Vietnamese Modern Paintings – The Pioneers

By Quang Phong, Quang Viet and H.C.

Vietnamismoving forward. The Vietnamese are not only looking ahead to their future, however, but also making an effort to sort out their past. Recently they have come to terms with the origin of their modern art. For many years, this has been a sensitive topic as Vietnamese modern art began as a joint product of French liberalism and Vietnamese traditionalism during a period of brutal French colonialism and strong Vietnamese patriotism.

Before doi moi (renovation) began in 1986, the origin of Vietnamese modern art was little discussed in Vietnam because such a discussion would necessarily touch upon the role of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (Indochina Fine Arts College) founded by the liberal- minded French artist Victor Tardieu. During its 20 years of operation (1925-1945), the Ecole trained more than 100 Vietnamese painters, sculptors and architects who formed the core group of pioneers in Vietnamese modem art. Even though the Vietnamese pioneers were primarily inspired and driven in their artistic creation by Vietnamese tradition, the Ecole was thought to be too closely associated with French colonialism to deserve mention.

Recent events, however, have pointed to a conscious effort to put things in balance, recognizing both the catalyst role of the Ecole and the crucial contribution of the Vietnamese pioneer artists in the development of Vietnamese modern art. In 1996, the Government awarded the Ho Chi Minh Prize, the most prestigious recognition inVietnam, to seven Vietnamese artists, all of whom graduated from the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine. On9 May 2000, the Hanoi College of Fine Arts and other local art institutions sponsored a large reunion of former students of the Ecole and their relatives to mark the Ecole’s 75th anniversary. In the atmosphere of greater openness, local art researchers have agreed on the foundation of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in 1925 as the starting date of Vietnamese modem art. Up to 1925, Vietnamese art had relied on its centuries-old graphic tradition such as the creation of Dong Ho wood prints and pictures in pagodas by anonymous authors, but it had never formed part of the global art trends. Being cut off from well-known art schools inEurope, Vietnamese art could only speak its own language.

Recognizing the beauty of Vietnamese artistic traditions, Victor Tardieu and his colleague Joseph lnguimberty were determined to help the indigenous students to better exploit their heritage by exposing them to standard examples of both Vietnamese and French art. The two French artists placed greater emphasis on Vietnamese tradition for fear that their students might be otherwise Westernized. However, Vitor Tardieu and Joseph Inguimberty pointed out that this return to the past could only be effective if it served as the starting point for further developments better suited to today’s world; therefore the Vietnamese students were also well taught about Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Pierre Auguste Renoir among others.

Silk painting with Vietnamese style

Vietnamese silk painting began, paradoxically, as a result of Nguyen Phan Chanh’s failure at Western oil painting. Nguyen Phan Chanh was among the students of the first class (1925-1930) of the Eeole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine. Vitor Tardieu quickly realized that Chanh’s natural endowment was not suitable for Western oil painting, so he advised Chanh to shift to Oriental painting. Victor Tardieu helped Chanh to study Chinese paintings of the Tang and Song periods so that Chanh could develop his own style for doing Vietnamese silk painting. Chanh became fascinated by the beauty of Chinese silk paintings because he found in them the expression of the soul of the objects rather than the mere depiction of their surface. He did not try to imitate the Chinese, however. Chanh’s was a simple style, combining Oriental and Western techniques.

Feeding the bird, 1931. Silk. Painted by Nguyen Pha Chanh

Feeding the bird, 1931. Silk. Painted by Nguyen Pha Chanh

He composed his paintings with a Western approach but employed light and dark patches of the East Asian tradition. His paintings are attractive because of the lyricism created by the interaction of brown, soil yellow and light grey colours with fine silk. People praise Chanh’s silk paintings as uniquely Vietnamese. At a 1931 exhibition inParis, his silk painting Game of Squares was warmly welcomed by the visitors. Nguyen Phan Chanh has become the leading representative of Vietnamese silk painting.


The Steeple, 1992. Silk. Painted by Luong Xuan Nhi

Following Chanh’s lead, other students of his class such as Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Nguyen Tuong Lan, Le Thi Luu, Tran Van Can and Luong Xuan Nhi also started painting on silk while continuing to do oil painting. Together the group created a collection of fine silk paintings that embodied the Vietnamese soul and tradition. In Nguyen Tuong Lan’s Blossoming Beauty, a young lady sits gracefully on a porcelain stool against the background of dark brown, giving the impression of musical rhythms typical of silk. Mai Trung Thu preferred studies of young ladies with sad, tearful eyes against the dark indigo background, suggesting a vague nostalgia. Le Van De focused on the genteel, slender beauty of upper-class ladies, rendering details of the hair, the face and the hands, but leaving the rest to merge into the mystic blurred veil of colours. Because of the nature of silk, objects rendered on silk easily become blurred and vague. Tran Van Can and Luong Xuan Nhi, however, were able to make the clouds, smokes, trees, faces and hands in their paintings stand out clearly without sacrificing the gentleness inherent in the farbic. Nguyen Tien Chung is said to be a born silk painter, as objects in his paintings appear soft, gentle and rhythmic, while his use of colours varies from simplicity to exuberance, and his representations alternate between folkloric stylization and academic rendition.

Thanks to the work of these painters, Vietnamese silk painting gradually asserted itself as a unique school, not a mere copy of Chinese silk painting.

The effects of traditional lacquer

Lacquer was discovered as a medium in painting by sheer accident, but it quickly conquered both artists and art connoisseurs. One day, Vietnamese painter Nam Son took J. lmguimberty to theTempleofLiteratureto paint. There, the French artist was struck by the charming colour of the lacquer paint on the centuries-old wooden altars, boards of ancient writings, and beams. J. Inguimberty then suggested to his students to apply the traditional lacquer technique to painting.

Among the many local artists that researched the new medium, Nguyen Gia Tri was the first one to succeed. Though he applied both Western and modem painting approaches, the lacquer techniques he used were purely Vietnamese. Nguyen Gia Tri set the norms for lacquer painting. Looking at his paintings, one always has the impression that they are reflections of objects beneath an even, clear water surface. Amid layers of shiny amber materials, the gentle young ladies came to life, moving, standing, sitting, chasing butterflies, picking flowers, or strolling by a lotus lake. The different details combine into rhythmic undulations to create a mixed contrast of simplicity and luxury. Some of his works created during the early 1940s – at the height of his success – such as By the Side of Restored Sword Lake andSpringGarden, are still valued as masterpieces of Vietnamese lacquer painting. Other lacquer painters such as Tran Van Can, Nguyen Van Ty, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Le Pho, Nguyen Khang, Pham Hau and Tran Quang Tran were less successful than Nguyen Gia Tri, but they all contributed to asserting the uniqueness of Vietnamese lacquer painting. The themes they often employed were landscapes, temples and pagodas, bridges, bamboo groves, rivers, the sea and mountains. Of particular interest is Tran Van Can7s folding screen Farewell to a Candidate to the Triennial Literary Examination which depicts a scene of villagers seeing off a candidate to the royal examination, using folkloric stylization and traditional lacquer colours of crimson, black, brown and gold.

Another group of lacquer painters including Pham Duc Cuong, Le Quoc Loc, Nguyen Van Que, Ta Ty and Manh Quynh developed lacquer painting into decorative art, inclining towards dark colour, solemnity and antiquity.

Oil as a new medium

Both V. Tardieu and J. Inguimberty attached great importance to training in oil painting techniques, but they never believed that the Vietnamese could succeed in using this difficult medium.

A girl by lilies, 1943. Oil. Painted by To Ngoc Van

Other oil painters including Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Vu Cao Dam, Le Thi Luu, Tran Van Can, Luu Van Sin, Nguyen Do Cung and Luong Xuan Nhi also created works of great artistic value. Tran Van Can painted the Portrait of Little Thuy after the style of Dutch painter Vermeer de Delft. Luu Van Sin created Young Man and the Rose Horse in natural light and colour. Nguyen Tu Nghiem used the contrast of white and green in his painting The Guardian of theTempleofLiterature. Nguyen Sang mostly dealt with the theme of the struggle for national independence. Bui Xuan Phai charmed connoisseurs with scenes of ancientHanoistreets.

The period of 1925-1945 is very short compared with the history of Vietnamese art, but it constitutes the formative years of Vietnamese modern art. Through their French teachers at the Eole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, the then young generation of Vietnamese artists were able to benefit from Western art techniques and knew how to apply them in exploitingVietnam’s heritage of traditional art. Upon the foundation the first generation of Vietnamese artists had built, the latter generations continued to create works of patriotic nature during the French and then American wars. And today’s generation of Vietnamese artists is experimenting with contemporary genres such as installation, but they continue to reflect the tradition of modern art so far developed in their works. In doing justice to the pioneers of modern art, including the French teachers at Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, Vietnamese artists today have the roots to nurture themselves in their ventures into the world of modem art.

The master of oil painting

Home village: Van Giang District, Hung Yen

Graduate of the 1925-1931 class, Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de L’Indochine

Awarded Ho Chi Minh Prize for Literature and Arts in 1996

Main works: A girl by lillies (oil), A girl by lotus (oil), At Noon (oil), Two girls and a child (oil), Under the shadow (oil), and Uncle Ho working in Bac Bo palace (oil).

To Ngoc Van was able to become the master of Vietnamese oil painting because right from the very beginning he strongly believed that this new medium could express well the Vietnamese soul and would define the future of Vietnamese painting. He started to employ the themes of women, daily life and landscape in his paintings. Reality was always his primary source of inspiration. To Ngoc Van paid a great deal of attention to shapes, but he was even more concerned with colours. He introduced to Vietnamese painting powerful, bold combinations of colours which differed from the soft blends of colours his contemporaries often used. His indigo shines strikingly impressive; his red, yellow and orange glitter brightly and move gently; and his purple and pink glisten with freshness. Layers of oil paint intertwine and merge to create the mixed impression of ambiguity and concreteness, hardness and softness. With To Ngoc Van, Vietnamese oil painting could be said to have joined the mainstream of the world’s modem arts.

The master of lacquer painting

Born in 1908 in Ha Tay Province and died in 1993 in Ho Chi Minh City

Born in 1908 in Ha Tay Province and died in 1993 in Ho Chi Minh City

Graduate of the 1931-1936 class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine

Recognized by the Ministry of Culture and Information as one of the ten painters who made the greatest contribution to the development of Vietnamese modern art

Main works: By the Side of Restored Sword Lake (lacquer), Spring Garden (lacquer), and By a Lotus Pond (lacquer).

Nguyen Gia Tri dominated the field of lacquer painting inVietnambefore 1945. His experiments with lacquer led him to create the best works of the medium in the early 1940s, which include By the Side of Restored Sword Lake andSpringGarden. The world in his paintings appears both real and unreal between layers of lacquer. The paintings typically glisten with a dazzling golden colour that creates a sense of balance, uniformity, rhythm and harmony, and highlights the outlines of human bodies and objects. The surfaces of his paintings are always even, flat and shiny like that of calm water. The different elements in his pictures combine into an entity of clear amber, creating a contrast of exuberance and quiet elegance. Nguyen Gia Tri was at his best in making folding screens depicting scenes of women and landscape.

An all-round artist

Born in 1910 in Kien An Town, Hai Phong City, and died in 1994 in Hanoi.

Born in 1910 in Kien An Town, Hai Phong City, and died in 1994 in Hanoi.

Graduate of the 1931-1936 class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine.

Awarded with the Ho Chi Minh Prize for Literature and Arts in 1996

Main works: Little Thuy (oil, 1943), A Girl Guerrilla of the Coastal Region (oil), and Irrigation in a Summer Rice Field (lacquer 1957).

Tran Van Can was one of the first handful of artists who could handle many media successfully. Under his magical hands, the various painting materials were transformed to suit the different themes of artistic creation. His greatest contribution to Vietnamese modem painting was in lacquer painting. He not only adored Dutch Realist painters of the 17th century and picked up Impressionist techniques, but also extensively employed sketching strokes of the Oriental tradition. Tran Van Can’s most paintings depict real life objects.

Silk paintings with Vietnamese style

Born in 1892 in Thach Ha District, Ha Tinh Province and died in 1984 in Ha Noi

Born in 1892 in Thach Ha District, Ha Tinh Province and died in 1984 in Ha Noi

Graduate of the 1925-1930 class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine

Awarded with the Ho Chi Minh Prize for Literature and Arts in 1996

Main works: Game of Squares (silk), Meal (silk), Giong to the Field and the Wandering Singer.

Nguyen Phan Chanh is considered the founder of Vietnamese silk painting. He was also the first Vietnamese modem painter to be known outsideVietnam. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Nguyen Phan Chanh patiently studied the techniques of silk painting. As a result he was able to create masterpieces such as The Meal, The Wandering Singer, Going to the Field, and Feeding the Bird. His Game.of Squares was unexpectedly given special attention at a 1931 exhibition inParis. This painting uses strong patches of colour often found in Vietnamese folkloric wood prints and a coherent composition typical of Western painting. The technique displays a perfect combination of Oriental and Western painting approaches.

The painter and art researcher

Born in 1912 in Tu Liem District, Ha Noi and died in 1977.

Born in 1912 in Tu Liem District, Ha Noi and died in 1977.

Graduate of the 1929-1934 class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine.

Awarded the Ho Chi Minh Prize for Literature and Arts in 1996.

Main works: The Gate of the Village (gouache, 1940), The Gate of Hue Citadel (gouache, 1941), The Guerillas of La Hai (gouache, 1947), and The Engineering Workers (gouache, 1962).

Nguyen Do Cung was probably the only artist of the first generation who specialized in both painting and research.

In painting, he was the first Vietnamese to explore the Cubism and was particularly succesful in two paintings with this approach: The Gate of the Village (1940) and The Gate of Hue Citadel (1941). During the French war (1946-1954), he went toCentral Viet Namwhere he focused on patriotic themes. His paintings during this period include The Guerrillas Practicing Shooting, An Arms-Making Factory, and The An Khe Battle. During the 1960s and 1970s he mostly did studies of workers including Exchanging Experiences (1960) and The Engineering Workers (1962).

His greatest contribution to Vietnamese fine art, however, was his research on the ancient art in communal houses and pagodas. The marks of his work can still be seen in the carvings of the beams, the roofs and the balustrades at the Viet Nam Museum of Fine Art, which he himself designed.

The blending of folklore with modernity

Born in 1922 in Nam Dan District, Nghe An Province.

Born in 1922 in Nam Dan District, Nghe An Province.

Graduate a the 1941-1946 class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine.

Awarded the Ho Chi Minh Prize for Literature and Arts in 1996

Main works: The Guardian of the Temple of Literature (oil, 1944), New Year’s Eve on the Bank of Restored Sword Lake (lacquer 1957), An Ancient Dance (gouache, 1983), and Genie Giong (lacquer 1976).

Nguyen Tu Nghiem is considered the pioneer artist in combining folkloric tradition with the modem spirit, creating a uniquely Vietnamese style.

Even when he was still a student, his teachers and peers used to admire him for his creativity, especially in his lively oil paintings on rural themes such as Grazing the Buffaloes in the Rain, The Cow at the Gate of the Pagoda and The Guardian of theTempleof literature.

Together with painter Nguyen Do Cung, he visited many temples and pagodas familiarizing himself with each statue and carving. These trips provided him with the material and inspiration for the development of his artistic language.

Nguyen Tu Nghiem was never satisfied with himself, trying to exhaust every single theme he embarked on with as many paintings as he could. Accordingly, he would pursue the same theme for many years. On the theme of ancient dancing, it took him twenty-seven years of pondering between An Ancient Dance (1956) and An Ancient Dance (1983). Moreover he managed to take Vietnamese modem painting back to the roots of the national identity with a series of folkloric pictures including The Mid- Autumn Festival (I 963), The Lion Dance (1962) and Genie Giong (1976). In no other painters can the blend of traditional culture and modernity be better felt than in Nguyen Tu Nghiem,

Along the routes of the patriotic wars

Born in 1923 in Tien Giang Province and died in 1988 in Ho Chi Minh City.

Born in 1923 in Tien Giang Province and died in 1988 in Ho Chi Minh City.

Graduate of the 1940-1945 class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine.

Awarded the Ho Chi Minh Prize for Literature and Arts in 1996.

Main works: The Enemy Have Burnt Our Village (oil, 1954), Admission to the Party in the Dien Bien Phu Battlefield (lacquer, 1963), Landscape of the Middle Region (water colour), and A Girl by Lotus (oil, 1972).

Nguyen Sang devoted himself mostly to the theme of the patriotic wars for national independence and reunification. Out of simple compositions and solid shapes he created melodramatic spaces in his paintings. Some of the works on the theme of war include The Enemy Have Burnt Our Village (oil, 1954), The Soldiers Sheltering from the Rain (1960), and The Soldiers Resting on the Hill (1960). Nguyen Sang also possessed a lyrical side as evidenced in his A Girl by Lotus, A Girl in theBananaGarden, Portrait of a Girl, and The Thap Pagoda. Firmly grounded in the national artistic tradition, Nguyen Sang absorbed the quintessence of the world’s art and helped to modernize Vietnamese art.

The painter of Hanoi’s ancient streets

Born in 1920 Ha Noi and died in 1988

Born in 1920 Ha Noi and died in 1988

Graduate of the 1941-1946 class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de L’Indochine

Awarded the Ho Chi Minh Prize for the Literature and Arts in 1996

Main works: Old Street (oil), The Da River (oil, 1980), O Quan Chuong (goauche, 1983), and Before the Performance (oil, 1983).

Bui Xuan Phai’s life has been so closely associated withHanoithat the city’s old banyan trees, moss-covered walls, dark red tiled roofs and ancient streets have become the heart and soul of his paintings. So far no other painters have been able to match Phai’s talent for revealing the charm of Hanoi’s old quarter with his large, dark and nostalgic strokes of the brush; though more recently the outlines of his objects have become thinner and his palette more cheerful as can be found in his 0 Quan Chuong (1983) and Ngo Si Lien Market (1984). Bui Xuan Phai also painted pictures of actors and actresses of the traditional cheo theatre, and the cows, haystacks and graceful country girls of the peaceful countryside. Vietnamese modem painting would be incomplete without Bui Xuan Phai. His influence on later generations of painters can still be felt today.

From: Viet Nam Cultural Window, No 29 – August 2000

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