Vietnamese Art: A Passion for Painting

A Winding River opened to the public at Meridian’s galleries in Washington, DC on November 9, 1997. The nationwide tour will take the exhibition to six to eight other locations over a two-year period beginning in April, 1998. For further information, please contact Meridian’s Arts Office at (202) 939-5518.

Historically speaking, Vietnamese painting is still very young. A mere 70 years have passed since Hanoi’s first official art academy, the Ecole de Beaux Arts opened its doors to local students, who there received their initial lessons in setting the brush to the canvas. But the cultural origins of painting in fact go back much further. Vietnamese people have created art for as long as they have existed. When the first classes in line drawing, anatomy and landscape painting were offered in the early decades of the twentieth century, art students drew on their rich religious and cultural background to execute their works. They incorporated views of their home villages, portraits of farmers in the countryside and techniques of lacquer and silk which had been used for centuries in temple decorations. During the French colonial period, these art students took to painting very rapidly. They already possessed the material needed to create painting, but had lacked the means to convey it. Today, artists in Vietnam still draw on the past to express themselves, but their vocabulary has expanded and their vision of the past has changed.

0utsiders to Vietnam are often perplexed by the fact that, to their eyes, much of Vietnamese painting still resembles European painting. Some viewers are also bewildered because Vietnamese artists still choose to paint, when much of the world has moved on to digital imagery, multimedia installations and performances as a means of expression. Yet, if one examines the context in which artists live and work in Vietnam and the means available to them, it becomes clear that painting not only suits the sensibilities of Vietnamese artists because it can easily incorporate centuries of cultural motifs and religious iconography, but it is also the most immediately available to them. The European look that Vietnamese painting has is not accidental, it is often deliberate. It is not to be mistaken for imitation or copy. Most Vietnamese painters admire Western art, and it is a sign of their desire to be treated as serious painters that much of their work borrows from Western art techniques. The content, however, always refers to the complexities and intricacies of Vietnamese cultural life past and present. Like other artists in the world, Vietnamese painters are moved by their environment and have chosen a particularly sensitive way of displaying their identities, histories and beliefs that combines color and poetic imagery.

The artists who are represented in this exhibit have lived through the dramatic changes that have swept over their country in recent history. Some have been soldiers in three different wars, some are too young to remember the bombs that fell on their city; most have seen poverty and economic hardships and a few have now become celebrated artists earning ten times more money than they dreamed of just a few years ago. Regardless of their individual background, native city, educational upbringing or participation in their nation’s struggles, all the artists included in this exhibit take their work very seriously. All are among the artists considered by Vietnamese art critics and art historians to be the most talented, best known and most professional. Yet each works in a vastly different style and media, and not all produce works that meet the standards or approval of the official government cultural institutions. To Vietnamese painters, meeting the consensus of the state’s ideal of art is neither something to strive for nor a reason for rebellion. Most are content to search for their own personal voice and visual expression. In the past, official approval was more desirable because it supplied artists with a salary and materials with which to paint. Today, when many artists are able to sell their works on the burgeoning art market, in the galleries of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong and Singapore, they feel freer to rely on their individual experiences to express themselves.

There are three generations of artists displayed in this exhibit. The older generation is represented by two artists who studied at the school established by the French colonial administration over 50 years ago. They are now revered by the younger generation of artists for having persisted in their art making during periods of serious economic hardships and government restraints. One of them, Bui Xuan Phai, was known at one time to have traded paintings for food. The other, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, resisted adapting to the ethics of the day and opened the path for younger artists to experiment with themes based on village folklore and popular imagery. Now, hundreds of artists have emulated him and incorporated village symbols in their works. The village has become the thread that ties them to their past.

The artists who matured during the war often had to temporarily abandon their studies in painting to join the army or assist in tending the wounded. Women were encouraged to participate in labor production and enroll in university. Many of them were accepted for study at the art school. This middle generation of artists includes many more women than either the generation preceding it or the one succeeding it. Dang Thi Khue, an artist involved in this exhibition, is part of that generation. She spent years working for the state in various administrative positions and joined the executive committee of the National Arts Association for 15 years. She has not exhibited her works publicly for years. She reflects a concern among many of the women artists trained during the war for making a separation between the private and the public sphere. Almost as a reaction to the decades when women had to share their lives with their neighbors, colleagues, and families, many artists have chosen recently to develop their inner spirit and spend more time in their homes and in temples reflecting on their individual character and life stories. This is mirrored in works which depict the intimacy of their homes, personal possessions and family pictures.

The younger generation of artists present in this exhibition reveals the current concerns of Vietnamese youth eager to make a name for themselves in the widening intellectual and business circles. The work of this generation also reflects Vietnam’s youthful energy anxious to leave the past behind and make their imprint on the future. But instead of embracing modernity and economic development, artists of today have chosen to look to themselves and to the artistic world that they are contributing to creating. Painting is a place for reflection and meditation, a safe haven from the outside world. Painters, much like poets and musicians, seek to make an impression on their audience and offer the vision of a better world through their works. Works by today’s young artists are filled with references to Buddhism, ancestral altars, animals of the zodiac, village landscapes, mythical heroes and abstract compositions but fashioned in such a way that their literal meaning is often lost. Artists employ them as motifs, as emblems or substitutes for their feelings. They convey warmth, nostalgia, sadness and joy. It is as if artists are searching for themselves, their individual thoughts and sentiments after years of having to form part of a collective unit of artists, a community of workers, a nation of similar people.

For years, Vietnamese artists lacked the opportunities that artists in other parts of the world have had. Few had been invited to exhibit abroad or had been able to sell their works to private collectors. Materials were scarce. Some artists could not even afford a canvas and a set of oil paints. It is their resilience and their determination that should be admired. Their imaginations thrived in the dearth of information from overseas. The result is a fierce resolution to paint under any circumstance and to explore the multitude of possibilities that it offers. These traits combined are what characterize Vietnamese painting and give it a freshness, an originality and a unique personality.

A Winding River opens to the public at Meridian’s galleries in Washington, DC on November 9, 1997. The nationwide tour will take the exhibition to six to eight other locations over a two-year period beginning in April, 1998. For further information, please contact Meridian’s Arts Office at (202) 939-5518.

A Winding River: The Journey of Contemporary Art in Vietnam…

A Winding River: The Journey of Contemporary Art in Vietnam is truly a ground-breaking event; it is the first cultural exchange project since the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam.

This is an important juncture in the relations between the two countries, a time to look to the future rather than the past. This exhibit aims to bring a clearer and more profound understanding of the cultural and artistic heritage of the Vietnamese people to the American public. Perhaps even more impressive than this cultural tradition, however, is the dynamic artistic life in modem day Vietnam . Although much of the current Vietnamese art retains its Asian roots, the integration of various styles from the West, as well as the exploration of contemporary and modem art trends from all over the world, reveal a vital and eclectic artistic life that has quickly been recognized throughout the world as powerfully original. The American people will now have the occasion to see for themselves the creative and wide-ranging artistic expression in Vietnam.

Perhaps even more striking, however, is the fact that this is a forward-looking art, intrinsic to a people fixed optimistically on the future rather than dwelling on the past. The subject matter of the representational pieces celebrates the daily life of the people, the historic cultural symbols of Vietnam, the importance of land and the family. The more purely abstract pieces play with space and shapes, texture and pattern, in an essentially curious and artistically absorbing quest. These paintings do not look bitterly towards the past; the imagery is not substantially violent or angry. Instead, this art is representative of the Vietnam that I see today: positive and motivated and, above all, looking to the future.

A Winding River provides an excellent opportunity for us in America to learn more about the Vietnamese people and their unique artistic tradition and spirit. The exhibition should serve as an important bridge to the future, providing Americans with a better understanding and appreciation of the spirit, exuberance and joyous vitality of the Vietnamese.

Pete Peterson, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam

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