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THE CREATION OF A “NATIONAL
REVOLUTIONARY PAINTING” TRADITION

Westernstyle painting, or oil painting on canvas as it is known in the West, first appeared in Vietnam at the turn of the twentieth century, during the French colonial period, when artists came to Indochina from the me´tropole with their easels and palettes to paint the “exotic” Asian landscape. Victor Tardieu (1867–1937), an artist who had won a competition for painting a mural at the Universite´ Indochinoise in Hanoi, decided to establish an art academy in the colony to train local artists and artisans to become professional painters. In 1925, the Ecole des Beaux Arts d'Indochine (EBAI) was founded, and some twenty students enrolled. Most of the students were from local upperclass educated Hanoi families. A couple of students came from Cambodia and Laos, along with a few colonial residents. Classes in composition, anatomy, perspective, painting, and drawing were held in conjunction with a few classes in “indigenous” arts, painting on lacquer and silk.

The EBAI remained open until the 1945 Japanese coup against the French colonial government forced it to close down. Over the course of


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its twenty years of operation, it graduated 160 students, many of whom continued to paint throughout their lifetime; some became Vietnam's bestknown artists. When the school closed in 1945, one of its first graduates and subsequent professors, To Ngoc Van (1906–54, student at the EBAI from 1926 to 1931), decided to reopen it in the hills of Viet Bac, north of Hanoi, at the seat of the revolutionary army. There the school changed its purpose and scope. Young artists were recruited to turn art into a propaganda tool for the revolutionary army. The school became known as the Resistance Class (Khoa Khang Chien). Besides drawing and composition, students studied philosophy, politics, and the fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism. They held daily meetings to discuss art's role in society. Workshops were created for designing posters, stamps, currency, and other visual emblems for the new government.

The painters who followed To Ngoc Van to Viet Bac fell into two groups. In one were those who had already graduated from the EBAI prior to its closing and enlisted in the army out of patriotic duty serving as illustrators and/or revolutionary fighters. The second group consisted of painters who had not yet begun to study painting and, having joined the revolution, decided to study art simultaneously. The students who studied art in Viet Bac for the first time were given a diploma with the emblem of the Khoa Khang Chien.

The new school remained in operation for nine years. In 1954, after the victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu and the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, it reopened in Hanoi. From 1954to 1986, the thirtysome artists who graduated from this class were seen as having contributed some of the most important works of art in the history of Vietnamese modern painting. They were accorded recognition on a par with the soldiers who fought in battle, given certificates of praise, and, in the case of To Ngoc Van himself, awarded the title of “revolutionary hero” (anh hung). To Ngoc Van died of injuries he suffered at the battle of Dien Bien Phu and was subsequently honored as a “revolutionary martyr” who sacrificed his life (hi sinh) for the revolutionary cause. Concurrently, his contemporaries named him Vietnam's greatest artist. However, the current generation of artists and art critics claim he was given the title not so much for his artistic talent but, rather, for having died fighting for his country.

For nearly four decades, the Resistance Class painters produced paintings of soldiers, combat heroes, women warriors, and the good deeds of the army along with more conventionally patriotic landscapes and rural scenes. These works, intended to be accessible to the masses,


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were visible everywhere, not only in state art exhibitions, art publications, and journals but also on stamps, posters, and calendars. From 1954 until 1990, these painters were the most well known artists, and virtually all textbooks and art histories of Vietnamese painting until 1990 have focused on them.[1] Such a monopoly on the orientation of painting was connected to the role that artists were given in society and the administrative structure that controlled their livelihood. The Arts Association was founded in 1957 as a subbranch of the Ministry of Culture and ruled by an executive committee elected by members of the association. Any artist could join if he or she fulfilled the requirements of submitting works to a jury and paying a small membership fee. Joining the Arts Association had many advantages. In a society lacking an art market, it provided the desired exposure to other artists'works, possibilities for exhibiting in the national museums—the only outlet for selling a work of art during that time—and abroad. The association seemed to be egalitarian in principle, offering possibilities for all artists to exhibit their work when, in fact, the selection of works was based on predetermined criteria. These criteria became the cause of disputes by the current generation of artists at the 1994 Arts Association congress.

The changes advocated by the current generation of artists in Vietnam are more easily understood if we examine the origins of the criteria created by the National Arts Association for selecting works of art worthy of the label “heroic,” “revolutionary,” or “national.” The selection the artists who were to receive the greatest exposure in the public eye was based primarily on political affiliation or personal participation in the nation's struggles against foreign imperialism. But several thematic and stylistic criteria were also established to determine the acceptability of the works of art to be displayed in public exhibitions. One of these revolved around the question of “national character” (tinh dan toc). The term was first used by Ho Chi Minh around the time of the August Revolution in 1945 to define the goals of the cultural policies established by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had wanted art and literature to express the spirit of the Vietnamese people. He used the expression dan toc, meaning “nationality,” “nation,” or “national,” to describe the people of Vietnam, and the phrases tinh dan toc and van hoa dan toc to describe the “national character” and the “national culture” of the Vietnamese people.[2] The term was again used in the context of literature to define that which best expressed the qualities that the prevalent political discourse desired to associate with the nation or “Vietnameseness.” In the visual arts, it was coined by the Communist


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Party in a pamphlet submitted to the second Arts Association congress in 1962, which stated that art must reflect the essence of both the past and present struggles of the people against imperialism and feudalism.[3]

Artists did not always grasp the concept of “national character.” Nor did cultural politicians define it in clear terms. Consequently, many artists chose to ignore this issue, leaving it to the viewer or the judges at the national art exhibitions to decide whether their work contained national character. Still, they were obligated to include aspects of what they perceived to be an acceptable theme or style in their work in order to receive recognition from the Arts Association.

In 1962, at the second congress of the Arts Association, an attempt was made to define the components of national character to provide specific guidelines for artists to follow in the making of their artworks. No concise definition was drawn, but the general parameters of the issue were made clear. According to one definition, “national character is the way of life and expression of a community of people who live together over long periods of time.”[4] Elsewhere, it was described as the “most natural element that constitutes humankind. So natural, in fact, that it defies all definition.”[5] The general understanding of national character was that it exemplified the spirit of the Vietnamese people in their struggle for independence, their daily work, and their ancient historical culture. Daily life, history, and “traditional” culture were the themes that were considered “beautiful” and “true” by the Arts Association and therefore deemed to be most representative of Vietnamese character.[6] The Communist Party's definition of daily life, history, and tradition did not always coincide with artists'understanding of those terms. Often, artists who thought they had displayed national character in their work were surprised to find out that their painting was not accepted by the Arts Association. Le Thi Kim Bach (born in 1938; student at the Hanoi College of Art from 1957 to 1960 and at the Soviet National University of Fine Arts in Kiev from 1961 to 1967) had one of her paintings rejected from a national art exhibition because, she said, the subject of her work, an old peasant woman, seemed overly sad.[7]

Paintings that represented farmers toiling in the fields, soldiers going to the front, or factory workers handling machinery were considered to contain national character, as were paintings that depicted historical figures, war heroes, and legendary independence fighters. But, if there was any suggestion of misery or violence in association with these images, the painting would be dismissed as unpatriotic. In his essay on Marxism and Vietnamese culture, Truong Chinh, secretary-general of


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the Communist Party from 1941 until 1956, outlined the task of the artist: “to draw from reality what is typical, what people can see at first glance, gather facts, ideas and contradictions into a lively picture, and indicate the right direction leading to the correct Future.”[8] Portraits were mostly considered trivial exercises in physiognomy and therefore irrelevant to the question of nationa, character, as were still lifes and interiors; therefore, they were not encouraged unless they were representations of important heads of state such as President Ho Chi Minh. Still, none of these topics were strictly forbidden unless they were thought in 3ome way to demean or degrade an aspect of national culture. Nudes and abstraction were the only subjects that were unconditionally banned from public display. Both were seen in official political discourse as “decadent Western bourgeois capitalist” notions to be avoided at all costs.[9] To Truong Chinh, counterrevolutionary art forms such as cubism, impressionism, surrealism, and dadaism were “gaudy mushrooms sprouted from the rotten wood of imperialist culture.”[10]

In the early 1960s, the regulations governing Arts Association artists were particularly strict and rigidly enforced. Several incidents involving artists and writers in the late 1950s had caused the Communist Party to pay close attention to the production of paintings and sculpture to ensure that artists were not going against the rules set by the Arts Association for the public display of artworks. The incidents in question involved a group of writers and artists who, at the first meetings of the Writers Association in 1956, had demanded greater freedom of expression and creative rights. These writers and artists were in fact asking to be allowed to produce “art for art's sake,” a notion that went against Ho Chi Minh's requirement for artists to follow the Maoist notion of “art for the service of the people.”[11] After publishing four issues of two art and literature journals entitled Humanism (Nhan Van) and Masterpieces (Giai Pham), several of the contributors were severely punished and sent to prison for “betraying the interests of the Communist Party, the Nation and the people of Vietnam.” The painters Nguyen Sy Ngoc (1919–90; student of the EBAI from 1939 to 1944) and Nguyen Sang (1923–88; student of the EBAI from 1940 to 1945) were directly affected by their involvement in this affair. Nguyen Sy Ngoc was sent to a labor camp for two years, and Nguyen Sang was barred from employment with the Arts Association.[12]

The other artists and writers involved were also banned from their previous positions and only gradually reintegrated into the artistic mainstream. The artists and writers involved in the criticism of the


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Communist Party's policy toward art and the publication of the Humanism and Masterpieces journals were Communist Party members. Nguyen Sy Ngoc and Nguyen Sang had participated in the resistance movement against the French and had joined the Viet Minh in the mid1940s. Their criticism of the party came at a time when they thought it was not only safe but also necessary to make changes in the party's cultural policy. Their comrades in China and the Soviet Union had recently admitted to errors in their handling of cultural matters. In China, the Communist Party had introduced a program of liberalization in art and literature known as “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” after Zhou Enlai's proclamation to artists: “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend.”[13] Whereas in China, writers and artists were allowed and even encouraged to speak out against shortcomings in their party's policy, in Vietnam, after months of debate, the party decided to repress any movement toward greater creative freedom. This conservative policy toward the arts greatly affected the morale of artists during the 1960s and 1970s. Many of them felt paralyzed and unable to create. Nguyen Sy Ngoc, for example, was unable to produce more than one painting a year for the remainder of his life and spent most of his time drinking. According to his daughter, “After his years in a labor camp, he was not the same. He ended up spending his days drinking. He basically drank himself to death.”[14]

In order to understand the role of “marginality” or “dissent” in the 1960s and 1970s, it is helpful to examine in further detail the differences between works of art that were considered “acceptable” and those that were not. One example of “acceptable” illustrations of “national character” is a painting by Mai Van Hien (born in 1923, student at the EBAI from 1943 to 1945) entitled Meeting (Gap Nhau, 1954; fig. 4.1). The painting was praised when it was exhibited at the first National Art Exhibition in 1955 because the subject of a soldier meeting a peasant woman illustrates the idea of community and solidarity between the army and the common people. In the painting, a soldier converses with a woman on the Dien Bien Phu Trail who has visibly helped to carry provisions for the soldiers. On her yoke are two camouflaged baskets that she apparently has been carrying for some time, as her bare feet and rolledup trousers indicate. The mood of the painting is reflected in the artist's simple descriptive style, which lends itself well to its content. The soldier and the woman appear friendly toward each other: the soldier is relaxed, his rifle is casually thrown over his shoulder, far from posing any threat to the woman, and the woman is smiling and concealing


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figure

Figure 4.1. Mai Van Hien, Meeting (Gap Nhau), gouache on paper, 1954. Photograph by Nora A. Taylor, courtesy of the artist.


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any physical effort she has endured in transporting goods for the soldiers. The soldier seems courteous and perhaps even a bit flirtatious. The scene is fairly straightforward, with no ambiguities either in the figures'feelings or in the subject matter represented.

In devising the scene of a meeting between a soldier and a peasant woman, Mai Van Hien was in effect describing the policy of integration of ethnic minorities and people from the countryside into the Vietnamese “nation” after independence from French colonialism. The feeling of camaraderie and equality between soldiers and peasants and between men and women as suggested in his painting also coincided with the goals of socialism outlined by the Communist Party to assimilate people from all classes and create a homogeneous society. Meeting was considered to contain “national character” because it illustrated one of the ideals of socialization and nationbuilding, which was to create a harmonious community. It also followed what Truong Chinh considered was “correctly expressing the feelings of the masses that are pure, sincere and exceedingly warm.”[15]

In contrast to Mai Van Hien's painting is a work that was initially rejected by the Arts Association: The Enemy Burned My Village (Giac Dot Lang Toi, 1954; fig. 4.2) by Nguyen Sang. In this painting, a


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figure

Figure 4.2. Nguyen Sang, The Enemy Burned My Village (Giac Dot Lang Toi), oil on canvas, 1954. Photograph by Nora A. Taylor, courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts, Hanoi.


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minority woman, having visibly fled her village with her child at her back and her mother and daughter behind her, solicits the help of a soldier stationed on the roadside. Unlike the friendly atmosphere of Mai Van Hien's painting, the prevailing mood of this scene is one of fear and unease. The soldier's rifle is still slung under his arm in a combat position as if preparing for attack. He looks sternly on the woman coming to seek help. There is no sense of camaraderie or solidarity between the two figures; rather, the painting seems to capture two strangers in a moment of fear.

In another work, Joining the Communist Partyat Dien Bien Phu (Ket Nap Dang trong Tran Dien Bien Phu, 1963; fig. 4.3), the same artist sets up a conflict between patriotic theme and means of execution. He has used a particularly severe way of representing his figures, drawing them with angular lines, enlarged limbs, and blank features. The composition is centered on the hand of the party officer who reaches out to the soldier seeking admission. Although the gesture seems welcoming, the look on the soldier's face is cold and dispassionate. The wounded soldier appears anxious and lacking in enthusiasm. His expression may betray his doubt or apprehension at joining the party. The soldier behind


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figure

Figure 4.3. Nguyen Sang, Joining the Communist Partyat Dien Bien Phu (Ket Nap Dang trong Tran Dien Bien Phu), lacquer on wood, 1963. Photograph by Nora A. Taylor, courtesy of National Museum of Fine Arts, Hanoi.


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him also acts in a less than friendly manner as he prods him past the doorway.

While these two paintings by Nguyen Sang were never criticized directly, they were rejected from national art competitions. Criticism or rejection from national art competitions often meant that the work had been placed before an audience of workers and soldiers who, in the absence of any other formal criterion, were simply asked to decide how closely the subjects of the paintings resembled their habitat, moods, or customs. Sometimes, in lieu of a direct criticism, a humiliation campaign was initiated. Letters from workers and soldiers who found the work in question to be “untruthful” or “inaccurate” were published in newspapers. These letters were aimed at discrediting the author of the work in question, for if the masses did not understand it, then it was considered too “obscure” and therefore unacceptable.[16] Nguyen Sang had painted both of these paintings hoping for a subsidy from the Arts Association, and although the National Museum of Fine Arts eventually purchased the two works, they were not displayed until shortly before his death in 1984. When Nguyen Sang contributed drawings and poems to the Humanism and Masterpieces journals, his name was put on a


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black list of artists who were not permitted to exhibit in public. Subsequently, the Arts Association and the Communist Party scrutinized all his works. He was told that they did not contain “national character” because they were too harsh, his figures too severe, his style too “Western.”[17]

The rejection and subsequent acceptance of Nguyen Sang's views of history illustrate not only the fluctuations in the definition of “national character” but also the changing attitudes toward war and revolution in recent times. Nguyen Sang's vision is no longer threatening to authorities as they have gradually come to terms with the harsher realities of those years. Whereas in the past, as Mai Van Hien's painting illustrates, virtues of heroism and solidarity were considered the only legitimate representations of the struggle for independence, feelings of pain and apprehension have recently become equally acceptable.


previous chapter
Framing the National Spirit
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