Do Hoang Tuong – Dao Hai Phong – Le Thanh Son

Published on Nov 8 – Dec 23, 2010


Do Hoang Tuong, now in his early 50s, has carved himself a reputation in Vietnam as an artist of great originality. His work is both challenging and courageous, based primarily on his own experiences but also representing a wider vision of Vietnam. Uniquely unsettling and disquieting, his paintings offer a distinctive insight into a country’s past and present. In 1984, Tuong graduated from Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art University and in search of his own style he turned to abstract art for a decade, only returning to figurative work after he felt he’d exhausted abstraction.

His works are colourful but with a subdued palette. They sometimes depict dogs snarling and biting, black birds pecking out eyes and men with bared teeth, terrifying images of aggression and fear. Many of the works however depict a single figure against a plain background. The figures, usually women, often only occupy a small part of the canvas, cowering in fear, naked or dressed in tattered clothes, sometimes lacking arms and often appearing inhuman. The figures have distorted, open mouths in a cry of pain that Tuong interprets as a dark hole of ambitions and desires into which we are all drawn.

An important influence was Tuong’s upbringing in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. In his childhood he became accustomed to seeing smoke, guns and dead bodies on his way to school. This harrowing experience undoubtedly left indelible scars on his memories and imagination. While many Vietnamese artists seem to have sublimated their recollections of pain and suffering by conveying in their work a pastoral serenity with no reference to their experience of the horrors of war, conversely Tuong expresses undisguised emotions by painting powerful and evocative scenes of horror, torment and angst.


Dao Hai Phong graduated from the Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema in 1987. The country was still bearing the scars of war and it was not until the 1986 introduction of Doi Moi reforms, literally translated as ‘renovation’, that Vietnamese artists finally had true freedom of expression. For Phong and many others at the time, it was the more traditional forms of Vietnamese culture and the countryside that they turned to for inspiration. Although imaginary and heavily stylized, Phong’s paintings evoke a powerful sense of place. His dazzling landscapes are filled with recognisable symbols of cultural identity, such as bamboo-matted houses and picturesque bobbing skiffs, which portray a traditional and tranquil vision of rural life.

Few other Vietnamese painters seem to take such obvious delight in the physical process of painting. Phong scrapes and piles the paint on to the surface of the canvas using rough, jabbing brushstrokes of thick paint alongside a palette knife, to build up an impression of buildings weathered by age. The abstracted forms are almost Cubist in character, comprised of lurching shapes representing pitched roofs and walls. The roughly hewn houses seem to lean together for support, with tiny dots of colour shining out from windows underlining a peaceful serenity. The surrounding expanse of water and night sky are achieved through the use of thin washes of translucent paint, scored into to suggest mooring posts smeared with patches of reflected light. The evocation of vast endless space is transmitted through Phong’s use of a deep cobalt blue brushed with ragged, grey clouds that reach to the horizon.


Le Thanh Son also graduated from Hanoi Academy of Theatre and Cinema in 1986. Now almost 50 years old, he is established as one of Vietnam’s leading landscape painters. His work is bright and fresh showing a sincere and happy celebration of his homeland. Like many Vietnamese artists, he chooses not to paint modern townscapes so in his work there are no high-rise buildings, no television aerials, no cars or motorbikes. Son also has a typically Vietnamese preference for the pastoral idyll, a romanticised vision of Vietnam from his childhood.

Son’s archetypal Vietnamese scenes included town and village life, street vendors, schoolgirls on bicycles, and women in white flowing ao dai and non la, the typical Vietnamese conical hat. Inspired by the French Impressionists, Son loves painting bright and dappled sunlight amid strong shadows. He also particularly likes impasto – thick paint directly applied to the canvas – using small, quick brush strokes whilst juxtaposing a variety of colours to create wonderfully vibrant paintings. But what dominates almost all his paintings are brightly coloured flowering trees, the ever-changing backdrop of a cloudy sky, and tranquil pools of water that provide opportunities for painting reflections. Son’s work has been widely exhibited throughout Asia, Europe, Australia and North America. He has received numerous honours and awards, and his paintings are held in public and private collections worldwide, including that of former US President Bill Clinton and Microsoft founder, Bill Gates.

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