Framing the National Spirit – Viewing and Reviewing Painting under the Revolution [Part 1]

By Nora A. Taylor

in The Country of Memory: Remaking the Past in Late Socialist Vietnam edited by Hue-Tam Ho Tai

Le Thi Kim Bach and her painting

Paintings, like monuments and memorials, serve as sites of commemoration in the form of portrayals of historic events or illustrious war heroes. In Vietnam, the National Museum of Fine Arts abounds with paintings depicting legendary battles against Chinese invaders and portraits of soldiers preparing to fight the enemy. Until recently, these paintings, and the artists who painted them, were given more prominence in exhibition spaces, galleries, and museums than paintings whose subject matter bore no visible relation to the revolutionary cause. These paintings and their artists were the Vietnamese art world’s counterpart to war memorials and revolutionary heroes described in Shaun Malarney’s chapter in this volume.

This chapter will not dwell on the obvious relationship between these paintings and commemorative monuments. Rather, it will focus on the shift that has occurred in art historical memory since the launching of the Doi Moi reforms in the late 1980s from the artgoing public’s emphasis on revolutionary period paintings and artists who served the nation in war to artists who did not participate in state politics. In illustrating how the politics of memory have penetrated the art world and how the recent trend toward the marketing of art has informed the way people think about art in Vietnam, this chapter will join issues raised in Christoph Giebel’s analysis of Ton Duc Thang’s commemorative shrine and Laurel Kennedy and Mary Rose Williams’s discussions of the revised view of Vietnam’s past to suit the needs of international tourism.

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As in other socialist countries, the government of Vietnam spent much of the second half of the twentieth century promoting artworks that reflected communist ideology. Founded in 1957, the Vietnamese Artists’Association (Hoi Nghe Si Tao Hinh) was aimed at creating a national artistic workforce that would produce art to serve the propaganda needs of the government. Although hardly as large in number of artists or in the creative output as in China and the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese art community grew substantially during the years of hardline Marxist-Leninist policies, between 1954 and 1986. As in the Soviet Union and China, the artists who complied with the criteria set out by the government-sponsored artists’unions were favored in the eyes of the state. In addition to the preferential treatment they received, their works were also made more visible to the public in the form of posters, stamps, calendars, and newspaper illustrations. Likewise, those artists who chose to stay out of the unions or were rejected by the authorities received little attention. And similarly, more recently, as in Russia and China, the Vietnamese artists who have been receiving the greatest amount of attention since the government loosened its control on artistic production and allowed artists to sell their works in the open market are those who never participated in state propaganda campaigns.

Although comparisons with China and Soviet Russia are tempting, it is not the point of this chapter to discuss changes that occur when socialist institutions collapse in favor of the international art market. In Vietnam, the transition from a socialist to a market economy is neither as clear nor as straightforward as in Russia or China. Unlike in Russia, for instance, the socialist institutions set up in the 1950s are still in place; the shift in attitudes toward art and the selection of artists displayed in public exhibitions is not due simply to the transfer from official to non-official artists. Unlike in China, the artists now favored in art galleries are not necessarily reacting against their socialist realist predecessors. While China’s new artistic stars are denouncing Mao through their paintings, no artist in Vietnam has so far cared to challenge Ho Chi Minh’s supremacy in the public eye. In focusing solely on Vietnamese art, this chapter will suggest that this particular situation—although related to what is happening in Russia and China—has more to do with what is going on inside the Vietnamese politics of art historiography and memory than with a transition from socialism to democracy.

The case of a group of painters who have been selected by the new generation of art critics, collectors, and art aficionados as the forerunners of contemporary Vietnamese painting illustrates how memory in

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the art field is as socially constructed as it is elsewhere in Vietnamese national consciousness. The artgoing public, which includes collectors and noncollectors of art, artists, and nonartists, views this select group of painters as enablers of how they “feel” about their country. Their view is in opposition to the one offered by the state, which advocates socialist realism as the “correct” way to represent the nation’s feelings. Socialist realism, a movement that originated in Stalinist Russia, was intended to embody the values of Marxist-Leninist-style socialism. It advocated art for the masses and pushed for artists to portray “positive” views of workers and peasants to convey the ideals of the proletarian class. In Vietnam, socialist realism was equated with patriotism, and works that depicted soldiers, farmers, and laborers were considered de facto “patriotic.” This equation of art with nationalism is not just formulated by the state. Many Vietnamese have described paintings as beautiful because they display what they consider to be accurate signs of what is “Vietnamese.” This would indicate that art has long been considered an appropriate vehicle for nationalism. But the public view of what is “Vietnamese” is different from the state view. The public has in a sense chosen to “forget” the state view and “remember” instead those artists who display none of the state criteria for nationalistic art.


Westernstyle painting, or oil painting on canvas as it is known in the West, first appeared in Vietnam at the turn of the twentieth century, during the French colonial period, when artists came to Indochina from the me´tropole with their easels and palettes to paint the “exotic” Asian landscape. Victor Tardieu (1867–1937), an artist who had won a competition for painting a mural at the Universite´ Indochinoise in Hanoi, decided to establish an art academy in the colony to train local artists and artisans to become professional painters. In 1925, the Ecole des Beaux Arts d’Indochine (EBAI) was founded, and some twenty students enrolled. Most of the students were from local upperclass educated Hanoi families. A couple of students came from Cambodia and Laos, along with a few colonial residents. Classes in composition, anatomy, perspective, painting, and drawing were held in conjunction with a few classes in “indigenous” arts, painting on lacquer and silk.

The EBAI remained open until the 1945 Japanese coup against the French colonial government forced it to close down. Over the course of

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its twenty years of operation, it graduated 160 students, many of whom continued to paint throughout their lifetime; some became Vietnam’s bestknown artists. When the school closed in 1945, one of its first graduates and subsequent professors, To Ngoc Van (1906–54, student at the EBAI from 1926 to 1931), decided to reopen it in the hills of Viet Bac, north of Hanoi, at the seat of the revolutionary army. There the school changed its purpose and scope. Young artists were recruited to turn art into a propaganda tool for the revolutionary army. The school became known as the Resistance Class (Khoa Khang Chien). Besides drawing and composition, students studied philosophy, politics, and the fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. They held daily meetings to discuss art’s role in society. Workshops were created for designing posters, stamps, currency, and other visual emblems for the new government.

The painters who followed To Ngoc Van to Viet Bac fell into two groups. In one were those who had already graduated from the EBAI prior to its closing and enlisted in the army out of patriotic duty serving as illustrators and/or revolutionary fighters. The second group consisted of painters who had not yet begun to study painting and, having joined the revolution, decided to study art simultaneously. The students who studied art in Viet Bac for the first time were given a diploma with the emblem of the Khoa Khang Chien.

The new school remained in operation for nine years. In 1954, after the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, it reopened in Hanoi. From 1954to 1986, the thirtysome artists who graduated from this class were seen as having contributed some of the most important works of art in the history of Vietnamese modern painting. They were accorded recognition on a par with the soldiers who fought in battle, given certificates of praise, and, in the case of To Ngoc Van himself, awarded the title of “revolutionary hero” (anh hung). To Ngoc Van died of injuries he suffered at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and was subsequently honored as a “revolutionary martyr” who sacrificed his life (hi sinh) for the revolutionary cause. Concurrently, his contemporaries named him Vietnam’s greatest artist. However, the current generation of artists and art critics claim he was given the title not so much for his artistic talent but, rather, for having died fighting for his country.

For nearly four decades, the Resistance Class painters produced paintings of soldiers, combat heroes, women warriors, and the good deeds of the army along with more conventionally patriotic landscapes and rural scenes. These works, intended to be accessible to the masses,

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were visible everywhere, not only in state art exhibitions, art publications, and journals but also on stamps, posters, and calendars. From 1954 until 1990, these painters were the most well known artists, and virtually all textbooks and art histories of Vietnamese painting until 1990 have focused on them.[1] Such a monopoly on the orientation of painting was connected to the role that artists were given in society and the administrative structure that controlled their livelihood. The Arts Association was founded in 1957 as a subbranch of the Ministry of Culture and ruled by an executive committee elected by members of the association. Any artist could join if he or she fulfilled the requirements of submitting works to a jury and paying a small membership fee. Joining the Arts Association had many advantages. In a society lacking an art market, it provided the desired exposure to other artists’works, possibilities for exhibiting in the national museums—the only outlet for selling a work of art during that time—and abroad. The association seemed to be egalitarian in principle, offering possibilities for all artists to exhibit their work when, in fact, the selection of works was based on predetermined criteria. These criteria became the cause of disputes by the current generation of artists at the 1994 Arts Association congress.

The changes advocated by the current generation of artists in Vietnam are more easily understood if we examine the origins of the criteria created by the National Arts Association for selecting works of art worthy of the label “heroic,” “revolutionary,” or “national.” The selection the artists who were to receive the greatest exposure in the public eye was based primarily on political affiliation or personal participation in the nation’s struggles against foreign imperialism. But several thematic and stylistic criteria were also established to determine the acceptability of the works of art to be displayed in public exhibitions. One of these revolved around the question of “national character” (tinh dan toc). The term was first used by Ho Chi Minh around the time of the August Revolution in 1945 to define the goals of the cultural policies established by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had wanted art and literature to express the spirit of the Vietnamese people. He used the expression dan toc, meaning “nationality,” “nation,” or “national,” to describe the people of Vietnam, and the phrases tinh dan toc and van hoa dan toc to describe the “national character” and the “national culture” of the Vietnamese people.[2] The term was again used in the context of literature to define that which best expressed the qualities that the prevalent political discourse desired to associate with the nation or “Vietnameseness.” In the visual arts, it was coined by the Communist

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Party in a pamphlet submitted to the second Arts Association congress in 1962, which stated that art must reflect the essence of both the past and present struggles of the people against imperialism and feudalism.[3]

Artists did not always grasp the concept of “national character.” Nor did cultural politicians define it in clear terms. Consequently, many artists chose to ignore this issue, leaving it to the viewer or the judges at the national art exhibitions to decide whether their work contained national character. Still, they were obligated to include aspects of what they perceived to be an acceptable theme or style in their work in order to receive recognition from the Arts Association.

In 1962, at the second congress of the Arts Association, an attempt was made to define the components of national character to provide specific guidelines for artists to follow in the making of their artworks. No concise definition was drawn, but the general parameters of the issue were made clear. According to one definition, “national character is the way of life and expression of a community of people who live together over long periods of time.”[4] Elsewhere, it was described as the “most natural element that constitutes humankind. So natural, in fact, that it defies all definition.”[5]The general understanding of national character was that it exemplified the spirit of the Vietnamese people in their struggle for independence, their daily work, and their ancient historical culture. Daily life, history, and “traditional” culture were the themes that were considered “beautiful” and “true” by the Arts Association and therefore deemed to be most representative of Vietnamese character.[6] The Communist Party’s definition of daily life, history, and tradition did not always coincide with artists’understanding of those terms. Often, artists who thought they had displayed national character in their work were surprised to find out that their painting was not accepted by the Arts Association. Le Thi Kim Bach (born in 1938; student at the Hanoi College of Art from 1957 to 1960 and at the Soviet National University of Fine Arts in Kiev from 1961 to 1967) had one of her paintings rejected from a national art exhibition because, she said, the subject of her work, an old peasant woman, seemed overly sad.[7]

Paintings that represented farmers toiling in the fields, soldiers going to the front, or factory workers handling machinery were considered to contain national character, as were paintings that depicted historical figures, war heroes, and legendary independence fighters. But, if there was any suggestion of misery or violence in association with these images, the painting would be dismissed as unpatriotic. In his essay on Marxism and Vietnamese culture, Truong Chinh, secretary-general of

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Parts of this chapter were presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies in Hawaii, April 1996, as part of a panel entitled “Past Forgetting: War and Revolution in Vietnamese Memory.” Some of the ideas formulated here are included in my dissertation, “The Artist and the State: The Politics of Painting and National Identity in Hanoi, Vietnam, 1925–1995” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1997). Research was conducted between January 1993 and August 1994 and was supported by the Social Science Research Council Southeast Asia Program, through grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and Fulbright-Hays. I wish to thank these institutions and the artists, art historians, and friends in Hanoi, too numerous to list, who made my research possible. I also thank Hjorleifur Jonsson, Neil Jamieson, and Hue-Tam Ho Tai for comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.

1. Nguyen Quan, Vietnamese Plastic Arts (Hanoi: NXB My Thuat, 1987); and Nguyen Quang Phong, Cac Hoa Si Truong Cao Dang My Thuat Dong Duong [Painters of the Indochina Art School] (Hanoi: NXB My Thuat, 1991). [BACK]

2. Tran Dinh Tho, “De Co nhung Tac Pham Nghe Thuat Tao Hinh Dam Da Tinh Chat Dan Toc” [“In Order for Works of Art to Have a Warm National Essence”], in Ve Tinh Dan Toc cua Nghe Thuat Tao Hinh [Concerning National Sentiment in Visual Arts], ed. Tran van Can (Hanoi: Culture Publishing House, 1973); see also Patricia Pelley’s discussion of the origins of the “national essence” in Vietnamese history in her “Writing Revolution: The New History in Post-colonial Vietnam” (Ph.D. diss., Cornell University, 1993). [BACK]

3. Tran Dinh Tho, “De Co nhung Tac Pham,” 6. [BACK]

4. Ha Xuan Truong as quoted by Tran Van Can in Ve Tinh Dan Toc, 9. [BACK]

5. Tran Van Can, Ve Tinh Than Dan Toc, 11. [BACK]

6. See, for example, Nguyen Do Cung’s essay in the same volume cited in note 2. [BACK]

7. Personal communication, conversation with Le Thi Kim Bach, December 1993. [BACK]


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