Private Moments

From Asian Art News, 1996
By Ian Findlay Brown

Hoang Tram and his student Nguyen Thanh Binh

While many contemporary Vietnamese artists struggle with the desire to create experimental art for the international art market, Nguyen Thanh Binh’s canvasses reflect a world of poetic private moments.

Over the past seven years, the appearance of Vietnamese contemporary art on the international art market was a singular surprise. For some people, there was a sense of revelation in the variety of style and the richness of the art from a country that had withstood decades of traumatic internal external conflicts. For others, the apparent gentleness and seemingly outdated styles smacked of sentimentality was a disappointment, expecting, as many did, to see a more aggressive and socially questioning art. Much has changed, though, since Vietnam’s artists principally those from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – began to enter the international art scene. Many of the styles, the subjects, and the mediums too, have fallen in line with contemporary international aspirations.

Changes and experimentation aside, a number of artists continue to explore traditional, conservatively safe subjects and concerns – landscape, still-life, and figuration being among the most important. These themes are pursued with a deep commitment to their influential standing in the art and culture of the country. Prominent among these has been the female figure which has played a vital part in the work of many artists in Vietnam since the establishment of L’ecole Des Beaux-Arts de L’Indochine in 1925 in Hanoi. In Vietnam, the female form, clothed and nude, has captivated artists as different in time and style as Bui Xuan Phai (1921-1988), Nguyen Tu Nghiem (b. 1922), Do Quang Em (b. 1942), Nguyen Trung (b. 1940) and Dao Thanh Duy (b. 1959). The influence on these artists was, and has been, predominately from European impressionism and expressionism, with a touch of traditional figurative painting. The exception, Do Quang Em, paints his figures in a photorealist manner with lighting harks back to a much earlier-period realist art.

Nguyen Thanh Binh, continues the figurative tradition of earlier generations, working almost exclusively with the female figure. His commitment to this harks back to that of the German expressionist Franz Marc whose obsession with the mastery of form and color was central to his work. For Binh “the idea and the inspiration” are the most important aspects of his painting. There is, at first glance, a certain sentimentality to his work. A closer look, however, shows an artist whose work is spare, tightly controlled, and closely observed. The elegance of his unpretentious works such as “Anticipation” and “Private Moment” (both 1996) have a more romantic mood to them rather than a sentimental one.

What clearly attracts Binh is not any single aspect of a scene but all the subtleties which make up the whole of it. This is just as true for Binh when dealing with the human figure. He is trying to see beyond the surface of the clothes or the naked from to reach inside so that when he paints he is able to “rearrange” the subject so that the viewer will be able to understand the work beyond the surface. The sensuality of some of his figures may hint at the influence of such an artist as Gustave Klimt, but the hearing and dignity are thoroughly Vietnamese.

“Ideas come when you see some thing, anything, anywhere and you have a deep impression of it”, say Binh “It could be a person or a thing a scene like a sunset or dawn. Then you have a feeling for everything, the air, the space, the smell, and so on.”

Binh is entranced by females, young and old. When speaks of his favorite subject, it is with a certainty for in the female form he finds a simple beauty and grace that seems to surpass all else. He wants the viewer to have the same sense of the enigma of female beauty, clothed or nude, that stimulates him to paint.

“For some artists it is the form only that they see. When I see a schoolgirl out of school in her ao dai, it is lovely gracefulness which inspires me”, he says,”If you are a painter, you will feel the sense of the person, the mystery because this can change at any time. When I see a woman, I do imagine her nude, because the woman’s body old, fat, or thin is filled with secrets. When she sits, stands, or lies down, the sense of movement whether dancing or playing sport or working, anything with a sense of movement tells a story about who she is as an individual as well as other stories when she is with other people. Women are always beautiful to me, the line of their form, the smoothness of their skin and its texture”.

The physical appearance of his figures is clearly important: it is the first thing that the eye catches. But it is not the physical being that captures the attention, it is Binh’s use of the space in which the subjects reside wether they are standing, sitting, jumping, or lying. A surprising element in much of his work -“Portrait of a Friend” ( 1996) and “Anticipation” (1996), for example is his ability to make his appear both Western and Vietnamese at the same time. It is not simply through the medium of oil nor the clothing of his figures that make this so, it is through the quiet gesture in the pose, line, and his use of space.

Binh’s use of space is a primary element in his work, it is never secondary. His space tells the viewer as much about the character and nature of the figure or thing in the painting as it does about the time and place of which he is concerned. Space for him is as much a protagonist in his paintings as any figure or object. Works such as “Mother and Child” (1992), ” Wedding Day” (1994), “Karate Kick” (1996), “Teapot and Cup” (1996) exemplify Binh’s concern with space as an integral part of composition.

“The structure in my painting tells the viewer many things beyond the surface” says Binh. “The aim in my work is to condense the narrative, There are never a lot of people in my paintings. I like minimal subject and the maximum idea just like Japanese Haiku or Tang dynasty poetry. I like Haiku very much because it is very simple and contains many ideas. I have no difficulties with simplicity but I need a lot of time for a painting. Sometimes a work on a painting for a few days, a few weeks, or even years.”

While space and the placement of his subjects are important to Binh, so, too, is his concern with color. The sense of sparseness in his work id enhanced by choice of colors. For the most part light yellow, brown, beige, and white dominate, while red, black, and light blue creep in to some work. The narrow range of color combined with the single figure alone in space add a sad, lonely quality, to his work. Yet in the translucent quality of his simple teapot and cup, there is no hint of sadness, there is so much that is understanded in his work, and a quality that beckons the eye and the mind to closer examination. But this is something of which he is aware and which fits into his character.

“I like things are simple, the color induces a simple composition and design. I don’t like paintings with a lot of color. This is not my way”, he says “in life, there are many problems and every Vietnamese has a sadness within them. We have seen so many wars over along time. I want to express this in my painting, the sorrow of the Vietnamese soul”

Binh was born in Ha noi 1954 and spent part of his chilhood in the former Czechoslovakia. A 1972 graduate of the Hanoi College of fine Arts, Binh’s influences include artists as diverse as Gauguin, Juan Gris, Gustav Klimt, and Jan Vermeer. While he has clearly been influenced by western art and its aesthetic, his art – its subtleties and it sensibilities fall well within the philosophical and aesthetic traditions of East Asia. Aside from his own very Vietnamese cultural and artistic heritage, Binh notes that Japanese, Chinese and India artistic legacies have also played a part in his art. Yet, lot all his influences and background, Binh says “the most important characteristics an artist requires are a kind heart, open mind, and talent”. These he has.

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