Modern Paintings In Vietnam Rising Above The Identity Crisis!

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Think modern paintings, or more precisely, think Asian modern paintings, and you will find yourself thinking about Vietnamese modern paintings. Contemporary Vietnamese art, in recent years, has become quite a force to reckon with. Ever since its recent emancipation from its socio-political shackles which have long kept it confined to a rather provincial existence, Vietnamese modern art has blossomed in its full glory before an awed international audience.

Indeed, there is no looking back for Vietnam now. It is moving forward. However, it is not just looking forward towards the future. There is an element of retrospection involved also. Thus, the modern Vietnamese perspective comprises not just looking ahead, but also looking back, in an effort to sort out the past.

Till recent times, Vietnamese modern art has been facing a peculiar identity crisis. Questions about the extent of Western influence on Vietnam’s modern art, and how deep its traditional moorings actually go, have plagued the artists of Vietnam for long. It has not been long since they seem to have finally come to terms with the origin of their modern art.

Modern paintings in Vietnam took roots in the amalgam of two very different forces – French liberalism and Vietnamese traditionalism. Two of the strongest influences that molded Vietnamese modern art were that of brutal French colonialism on one hand, and a relentless current of Vietnamese patriotism. Before ‘Doi Moi’, or Vietnam’s Perestroika (renovation) began in 1986, the origin of Vietnamese modern art was little discussed in Vietnam because such a discussion would necessarily touch upon the role of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (Indochina Fine Arts College) founded by the liberal-minded French artist Victor Tardieu. During its 20 years of operation between 1925 and 1945, the Ecole trained more than 100 Vietnamese painters, sculptors and architects who formed the core group of pioneers in Vietnamese modem art. Even though the Vietnamese pioneers were primarily inspired and driven in their artistic creation by Vietnamese tradition, the Ecole was thought to be too closely associated with French colonialism to deserve mention. It was almost a taboo.

Recent events, however, have pointed to a conscious effort to put things in balance, recognizing both the catalyst role of the Ecole and the crucial contribution of the Vietnamese pioneer artists in the development of Vietnamese modern art. The year 1996 saw the Government awarding the prestigious Ho Chi Minh Prize to 7 Vietnamese artists, all of whom graduated from the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine. In 2000, the Hanoi College of Fine Arts and other local art institutions sponsored a large reunion of former students of the Ecole and their relatives to mark the Ecole’s 75th anniversary.

So how does one interpret the modern art scenario in Vietnam today? It will be perhaps apt to say that it has a strange duality. While Western trends continue to make their presence felt in style and techniques, there is an overwhelming local essence to be noticed in themes. Vietnamese modern paintings today draw heavily upon local themes and Vietnamese culture and tradition.

This duality is the new identity for modern paintings in Vietnam. It is no longer a question of conflicting ideals. It is more one of a happy mix of the two.

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