnamhas developed to a point where it is difficult to characterize as one distinct activity. In 1991 the Ministry of Finance allocated a State funds of VN dong 50 million to the Vietnam Fine Arts Association (about US$5.000), 205 million in 1992 (about US$20.000), 287 million and 153 thousand in 1992 (about US$15.000) and 221 million and 4 hundred thousand in 1994 (about US22.000). At the same time, an average gallery invests around US$30.000 every year in their activities. All famous artists that is, those who sell many paintings, are very well off. They have motor-bikes, own property, paint in ateliers, play tennis, collect antiques, go traveling, generally enjoying a good time… and even buy paintings of each other. Since art has not yet been acknowledged as a way of making business, there is no tax control on them. The museums continue collecting mediocre paintings and sculptures. While all the best works still wait to be officially recognized, they are continued to be sold abroad.

The individual relationships of artists with galleries and foreign art organizations are much more extensive than those with the Fine Arts Association. In 10 years (1980-1990), artists in this country have gone from yearning for state subsidies in order to complete only one painting to entirely spending their own money for painting, exhibiting, selling and promoting their work. The professional association of artists plays no more roles in their creative work. Painting has become the most positive activity in the arts in general by taking full advantage of the new opportunities under the renovation policy (Doi Moi) of the State. Artists have generated their own capital without depending on the state budget at all. The art market has good relation with foreign customers, while attracting hard currency to the country. Last but not least, the arts have made a strong contribution towards augmenting people’s knowledge after and beyond the war.

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