Art Communities in Hanoi

This rather closely bound community of painters in Hanoi defined themselves differently in a variety of senses: as professionals, in their relationships with one another, in their relation to the state, and in their relation to the global art market. One of the most poignant and insightful moments in the book is when Taylor shares with us her observations of the contradictory voices echoed in the communities of artists in Hanoi:

I was interested in the contradictions, inconsistencies, and rumors that spread from museums to cafés to artists’ studios to the meeting rooms of the arts association. I found the chatter about all artists revealing because it said much about the negotiations that take place between official art history standards and popular appeal. Since little written documentation exists and Vietnamese painting is still relatively new, it was as if I was witnessing art history in the making—through discussions by artists and officials about the success and failures of Hanoi painters. [7]

It is Taylor’s willingness to listen to and observe the dialogic and dialectic interactions and intersections between the different communities of artists in Hanoi, in particular their assessment of each other’s works, as well as her acceptance of their contradictory voices, that makes her writing fresh and compelling to read. In other words, she makes no compromises in her writing, and therefore she refuses to write another simple and linear narrative of Vietnamese painting. Instead, she insists on retaining the complexities of the Hanoi “art communities” and “art world.” Furthermore, Taylor concludes her book by challenging the assumptions about Vietnamese art and culture that she held when she first arrived in Hanoi to carry out her fieldwork. Taylor’s celebration of the contradictions inherent in the practice and production of arts in Vietnam helpfully opens up a series of important questions about the meaning of time and memory, rather than neatly tidying up a linear Western narrative about Vietnamese art. In Taylor’s own words:

On a single day, I might have had lunch with a 1950s army painter, attended an afternoon opening for the work of recent graduates of the art school, and had dinner with the surviving graduates of the colonial-period l’Ècole des beaux-arts d’Indochine. Moreover, the rapid rate at which the art community in Hanoi experienced changes in its economic status made the categories of “past” and “present” difficult to discern. This was fortunate, for it contradicted some basic art history assumptions that had accompanied me to Vietnam. It made me understand the history of painting in Hanoi as a whole rather than divided according to fixed time periods and styles. Naturally, when I sat down to write, I had to resort to a chronological scheme, but the fact that some of the artists from the past were still alive and selling works in galleries gave these time-related boundaries little authority and forced me to overlap some of the dates and explain occurrences with this art world on the basis of social, historical, and political factors rather than merely as consequences of their era. [8]

It is precisely Taylor’s willingness and ability to challenge her own assumptions—which she admits are colored by training in the discourses of Western art history—that make her work so compelling to read and useful as a model, not just for scholars of Southeast Asian arts but for art historians in general. More importantly, Taylor’s critique of the often imperialistic and colonialist models of analysis that derive from the discipline of Western art history is wholly sound, and her arguments are well substantiated by interviews and dialogue she had with artists and other agents in the art world in Vietnam.

In sum, Taylor’s self-reflection, extensive fieldwork, critical stance toward received notions of art and artists, and close attention to the words of her subjects should serve as a practical and innovative model for all persons engaged in thoughtful observation and study of a specific context. As good as the book is, however, it is odd that a book about art should include so few images. It would have been helpful, for example, to provide photographs of important people and places to complement discussion and to give a visual sense of the context of art in Hanoi. A reader might, for instance, have benefited from thicker description had Taylor included a discussion of photography as documentary evidence. [9] The book should at least include a portrait of Victor Tardieu, the first director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, or a photograph of the art school, which Taylor describes in Chapter Two.

Despite the curious lack of a few much-needed images, Taylor has written a groundbreaking book that informs us why painting plays such an important role in Vietnamese culture and political ideology. Taylor fruitfully confronts our assumptions and consequently alters our perspectives on modern and contemporary Vietnamese paintings.


1. See James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988).

2. Two other books authored by culturally sensitive anthropologists that take a similar approach are Sandra Cate, Making Merit, Making Art: A Thai Temple in Wimbledon (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2003) and Hildred Geertz, The Life of a Balinese Temple: Artistry, Imagination, and History in a Peasant Village (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2004).

3. Nora Taylor, Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2004), 94-117.

4. Taylor, 131.

5. Taylor, 3-4.

6. Taylor, 6.

7. Taylor, 62.

8. Taylor, 128.

9. Admittedly, Taylor’s book focuses on the political and social role of easel paintings in modern and contemporary Vietnamese art history. However, it would have been more interesting if the book had included a few more photographs documenting the artists and art institutions from the colonial period. After all, the author did discuss both drawing and photography, and the different roles these two media served during the Vietnamese-American war. See Taylor, 16-1

Source: Art Communities in Hanoi

Boreth Ly

vol. XLIV, no. 1, Winter 2005

Issue title: Viet Nam: Beyond the Frame (Part Two)

Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library

Pages: 1 2

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