Waiting to be waken up

Jean Francois Hubert, a French authority on Vietnamese art, asserted that the country’s art has great potential to thrive just like in its 1930s- 1980s heyday if there’s a competitive, booming local market for it.

Hubert, who writes, lectures and holds exhibitions on Vietnamese art apart from assessing artworks’ authenticity for the Christie’s Contemporary Art Auction Co., said Vietnamese art has had a strong foothold in France since the 1880s.

As French people have tried to learn more about Vietnam, France’s former colony, Hubert has gained easy access to thousands of material pages on Vietnamese art in French archives and owns several prized works.

Something of a miracle

Many think that Vietnamese art is known to the world thanks to the Indochinese Fine Arts School. What do you think about that?

This is partly true. Obviously Westerners mostly learn about the 1930s-1980s period of Vietnamese art, the golden age experienced by the artists trained at the school. This long period saw the emergence of some 15 world-famous Vietnamese artists. Very few schools in the world earn this honor. Back then, Indonesia boasted only three such artists, while there were almost none in Thailand, and even Japan. China was also home to fewer world-renowned artists than Vietnam.

I think a miracle happened then. Perhaps this could be attributed to the fierce competition among artists and their relentless efforts to emulate one another, resulting in overall outstanding art, including such exceptional talents as Nguyen Gia Tri in oil paintings and Nguyen Phan Chanh in silk.

How do you assess Vietnamese art today?

Today’s Vietnamese art, considered in its third generation, has seen breakthroughs by some isolated artists, but not a whole school. Back in the 1930s to 1960s, the world-renowned artists were close friends.

Vietnam’s first artist generation was influenced by French art, while its second one was witness to the war and held different outlooks. The third generation now enjoys more freedom than the previous two. Under the impact of globalization, they’re eager to create their own distinctive, original art.

Vietnam used to enjoy two major art markets. The first was from 1928-1943, in which works by famed artists including To Ngoc Van and Nguyen Phan Chanh sold well. The second was when Vietnamese art was exported to other countries.

Now there’s still a local market for Vietnamese art, with many galleries and a number of local collectors. However, the key market for Vietnamese art remains in other countries, with Hong Kong currently a big consumer for Asian and Vietnamese art.

Only when the Vietnamese cherish their own art

Some 2.5 million Vietnamese now enjoy incomes equal to those earned in Western countries. However, they prefer indulging in material comforts to buying artwork.

None of the art purchasers in Hong Kong now are Vietnamese. Some Vietnamese do buy Vietnamese artwork, but they live in other countries, especially the US. A good number of Taiwanese are now increasingly purchasing Vietnamese artwork; perhaps they’ve envisioned the possible rise in value in future.

What do you think about the future of Vietnamese art?

Hubert: In my opinion, the current Vietnamese art situation is just the beginning of its future, as most enthusiasts on Vietnamese art are now foreigners. Most local collectors I know are interested in Vietnamese pottery and metal artifacts rather than paintings. That future will actually start as soon as the Vietnamese learn to cherish their country’s paintings. I think sooner or later there will be intense competition between local and foreign collectors on Vietnamese paintings.

As an art veteran who has worked in several countries, do you have any advice which can be applied to Vietnamese art?

Today people have begun to stop considering art purely cultural, instead they now tend to associate art with the impetus for economic progress. In France, for instance, when the Louvre Museum and the Pompidou Contemporary Arts Center opened their branches in Lens and Metz respectively, residents in these two economically dull cities enthusiastically embraced the culturally-driven economic growth.

I can say for certain that Vietnamese art has great potential to thrive. The thing that counts is to expand what it now has and create a nurturing environment.

Moreover, a number of reviews on Vietnamese paintings are written by ill-informed foreigners and indifferent, reckless local critics. In addition, fakes are alarmingly rampant, tainting the artists’ names.

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