Mysterious Motifs

By Jame Gordon, 2004

Nguyen Thanh Binh's work

Morden art in Saigon has a number of motifs, which foreigners who have been in the city any length of time will have noticed keep turning up. Vietnamese modern art is colourful and powerfully projected. Yet the Vietnamese motifs remain a mystery bursting to be discosed. First, I will list some of the motifs. In order of prevalence, but with people ahead of landscapes, though landscapes are so common. It is not mean to be a list of all or even the most important motifs prevailing.

1. The head that lies horizontally on the shoulders, like an egg on a table. There is no neck. The head may have the shape of Jiminy Cricket’s (He is, or was, a cartoon insect in the West.)

2. Bulls with horns that spread laterally. They are european bulls, like Picasso’s, though ortherwise these animals have the shape of buffaloes and are said to be the shape of buffaloes. ( In life, the horns of the latter don’t push outward but sweep backward). These hybrid bulls sometimes have the same rotation of the head as the people (there is no neck).

3. Very thin necks, that would make it virtually impossible to eat, though the people might drink like plants. These kecks have a resemblace to stems supporting lotus leaves.

4. Schoolgirls in white, traditional, long dresses, or Ao dais, with uniform, mediumlegth hair and an absence of facial features – no mouth, particularly. They are always in groups.

5. Flat -headed children, who may rest their heads on their knees and look incorrigibly repressed, perhaps travelling on a cart.

6. Primitive, brown, forest people sitting hunched, looking uncomprehendingly at a flame or fruit.

7. A skinny, elongated nude in glistening, pale oils who holds her hands in front of her face as if involuntarily dazzled by her own overwhelming sensuality. This is a powerful and erotic picture, in German Impressionist style.

8. A skinny, Northern, new mandarin of a man in moustache, beard and scaft, with a face with green and scarlet hues, as if reflecting city lights, also in German Impressionist style.

9. A young ethic-minority woman of Sapa, against a blue, drizzling, city-night background. She is human, has no aberration of the neck, and exhibits strength and dignity.

10. Landscape and cityscapes, in French Impressionist style, where light plays on lush nature, especially leaves, and on simplist, cartoon-like architecture. Streets glisten with recent, fresh rain, and are not rough with dust and cracked cement. The streets and beauty spots in the country exhibit an absence of the real, seething, polluting, cacophonous masses and the enforced meetings of today’s Vietnam. The motorbike, the sedan and the 4WD do not appear in modern Vietnamese art.

There are certainly a lot of Picassos and French modernists,in Vietnam, and a large part of Vietnamese art might be said to be tied up in pursuit of European goals of painterly expression, through there is a kind of Impressionism, because, though the style takes so much from Europe, the content is firmly Vietnamese.

Vietnamese works are commonly boght for thousands of dollars a canvas. The answer to my question on interpretation is partly perhaps that the knowledge of the art is held, and it is agreed to be held, where the dollar comes from. Perhaps it is best to ask the wealthy, Vietnamese or foreigner, what the art means to them. Art is more private matter in Vietnam about interpretation: “It is up to you.”

The extreme ‘putting of one’s head on one side’ is, in English-language culture at least, an image of extreme incomprehension, of an inordinate attempt to understand – to the point that you actually look at the underneath, the underside, of the message, literally getting a ricked neck ( which may, I imagine, also be caused by too rigid attention to dreams, during sleep). The ricked neck could be a satire on the search for meaning, and the conclusion that you reach about the message, if, after a while, you get the joke, is that – as the narrow necks say – you are ‘not swallowing it.’

The hybridity of the bull in the pictures is a sign of communion between East and West. The bull is, irrespective of the condition of its neck, and parallel to art, even, a symbol of sharing, since both Vietnam and Spain feature ‘bull-fighting’. Beyond the language, the phrase, lies the difference, as in Vietnam the fighting is between bulls, not between man and bull. Same but different is the classic theme of cross- cultural communication, and the double entendre in the phrase ‘ bull-fighting’ is gripping.

The modes of painting in Vietnam are almost all western, beginning with with the use of thick oil paint and canvas and extending to the adoption of Europe trains of thought, or at leasr technique, such as cubism and impressionism. However, the ricked and etioloted necks, and the other motifs I have listed, are Vietnamese, in Vietnamese painting, and they remain a mystery.

One would have to suppose that the special motifs have atisen somewhere at some time and tended in the directions they have for some reason, even if in the beginning it happened unconsciously and serendipitously. The purveyors of Vietnamese art may call it mere haruspicy, to glimpse society in the entrails of art, but, given the innocence among artists that I trust does exist, and their emphatic, colourful and prolific production, there is likely to be a reading that is quite accurate and quite important.

Truth, as the English saying goes, is often ‘Out of the mouths of babes’. Furthermore, French style – and this is seen very well in architecture in Saigon – is fully recognised among the Vietnamese for its possibilities as a mode of expression and feeling. We should watch this space, the space in the rectangular frame.


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