Framing the National Spirit – Viewing and Reviewing Painting under the Revolution [Part 4]

By Nora A. Taylor

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

the cafe´ owner seem calm and nonchalant in this scene, perhaps even slightly bored, and a kind of ennui or emptiness prevails. One is reminded of the portraits of absinthe drinkers in Paris cafe´s by such French postimpressionist painters as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Manet, and Pablo Picasso, in which figures often appear afflicted with chronic melancholy or depression.

Art historians in the West have often attributed the affinity of painters at the turn of the century for life in the cafe´s and the decadence of society at the time to increased interest in “modern life.” Modern life in Europe referred to urban development, the increase of traffic in the streets, and consequently the surge in the pace of life. According to Marshall Berman, the swelling speed of daily life generated excitement for everything urban, along with an attraction for the dirt and smoke that it provoked.[26] Artists and writers in Paris became fascinated with the decadence of society in art. The art historian T. J. Clark writes that “modernism can be described as a kind of skepticism, or at least uncertainty, as to the nature of representation in art.”[27]

Nguyen Sang’s characters seem at home amid the deterioration of Hanoi streets and the degeneration of Vietnamese society as he perceived it. The Communist Party had demanded participation in the revolutionary struggle, but writers and artists such as Bui Xuan Phai and Nguyen Sang were idling away their time in cafe´s. They were not employed by the state as other artists were, partly out of choice for not wanting to participate in the propaganda campaigns and partly by force for having contradicted the official cultural institutions. Instead of supporting the optimism for the future of the nation as declared in the governmentsponsored art campaigns, they represented the cynicism of the people who did not wish to follow the Party. None was more representative of this cynicism than Duong Bich Lien who shunned any exposure to the public and any affiliation with the Arts Association. Although he had taken part in the Revolution, after the restrictions imposed on artists in the 1950s, he deliberately withdrew from the political mainstream. His paintings became legendary for their grace and beauty (fig. 4.6), but he refused to show them to anyone but his friends.[28]Unable to afford new canvas, he often painted over his paintings. His peers admired him for his talent, but he was described as “aloof” and “stubborn” when it came to exposing his work to the public. Today the younger generation considers him one of the “masters of modern art,” along with Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Sang, and Nguyen Tu Nghiem.

In 1993, the Portrait of Bui Xuan Phai with Mr. Lam was sold to a

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Figure 4.6. Duong Bich Lien, Woman with Flower (Tien nu ben Hoa), oil on canvas, 1980. Photograph by Nora A. Taylor, courtesy of Nguyen Hao Hai.

private collector in France for the highest price ever paid for a modern work of Vietnamese art.[29] Until it was sold, the painting had remained in Mr. Lam’s cafe´, never having been displayed in state exhibition halls or the National Museum. Like Bui Xuan Phai’s streets and Duong Bich Lien’s romantic realist scenes, this and other of Nguyen Sang’s portraits, with their singular talent for capturing emotions, have been a source of inspiration for the younger generation of painters who came to Mr. Lam’s cafe´ yearning for a break from the constraints of socialist Realism.

Ironically, for the post-1986 generation of painters, Bui Xuan Phai and his friends became icons of the rejection of “nationalist” oriented art. In choosing them as their artistic “heroes,” the younger artists and critics were in effect rejecting the concept of national character advocated by the Arts Association. They had realized the limitation of the concept, but at the same time their designation of the three outside un-official painters as the legitimate rulers of the art world was based on criteria that were not too different from the previous generation’s, that is, the need for art to depict the “national soul.” This fact only reinforces the plasticity of these conventions. The policy toward the arts after 1945was one of appropriation or elimination rather than construction. Political

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discourse was geared toward outlining what was forbidden rather than enabling artists to understand the challenge of creativity. Artists were told what their paintings lacked more often than they were offered suggestions for inclusion of philosophical or spiritual ideas. Negative elements were more easily spotted than positive ones. Confusion surrounding the definition of national character made it easy for artists to make mistakes and for negative feelings to settle in. Furthermore, the imprecise definition of national character accounted for the distorted reaction to it and the fact that it has not been discarded altogether. Unlike in China, there has yet to be an organized collective counterrev-olutionary movement in the arts in Vietnam.[30] Many of the movements in reaction to official art in Vietnam took a passive rather than active form.


Art historical revisions after 1986 have not been limited to the fluctuations of reputation among artists but are also reflected in the choice of topics. Village and folk art, which had been the main source of artistic production before the colonial era, had been transformed after independence in 1945 to serve the ideals of socialism. Many artisans were forced to join collective labor forces and abandon their family trade. They were brought into the agricultural and industrial sectors, and household workshops that had operated for centuries were turned into cooperatives. As a result, village art virtually died, only to be resurrected at the initiative of descendants of village craftsmen in the late 1980s.[31]

In the early 1990s, two art historians, intent on reviving the “village” aspect of Vietnamese art history, began researching the history of village art from the ninth century, at the end of the Chinese occupation, to the present. They published My Thuat o Lang (Art in the Village), which became one of the most influential art history books of the early 1990s.[32] The book argued that the origins of Vietnamese art were, in fact, in the village as opposed to the view promoted during colonial times, which held that art originated in royal palaces or was stimulated by religious objects traded from abroad. The idea appealed to the younger generation of artists because it proved that art had a “national” origin yet was not a “state”-oriented production. In other words, village art was given a new interpretation. Instead of serving the state, imperial households, religious, foreign or government decrees, art could be more independent of politics. This gave artists the freedom to express patriotism without

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risking being interpreted as either “bourgeois” or “socialist” by pretending to avoid politics all together.

When the movement to reincorporate village art into the art historical canon began, artists started to use village motifs such as temple banners, buffalo herders, fish ponds, and folk heroes in their paintings. Some of these motifs, which were potentially sensitive in the 1960s and 1970s, became dominant in paintings since 1986. At first sight, the use of folklore seemed to indicate a break from the worker, peasant, and soldier themes of the previous decades. But, on closer examination, paintings of village festivals and popular legends have become, in effect, redefinitions of national character. By still maintaining elements that are identifiably “Vietnamese,” painters seem reluctant to abandon the patriotic ideal in art, even though they claim separation from a particular set of nationalist concerns.

The first artist to experiment with village motifs while maintaining links to “modernism” was the fourth of the “masters” of Vietnamese modern art mentioned earlier, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, born in 1922 and still actively painting. The label “hero” is reserved for the deceased, but Nguyen Tu Nghiem’s preoccupation with village art mirrors Bui Xuan Phai’s obsession with Hanoi streets. He has spent most of his career painting village folk motifs, making multiple sketches of the carvings that adorn the communal houses (dinh) in the villages surrounding Hanoi and transferring them to his canvases (fig. 4.7). He is not interested so much in the content of the sculptures as in their formal aspects. In explaining his work, he likens himself to Picasso, who saw African art as a form of “modernism.”[33] Picasso emulated the simple shapes and geometric forms of African art and incorporated them into his experiments with cubism. The “primitive” look of Picasso’s work became equated with “modernism.”[34] Likewise, Nguyen Tu Nghiem incorporated village folk art into his paintings, giving them a “primitive” look that became equated with “modernism.”

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