The emergence of Vietnamese contemporary art

For some years after Reunification socialist realist art continued to hold sway in the north, with the result that most of the works featured in the National Art Exhibitions of 1976, 1980, 1982 and 1985 were dominated by themes of revolutionary struggle and the drive for socialist reconstruction. During this period the country faced severe economic difficulties and art materials, particularly paint, were of low quality and in extremely short supply.

However, throughout this period the so-called ‘four pillars’ of modern Vietnamese art – École supérieure graduates Bùi Xuân Phái, Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Nguyễn Sáng and Dương Bích Liên – were continuing to work each in his own highly individualistic way, pushing back the borders of Vietnamese art. Since his death in 1987 Phái in particular has become known worldwide for his haunting paintings of the old streets of Hà Nội – often known as Phố Phái (‘Phái Streets’) – although, like Sáng and Nghiêm, he also produced numerous abstract works.
Ca Le Thang (VN Fine Arts Museum)The work of these four immensely influential artists laid the essential groundwork for creative change, setting the scene for the work of the new generation which came to the fore during the early 1980s and included Nguyễn Trung (b 1940), Đỗ Sơn (b 1943), Nguyễn Quân (b 1948), Ca Lê Thắng (b 1949), Lê Anh Vân (b 1952), Đào Minh Tri (b 1950), Phan Thị Gia Hương (b 1951), Đặng Thị Khuê (b 1946), Đỗ Thị Ninh (b 1947), Lương Xuân Đoàn (b 1952), Nguyễn Tấn Cương (b 1953), Lê Huy Tiếp (b 1951) and Ninh Thị Đền (b 1950).
Tran LuongAfter 1986 restrictions on artistic creativity were steadily relaxed and within a few years the concept of national renewal had touched most aspects of Vietnamese life, allowing artists greater freedom of expression and facilitating exposure to contemporary trends in both Asian and western art. As art materials became more readily available, younger artists began to work in range of new styles, increasingly experimental and usually abstract or semi-abstract in nature.
Against this background there emerged in 1990 the so-called ‘Gang of Five’ (Nhóm năm người), a group of five young Hà Nội artists who wanted to achieve something new in Vietnamese art. Today these artists – Trần Lương (b 1960), Hồng Việt Dũng (b 1962), Phạm Quang Vinh (b 1960), Hà Trí Hiếu (b 1959) and Đặng Xuân Hòa (b 1959) – remain active individually, although it is several years since they have worked together as a group.
Tran Van ThaoThe year 1990 also saw the launch in Hồ Chí Minh City of the New Works Exhibition (Triển Lãm tác phẩm mới), which was to become an important annual platform for the work of southern artists. Aside from the work of established figures such as Nguyễn Trung, Nguyễn Tấn Cương, Ca Lê Thắng and Đào Minh Tri, this event helped bring to prominence the creative talents of many younger figures, including notably Nguyễn Thanh Bình (b 1954), Nguyễn Trung Tín (b 1956), Hứa Thanh Bình (b 1957), Dỗ Hoàng Tường (b 1960) and Trần Văn Thảo (b 1961).
At this time there also began to emerge a variety of new sculptural trends, many of which sought inspiration in the revival of indigenous traditions and in nature. By the early 1990s established sculptors such as Nguyễn Hải (b 1933) and Lê Thược (b 1935) had already successfully completed the transition from socialist realism, but in the years which followed international interest focused predominantly on the challenging work of Phan Thị Gia Hương, Tạ Quang Bạo (b 1941), Phạm Văn Định (b 1951), Vân Thuyết (b 1954), Đào Châu Hải (b 1955) and a group of younger sculptors which includes Trần Hoàng Cơ (b 1961), Nguyễn Minh Luận (b 1958), Nguyễn Hải Nguyễn (b 1965) and Đinh Công Đạt (b 1966).
Tran Luu HaoFollowing the landmark exhibition Uncorked Soul, held in Hong Kong and Singapore by Plum Blossoms Gallery in 1993, the work of contemporary Vietnamese artists began to reach an international audience. Thereafter an art market developed rapidly in Hà Nội and Hồ Chí Minh City, complemented by growing international demand which led to the opening of art galleries specialising in Vietnamese art in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo and even as far afield as London and San Francisco. Works by older artists such as Đỗ Quang Em, Nguyễn Trung, Nguyễn Quân, Trần Lữu Hậu, Trương Đình Hào (b 1937), Đoàn Văn Nguyen (b 1947), Bửu Chỉ (1948-2002), Lê Trí Dũng (b 1949) and Nguyễn Thành Chương (b 1949) now began to reach new audiences, whilst old masters by the likes of Bùi Xuân Phái, Nguyễn Gia Trí and Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm began to command prices on the international market in the tens of thousands of dollars. Features on Vietnamese art appeared in a variety of international art magazines and newspapers and major museums from all over the world came to Việt Nam to purchase art for their collections.
Le Thiet Cuong 3In 1993 Việt Nam was represented at the first Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane, Australia, by Nguyễn Xuân Tiệp (b 1956). In 1996 the Triennial featured the work of Vũ Dân Tân (b 1946), Đặng Thị Khuê (b 1946) and Mai Anh Dũng (b 1967) and in 1999 that of Nguyễn Trung Tín, Nguyễn Minh Thành (b 1971) and Vũ Thăng (b 1970). The advent of major regional competitions such as the Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards and of regional collaborative exhibitions such as the Huế International Sculpture Symposium and the exchange held every few years between Hà Nội University of Fine ArtHuế University of Arts and Chiang Mai University Faculty of Fine Arts in Thailand, have also helped to raise the profile of Vietnamese art overseas. Today Vietnamese artists participate actively in a wide range of major international exhibitions and travel all over the world to study, exhibit and participate in collaborative projects of various kinds.
Le Thiet Cuong, Bridge TaoThe mid 1990s saw the emergence of an international market for the work of a select group of Vietnamese artists – these included ‘Gang of Five’ member Hồng Việt Dũng, famous for his hauntingly surreal dawn or dusk landscapes; Nguyễn Thanh Bình, known for his elegant white áo dài-clad figures; Lê Quảng Hà (b 1963), whose Baconesque portraits have struck a chord in Europe; Phạm Luận (b 1954) and Đào Hải Phong (b 1965), who depict the old streets of Hà Nội each in his own contrasting way; Đinh Ý Nhị (b 1967), known for her haunting black and white ‘stick figure’ paintings; minimalist Lê Thiết Cương (b 1962); and a group of abstract artists which includes Trần Lương, Trần Văn Thảo, Đỗ Hoàng Tường, Nguyễn Tấn Cương, Lê Thánh Thư (b 1956) and Đỗ Minh Tâm (b 1963).
Truong TanOther Vietnamese artists whose work has become known overseas since that time include Huỳnh Phú Hà (b 1960), Nguyễn Quang Huy (b 1971), Đinh Thị Thắm Poong (b 1970) and Nguyễn Văn Cường (b 1971), all of whom have received critical acclaim for their works on dó(poonah) paper; Hoàng Hồng Cẩm (b 1959), whose so-called naïve style has influenced many other artists; Nguyễn Quốc Hội (b 1960), creator of pensive characters in a silent landscape; and Nguyễn Thị Châu Giang (b 1975), who has become known for her deeply personal portraits and whimsical installations.
No survey of the emerging Vietnamese contemporary art scene would be complete without reference to the ground-breaking homo-erotic works of Trương Tân (b 1963) and the emotive paintings and installations of Trần Trọng Vũ (b 1964). In 2005 Trương Tân returned home from France to live in Việt Nam; Trần Trọng Vũ, though a regular visitor to his homeland, remains resident in Paris.
Nguyen Thi Chau GiangThere was also renewed interest in the art of lacquer painting, as created by a new generation of artists which included Bùi Hữu Hùng (b 1957), Lê Hồng Thái (b 1966), Vũ Thăng (b 1970), Nguyễn Quốc Huy (b 1971), Đinh Hanh (b 1957), Nguyễn Kim Quang (b 1958) and Đinh Văn Quân (b 1964). Lê Hồng Thái is also known for his experimental works with lacquer on canvas. Other important contemporary lacquer painters included Bùi Mai Hiên (b 1957) from the north and Nguyễn Đức Huy (b 1960) and Lương Thị Ánh Tuyết (b 1960) from Huế.
Woodblock printing continued to develop; in recent years artist and critic Phan Cầm Thượng and artist Lê Quốc Việt have devised an approach to woodblock printing which is contemporary in execution yet imbued with a historical perspective, inspiring younger artists such as Lê Mai Khanh (Mai Anh, b 1951), Nguyễn Đức Hòa (b 1957) and Trần Tuyết Mai (b 1958) to experiment with the genre.

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