Framing the National Spirit – Viewing and Reviewing Painting under the Revolution [Part 2]

By Nora A. Taylor

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

the Communist Party from 1941 until 1956, outlined the task of the artist: “to draw from reality what is typical, what people can see at first glance, gather facts, ideas and contradictions into a lively picture, and indicate the right direction leading to the correct Future.”[8] Portraits were mostly considered trivial exercises in physiognomy and therefore irrelevant to the question of nationa, character, as were still lifes and interiors; therefore, they were not encouraged unless they were representations of important heads of state such as President Ho Chi Minh. Still, none of these topics were strictly forbidden unless they were thought in 3ome way to demean or degrade an aspect of national culture. Nudes and abstraction were the only subjects that were unconditionally banned from public display. Both were seen in official political discourse as “decadent Western bourgeois capitalist” notions to be avoided at all costs.[9] To Truong Chinh, counterrevolutionary art forms such as cubism, impressionism, surrealism, and dadaism were “gaudy mushrooms sprouted from the rotten wood of imperialist culture.”[10]

In the early 1960s, the regulations governing Arts Association artists were particularly strict and rigidly enforced. Several incidents involving artists and writers in the late 1950s had caused the Communist Party to pay close attention to the production of paintings and sculpture to ensure that artists were not going against the rules set by the Arts Association for the public display of artworks. The incidents in question involved a group of writers and artists who, at the first meetings of the Writers Association in 1956, had demanded greater freedom of expression and creative rights. These writers and artists were in fact asking to be allowed to produce “art for art’s sake,” a notion that went against Ho Chi Minh’s requirement for artists to follow the Maoist notion of “art for the service of the people.”[11] After publishing four issues of two art and literature journals entitled Humanism (Nhan Van) and Masterpieces (Giai Pham), several of the contributors were severely punished and sent to prison for “betraying the interests of the Communist Party, the Nation and the people of Vietnam.” The painters Nguyen Sy Ngoc (1919–90; student of the EBAI from 1939 to 1944) and Nguyen Sang (1923–88; student of the EBAI from 1940 to 1945) were directly affected by their involvement in this affair. Nguyen Sy Ngoc was sent to a labor camp for two years, and Nguyen Sang was barred from employment with the Arts Association.[12]

The other artists and writers involved were also banned from their previous positions and only gradually reintegrated into the artistic mainstream. The artists and writers involved in the criticism of the

― 116 ―

Communist Party’s policy toward art and the publication of the Humanism and Masterpieces journals were Communist Party members. Nguyen Sy Ngoc and Nguyen Sang had participated in the resistance movement against the French and had joined the Viet Minh in the mid1940s. Their criticism of the party came at a time when they thought it was not only safe but also necessary to make changes in the party’s cultural policy. Their comrades in China and the Soviet Union had recently admitted to errors in their handling of cultural matters. In China, the Communist Party had introduced a program of liberalization in art and literature known as “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” after Zhou Enlai’s proclamation to artists: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.”[13] Whereas in China, writers and artists were allowed and even encouraged to speak out against shortcomings in their party’s policy, in Vietnam, after months of debate, the party decided to repress any movement toward greater creative freedom. This conservative policy toward the arts greatly affected the morale of artists during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them felt paralyzed and unable to create. Nguyen Sy Ngoc, for example, was unable to produce more than one painting a year for the remainder of his life and spent most of his time drinking. According to his daughter, “After his years in a labor camp, he was not the same. He ended up spending his days drinking. He basically drank himself to death.”[14]

In order to understand the role of “marginality” or “dissent” in the 1960s and 1970s, it is helpful to examine in further detail the differences between works of art that were considered “acceptable” and those that were not. One example of “acceptable” illustrations of “national character” is a painting by Mai Van Hien (born in 1923, student at the EBAI from 1943 to 1945) entitled Meeting (Gap Nhau, 1954; fig. 4.1). The painting was praised when it was exhibited at the first National Art Exhibition in 1955 because the subject of a soldier meeting a peasant woman illustrates the idea of community and solidarity between the army and the common people. In the painting, a soldier converses with a woman on the Dien Bien Phu Trail who has visibly helped to carry provisions for the soldiers. On her yoke are two camouflaged baskets that she apparently has been carrying for some time, as her bare feet and rolledup trousers indicate. The mood of the painting is reflected in the artist’s simple descriptive style, which lends itself well to its content. The soldier and the woman appear friendly toward each other: the soldier is relaxed, his rifle is casually thrown over his shoulder, far from posing any threat to the woman, and the woman is smiling and concealing

― 117 ―

Figure 4.1. Mai Van Hien, Meeting (Gap Nhau), gouache on paper, 1954. Photograph by Nora A. Taylor, courtesy of the artist.

any physical effort she has endured in transporting goods for the soldiers. The soldier seems courteous and perhaps even a bit flirtatious. The scene is fairly straightforward, with no ambiguities either in the figures’feelings or in the subject matter represented.

In devising the scene of a meeting between a soldier and a peasant woman, Mai Van Hien was in effect describing the policy of integration of ethnic minorities and people from the countryside into the Vietnamese “nation” after independence from French colonialism. The feeling of camaraderie and equality between soldiers and peasants and between men and women as suggested in his painting also coincided with the goals of socialism outlined by the Communist Party to assimilate people from all classes and create a homogeneous society. Meeting was considered to contain “national character” because it illustrated one of the ideals of socialization and nationbuilding, which was to create a harmonious community. It also followed what Truong Chinh considered was “correctly expressing the feelings of the masses that are pure, sincere and exceedingly warm.”[15]

In contrast to Mai Van Hien’s painting is a work that was initially rejected by the Arts Association: The Enemy Burned My Village (Giac Dot Lang Toi, 1954; fig. 4.2) by Nguyen Sang. In this painting, a

― 118 ―

Figure 4.2. Nguyen Sang, The Enemy Burned My Village (Giac Dot Lang Toi), oil on canvas, 1954. Photograph by Nora A. Taylor, courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts, Hanoi.

minority woman, having visibly fled her village with her child at her back and her mother and daughter behind her, solicits the help of a soldier stationed on the roadside. Unlike the friendly atmosphere of Mai Van Hien’s painting, the prevailing mood of this scene is one of fear and unease. The soldier’s rifle is still slung under his arm in a combat position as if preparing for attack. He looks sternly on the woman coming to seek help. There is no sense of camaraderie or solidarity between the two figures; rather, the painting seems to capture two strangers in a moment of fear.

In another work, Joining the Communist Partyat Dien Bien Phu (Ket Nap Dang trong Tran Dien Bien Phu, 1963; fig. 4.3), the same artist sets up a conflict between patriotic theme and means of execution. He has used a particularly severe way of representing his figures, drawing them with angular lines, enlarged limbs, and blank features. The composition is centered on the hand of the party officer who reaches out to the soldier seeking admission. Although the gesture seems welcoming, the look on the soldier’s face is cold and dispassionate. The wounded soldier appears anxious and lacking in enthusiasm. His expression may betray his doubt or apprehension at joining the party. The soldier behind

Figure 4.3. Nguyen Sang, Joining the Communist Partyat Dien Bien Phu (Ket Nap Dang trong Tran Dien Bien Phu), lacquer on wood, 1963. Photograph by Nora A. Taylor, courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts, Hanoi.


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.

8. Truong Chinh, “Marxism and Vietnamese Culture,” in Selected Writings (Hanoi: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1977). [BACK]

9. Cited in Cu Huy Can, Culture et politique culturelle en Re´publique socialiste du Viet Nam [Culture and Political Culture in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam] (Paris: UNESCO, 1985); and personal communication, Thai Ba Van, art historian in Hanoi, November 1993. [BACK]

10. Truong Chinh, “Marxism and Vietnamese Culture.” [BACK]

11. For more indepth discussions on the intellectual debate over “art for art’s sake,” see Georges Boudarel, Cent fleurs e´closes dans la nuit du Vietnam: Communisme et dissidence, 1954–1956 (Paris: Jacques Bertoin, 1991); and Hirohide Kurihara, “Changes in the Literary Policy of the Vietnamese Workers’

― 133 ―

Party, 1956–1958,” in Indochina in the 1940s and 1950s, ed. Takashi Shiraishi and Motoo Furuta (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1992). [BACK]

12. Information on Nguyen Sy Ngoc was given to me by his daughter Nguyen Minh Huong, April 1994. [BACK]

13. The Chinese “Hundred Flowers” movement was eventually repressed as well. For further discussion on the cultural situation in China during this time, see Julia Andrews, Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949–1979 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994). [BACK]

14. Personal communication, conversation with Nguyen Minh Huong, April 1994. [BACK]

15. Truong Chinh, “Marxism and Vietnamese Culture.” [BACK]

Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes [Part 6]

The only speech of Bui Xuan Phai delivered in public Phai was famous for being quite, gentle and … [Read More...]

Alternate spaces, mainstream problems

  Alternative exhibition spaces are striving to develop in Vietnam 20 years after they first … [Read More...]

Viet Art at a Turning Point

The Straits Times Singapore, January 2007 Arts Correspondent By Clara Chow After the false … [Read More...]

A painter who ‘picks up pebbles’ of life

VietNamNet Bridge - Le Tri Dung's horses have acquired human dimensions and emotions, and the … [Read More...]

Hue woman turns grass into art

It was a rainy day when Trinh Kim Chi, a 51-year-old Hue woman, was meticulously working on a … [Read More...]

More Articles to read on

Speak Your Mind