A turning point for Vietnam’s contemporary sculpture

By Nguyen Quan – Hochiminh City, 06/ 1998

This question is often raised: Where is Vietnamese contemporary sculpture? Does it actually exit? Truly, with 200 painting exhibitions annually held at home and tens of arts display abroad, hundreds of galleries of all kinds mushrooming in towns and cities, and the preponderance of painting even in museums and art collections and its boom during the recent decade, such a question about sculpture – painting’s Fellow art – sounds quite reasonable.

For fifteen centuries, the backbone of Vietnam’s history of Fine Arts has been sculpture. The nation has instilled its spirit into and entrusted its innermost feelings to inanimate objects such as wood, stone and bronze in order to turn them and itself into immortal life, like a vivid and vigorous cultural entity. At the turn of the century, in its contact with European art through French culture, while painting was developing bloomingly, Vietnamese sculpture was only in the ABC of this art. All through the 20th century, it neither had an appropriate environment to proliferate and prosper, nor a space and a ready market for employment, in the literal sense of the word. According to conventionality and due to the influence of Western socialist and non – socialist countries, until recently, for more than half a century, sculpture has chiefly existed in monuments of commemorative and historical significance that are prone to propaganda and utility character to meet the political and social needs of the time, something easily explicable. Despite the fact that sculpture is still in a helpless situation or in “orphanhood” in a country which has already “take off” for economic growth, accelerated urbanisation and industrialisation, if we go deeper into the creative activities of tens of sculptors and an accelerated move to catch up with the times are under way.

A characteristic and world – famous achievement that has been for a long time regarded as a legacy of mankind’s civilisation is Cham sculpture in the southern part of central Vietnam. It is a height of “extra – India” art which was developing throughout 15 centuries continuously until the Kingdom of Champa was annexed to the Vietnamese Empire in the 17th century. Cham sculpture exerts the strongest influence on the sculpture of the Viets (Currently accounting for nearly 90% of Vietnam’s population) especially from the 11th to the 14th century. Even today, many Viet artists still consider it as the initial inspirational source of their creative work. It is the Chams – precisely the master hands and the skilled (workmen who migrated to the northern part of the Red River delta and the vicinity of the capital Th¨ng Long) – that exerted the first influence on the Viet sculptors, just like the Hands who introduced Chinese characters and Confucianism into Vietnam and ruled this country for one entire millennium before. The first two dynasties – Ly and Tran – in the 11 – 15 centuries which was rich in martial spirit and military exploits and infatuated with Buddhism, wanted to elevate this religion to a national status. So the court and the feudal State had the greatest pagodas in Vietnam built with the Chams two favourite building materials namely stone and brick. The stamp of Cham sculpture – with its mystical, elegant, procreative and unaffected character as well as Cham – styled decorative motifs and charts are easily noticeable on statues, towers and the ruins of the Ly and Tran dynasties. They are even dimly felt on wooden bas – reliefs in communal house built in the 17th and the 18th centuries. Meanwhile, Chinese influence was great and manifest in art article, civil and royal decorative art and ceramics. Thus, in is initial development, Vietnamese culture and art were a civilisation characterised by an interesting transfer and gradual criss – crossing between the North – South and East – West axes.

The second great achievement is the Viet’s sculpture in the 17th – 19th centuries. This art might also attain an international value but it is still hardly known, in the absence of intensive research work, due to erroneous concepts of cultural interrelationships and lastly because of the limited approach which elects to adopt the North – South and West – East directions as the overwhelming axes of influence in the history of the world’s culture. But the principal reason accounting for the obscurity of this sculpture is its own complexity, sparseness and modest, single character scale. In fact, the said sculpture is a major achievement and also the richest and most eloquent revelation and evidence of Village Culture whose classical period belongs to the 17th and 18th centuries. It culminated and then declined in the 19th century on the whole Vietnamese territory under the dynasties of Emperors Quang Trung and Gia Long. Village culture is a very original development of Vietnamese civilisation which defines the character and the peculiarity of the Vietnamese people. This village character dominated all activities including life and artistic creative work. Every aspect of the Viet’s life, their culture and civilisation during half of this millennium converged on “Lang”. “Village” is not an apt translation of the word. In the process of agricultural formation and development with landlords and free peasants and on the basic of monopolised craftsman’s trade and a national commerce originating from craftsmen’s villages evolved a village democracy. Some people consider the village as a metastructure with its peculiarities as regard religious matters. There was a harmony among the three religions with their assigned, distinct functions: Confucianism was for males ethics, etiquette, administrative and governing careers. Buddhism was for women’s spiritual life and comfort appropriate for promoting gentleness benevolence and suppleness. Taoism was excellent for games, chance – seeking, super – situations, fortune – telling, etc. In addition, the custom of worshipping the Village deity, the own god of each village, often stemmed from a concrete Vietnamese person who was occasionally a former inhabitant of the said village. This “mini” god was closer to men and exerted a far more concrete influence over them than foreign patriarchs. The clans in a village were tightly organised and vied with on mother for the leadership. The cult of the ancestors of the 3rd, 7th or nth preceding generation was consolidated and carefully preserved. Since each village enjoyed a high level of autonomy, the right of immigration was hard to obtain; sometimes it would incur shame and difficulties lasting several generations. The appellation “resident” was pejorative, denoting the tragic exile of outcasts. Village customs were a sort of super legislation which overruled even the king’s law. The fact that folk and scholar’s cultures flourished here and not in cities or the country’s capital is a peculiarity of old Vietnam. Music, dance, fold songs, proverbs and sayings also belonged to each individual village, including fetes of all kinds, the top of which was the village festival. Away from home, the inhabitants of the same village were linked by feelings akin to brotherhood and companionship. Hande-crafts were the sacred and vital monopoly of each village. Only those who lived in a village specialising in a craftsman’s trade could get rich. Young people had either to study hard to become mandarins who ruled the people or to preserved and develop the trade of their village. Each village had its own buildings and structures to foster and promote the sculptural genius of the Viets. There were communal house, pagodas, temples, shrines, royal tombs at tens of thousands of villages. There were also hundred thousands of architectural structures which looked modest behind bamboo hedges, and millions of stone and coloured wood statues with the height ranging from several tens of centimetres to 4 – 5 metres. The styles and subject matters were rich, varied and super – imposed in course of time. Rebellions would come about in case the village institutions were violated or abolished.

Village sculpture reached its classical standard during the period of civil wars, in the 17th and 18th centuries and early 19th century when Vietnam expanded its territory and prospered in all fields to ultimately stop at the border as it is represented on the political map today. Sculpture in this period is the second contribution of Vietnam to the world’s culture. It is also the national pride, the inspirational source of creative work, the moral support and the spiritual “return address” of the Vietnamese people and their artists. Regretfully, this legacy is little known by people in the world, on the other hand, it has not yet been taught at schools and duly propagated at home, not with standing the fact that it has become the greatest love and pride of every Vietnamese, especially when the story is referring to his native village.

On the soil of the Mekong delta whose capital in Saigon – Hochiminh City, we should also mention the extremely vigorous and refined sculpture of the ethnic Khmers in Southern Vietnam, the people who had stood side by side with the Viets and the Chinese immigrants in exploiting this newly found land to bring about the country’s prosperity in the subsequent years. The stamp of ethnic Khmer art in Southern Vietnam in by no means less important in Vietnamese sculpture.

In the 19th century sculpture was still cultivated in villages of Northern, Central and Southern Vietnam but it did not have the same powerful vitality as before. A very characteristic sculpture named HuÕ City thanks to the Royal Court character mixed up with influences coming from China, and after from France, plus the good workmanship of Vietnamese master hand this art was inclined to ostentatious and frail ornament, like a kind of Indochinese rococo.

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