The Evolving Context of Contemporary Vietnamese Painting
Contemporary Vietnamese painting has a relatively short but very complicated history that has been shaped by and contributed to several fundamental revolutions in the ways in which Vietnamese look at nature and at society, in the ways in which they conceive of themselves. There have been many transformations and disputes in ideas about art and the nature of the relationships between art, the individual, and society over the past seventy years. Such fundamental-and always contested-shifts in world view have profoundly influenced the way painters have seen themselves and their place in society.
Traditional Vietnamese Conceptions of Art and Society: Up to 1925
During the 19th century
Vietnam, like much of
Asia, was forced to undergo a traumatic confrontation with Western thought. Although the 17th and 18th centuries had been turbulent times in
Vietnam, the landing of a joint French and Spanish expeditionary force in
Vietnam in 1858 marked the opening of a new era.
Valiant efforts at resistance were bloody exercises in futility. As one Vietnamese general and statesman wrote in the 1860s:We are too weak for them. Our leaders and soldiers have been defeated.
Each fight brings more misery The French have enormous warships, groups of well-armed soldiers, and heavy cannons. No one can resist them (Tran My Van 1976: 29).
By the end of the nineteenth century resistance had been effectively repressed and
Francewas colonial master of all of
Cambodia. Vietnamese intellectuals suffered from feelings of despair and deep shame The demonstrated potency of French technology was undermining the legitimacy of traditional Vietnamese culture, provoking widespread anguish and self-doubt among the educated Vietnamese elite. And at this very time Chinese reformist writings were trickling into
Vietnam, providing a more sophisticated understanding of the process of modernization in the West.
Patriotism in nineteenth century
Vietnam had been equated with rejection of Western culture by most Vietnamese intellectuals, but in 1904 an Association for the Modernization of Vietnam was founded.
Then in 1905
Japanachieved victory over
Russia, demonstrating the ability of an Asian people to master Western technology and employ it in the national interest. Young Vietnamese patriots flocked to
Japanto study the 'miracle of the rising sun.' Soon there was a passion in
Vietnam for the 'new learning'.
In 1907 a private school opened in
Hanoi, open to all and free of charge, to promote modern, Western learning in
Vietnam. Because of its overt political overtones, this movement was suppressed in less then a year, but in response the French opened a public school system in 1907. The number of Vietnamese who were literate in the Romanized alphabet for writing Vietnamese (Quoc Ngu) began to grow at an accelerating pace.
Throughout the first four decades of the 20th century traditional Vietnamese culture was increasingly denigrated and eventually challenged, especially by those young urban intellectuals who espoused Western ideals as a vehicle for liberating themselves from the oppressive weight of both colonialism and tradition
This cultural tension was most severe among the first generations of Vietnamese who were born and raised in traditional Vietnamese families but educated and resocialized in the French school system. At home they were taught to subordinate personal opinions to public ideology and to suppress transformations and disputes in ideas about art and the nature of the relationships between art, the individual, and society over the past seventy years. Such fundamental-and always contested-shifts in world view have profoundly influenced the way painters have seen themselves and their place in society.
Until the twentieth century, painting in
Vietnam was essentially religious, and largely subordinated to architecture. In a pagoda, a village communal hall, or a temple, paintings served as appropriate decorations, blending into their surroundings and complementing or enhancing rather than dominating their environment. The subject matter of painting was almost entirely derived from familiar motifs in Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism. The traditional artist worked and lived as a member of society, not as an individual, expressing public sentiments and reinforcing social solidarity, not seeking self-expression or asserting any private truth. (Nguyen Van Huyen 1995). As Western cultural influences grew among urban intellectuals, individualism emerged to erode the traditional role of art and artists in
The Foundations of Modern Art: 1925-1945
Contemporary Vietnamese art arose out of the social and cultural conflicts experienced by a generation of Vietnamese born between 1905 and 1925. Tormented by conflicting value systems, this generation was a potent force for change not only in painting, but in literature, politics, and a host of other domains.
The Indochinese Communist Party was founded in 1930. Among the early recruits were three young men who would become famous: Pham Van Oong, Truong Chinh, and Vo Nguyen Giap-all born between 1905 and 1912. Their staunchest comrades and most tenacious foes were also, for the most part, born between 1905 and 1925.
At the same time, a new, Westernized, individualistic poetry exploded in
Vietnam between 1932 and 1939, entirely displacing traditional form and content. This "new poetry" was dominated by a handful of young men born between 1907 and 1920: The Lu (1907), Luu Trong Lu ( 1912), Xuan Oieu ( 1917) Huy Can (1919), Che Lan Vien (1920). Similar changes took place in short stories and novels, in newspapers, and in historical writings.
It was in this context of cultural ferment and social change that the
Indochina School of Fine Arts was established by the French as part of a cautious expansion of the public school system. The school was founded in 1925 and graduated its first class in 1930. Prior to this in 1913 a small School of Fine Arts had been established in Gia Oinh near
Saigon. It produced some modern works, but the scale was small and the effort was premature and appears to have had little impact upon the development of modern Vietnamese art.
Even now Vietnamese artists still speak of the "Four Masters" who were among the first to emerge from the Indochina School of Fine Arts as the best of this first generation of Vietnamese. This brief ditty refers to Nguyen Gia Tri (born 1909), Nguyen Tuong Lan (born 1908?), To Ngoc Van (born 1906) and Tran Van Can (born 1910). These men struggled to break with tradition, like the new poets, the political activists, and others of their generation. At that time and place they were all pioneers, revolutionaries, seeking something new and different to replace a traditional culture that no longer seemed either efficacious or edifying.
As a young man recently graduated from the Indochina School of Fine Arts, To Ngoc Van, clearly expressed the alienation from traditional Vietnamese culture that many of these young artists felt as they left school to embark upon their careers.
Before [the Indochina School of Fine Arts} opened, there was no one in our nation who could be called an artist. The public had.no aesthetic appreciation. The ugly houses, the tasteless furniture, the gaudy paintings of those times are emblems of complete confusion. But when the first graduates of the
Fine Arts began to appear, the situation began to change immediately. The artistic displays and exhibitions made everyone aware of beauty in a more understanding manner. Art has even changed our way of life. We live in a more beautiful environment. Our lives are more elegant than before (Pham The Ngu 1965: 422).
It is noteworthy that the young Van saw art as shaping reality, not merely reflecting it, and that he used Western artistic values to judge Vietnamese art, architecture, and decor. His perspective on art at the time, like that of most of his cohorts, was heavily influenced by Western thought, as were the perspectives of this generation of young intellectuals toward politics, fashion, and society itself.
Nguyen Gia Tri was to become reknowned for his work in lacquer. But he also contributed immensely popular drawings to the new newspaper, Mores (Phong Hoa), that under new ownership in 1932 published much of the earliest and much of the best new poetry. He also illustrated some blockbuster, pathbreaking novels.
All his life Tri explicitly rejected not merely the constraints of tradition but also social pressures for artistic conformity of any kind. "On a cloth, a piece of velvet, or a sheet of paper, the artist has absolute freedom. There are no rules or regulations whatsoever. Freedom is lost if the artist constrains himself, with any prejudice or rule". He also rejected commercial pressures, later explaining simply that "I preferred freedom to money. To live freely and honestly, creating art, I can live frugally from day to day and still be quite happy" (Nguyen Gia Tri 1993 : 38-42). He scorned opportunities to curry favor with either the rich or the powerful. Even in his old age he was often "not at home" to distinguished visitors, yet warmly received many poor artists and old friends. He clung to an individualized, and idealized vision of art throughout his long career. But Nguyen Gia Tri also believed in the power of art to transform, and to improve, society. "The task of the artist is to wash the eyes of the public, to enable the public to see in brighter, clearer, newer ways". This is exactly the task many young poets, novelists, political activists, schoolteachers, and others were trying to achieve in the 1930s. Taken altogether, these varied activities may be viewed as a process of collective reorientation, an urgent guest for a sense of dignity and self-worth in the modern world, a world in which they perceived traditional Vietnamese culture to be humiliatingly inadequate.
But the naive, romantic exuberance that flourished for a time was flagging by the end of the decade. Many of these young adults found individualism to be less satisfying than they had been led to believe. And the reformation of Vietnamese culture and society was more difficult than they had expected. Then in September 1939 World War Two broke out in
Europe. By the end of 1940
Francehad surrendered to
Vietnam, which continued to be administered by a French colonial administration that was officially under a German-installed French government.
This administration adopted a policy of looking to the past and exhorting disciplined devotion to "work, family, and fatherland." In
Vietnam, this officially sanctioned return to the roots featured heroic and historical themes from earlier eras and a new emphasis on rural society. Vietnamese intellectuals transformed this conservative project into a revival of nationalist sentiment.
While all this was going on, the Indochina School of Fine Arts was producing a new generation of painters. During this period four young men were being trained who would become famous as the "Four Pillars" of modern Vietnamese art: Nguyen Tu Nghiem (born 1922), Nguyen Sang (born 1923), Duong Bich Lien (born 1924), and Bui Xuan Phai (born 1921).
In the fateful year of 1945 the situation changed rapidly. Massive crop failures and disruption of shipping led to famine in the
Red River delta with over one million deaths. In March the Japanese overthrew the French administration. In August
Japansurrendered and the Viet Minh, led by Ho Chi Minh, seized the initiative with their "August Revolution." In September Ho Chi Minh announced the formation of a new and independent state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnam was entering a new phase of its history, and a new phase likewise began in the evolution of Vietnamese art.
Between 1925 and 1945 the Indochina School of Fine Art had accepted 149 students (perhaps a little under 10 percent of the applicants) and produced 128 graduates. Of the "Four Pillars" of modern art, only Nguyen Sang received his diploma. The others had not completed their studies in time to receive degrees before the school officially closed its doors in 1945. (Le Quoc Bao 1990:25,31).
New Directions: 1945-1954
The new minister of education in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam created a
Fine Arts, but the Resistance War against the return of French colonial control erupted before instruction could begin. The cultural front, including art, was an important part of the revolutionary battlefield, however; and Vietnamese art was deeply influenced, and to some considerable extent polarized by this fact.
A significant body of new paintings with strong Western influence had been produced during the 1930s, and at a somewhat reduced level continued to appear in
Hanoiuntil 1954. Nguyen Gia Tri produced ambitious lacquer paintings that attracted acclaim beyond the borders of
Vietnam. To Ngoc Van depicted the dignified beauty of modern Vietnamese women and scenes of the Vietnamese countryside in a number of rich oil paintings. Much of this work applied 19th century European techniques to portray the beauty of
Vietnam. But the influence of Picasso and others became visible in more abstract works.
After fighting broke out in 1946, however, many artists abandoned this middle class urban world to follow the revolutionary forces to the hills, putting their skills and talents to work to serve the Resis­tance. A gap widened between these artists and those who stayed behind in the big cities and contin­ued to paint for themselves and for the small market that existed. Ta Ty produced a controversial exhibition of cubist paintings in
Hanoithat even today might seem "new" in
Vietnam. It was both praised and criticized in exaggerated terms.
A leading role in this polarization of Vietnamese art was played by Truong Chinh, who served as Secretary General of the Indochina Communist Party (ICP) from 1941 until 1956. In 1943 he establisheda "cultural front" to attract Vietnamese students and intellectuals to the cause. Then in 1944 the Party organized a National Salvation Cultural Association that soon had some prominent intellectuals discussing ICP cultural policies and perspectives. A number of interlocking front organizations and clandestine newspapers introduced the ICP position on art to a wide audience of intellectuals.
In 1943 Truong Chinh had written a "Thesis on Vietnamese Culture" and in 1948, in the heat of war, he further elaborated and clarified the role and position of artists in the revolution. Speaking in the mountain sanctuary of the revolutionary forces, Truong Chinh drew a stark dichotomy between "decadent" and "obscurantist" art in the cities and the "patriotic" art of the Resistance. One was said to serve colonialism and the selfish interests of the national bourgeoisie; the other served the nation and the people.
Impressionism, cubism, and other modernist tendencies in Vietnamese art were likened by Truong Chinh to "gaudy mushrooms" sprouting from "the rotten wood of colonialism." These approaches were labelled "unscientific" and "anti-evolutionary." Those who followed such influences were said to be people who: Either put their talents at the service of reactionaries or are hoping for a share of the crumbs from their table. Or they are too cowardly to stand up for an ideal; and they seek "escapism", "forgetfulness" by relying on obscure and bizarre forms and a "transcendental" technique, deceiving themselves and others, whether knowingly or not (Truong Chinh 1990:213).â
Revolutionary art and literature were assigned the task of "awakening, mobilizing, and organizing the masses, imbuing them with a spirit, a will, a faith, appealing to them to rise up to carry out the Revolution" (Truong Chinh 1994:210). The Party Secretary vigorously reaffirmed that art was a front in the cultural battlefield and artists were to be soldiers in the forces of revolution.
Just as we have to manufacture bazookas, mortars, and guns to fire at the enemy, we must likewise create cultural bazookas, mortars, and guns to destroy him.
Those artists who still painted in the cities under French control, continuing and developing the modernist impetus, were said to be producing "expensive cakes", when what the people cried out for was "bread". The new patriotic art of the Resistance would give them "bread". The goal was to transform artists, to make them capable of producing wholesome, politically correct, readily understandable works that bolstered people's political awareness and increased their will to sacrifice for the revolution.
But despite some heroic individual efforts to produce such works, the Resistance artists were not adequately meeting the needs of the revolution, so in 1950 a new
Fine Arts was established in the Resistance Zone to train more artists for the revolution. To Ngoc Van had rejected his earlier enthusiasm for Western models and his ties to the French establishment to join the resistance forces, and he became the active leader of this school. Tran Van Can, Nguyen Tu Nghiem and other artists served as teachers. The fourth of the" Four Masters," Nguyen Tuong Lan, had disappeared from the scene, and would soon disappear from art history, a victim of the inflamed political passions of the era.
Between 1950 and 1955 the "Resistance Class" produced another twenty-some students who to some significant degree blended the techniques introduced to
Vietnam by French instructors at the Indochina School of Fine Arts with the socialist realism and revolutionary themes of artistic production in the Resistance Zone (Le Quoc Bao 1990: 56). These men and women continue to the present day to be an important and respected element in the community of Vietnamese painters.
Most are still quick to announce with pride that they are products of the" Resistance Class" (Khoa Khang Chien). The new revolutionary art was to combat what were perceived to be decadent trends by being (1)scientific, (2) national, and (3) popular. To be" scientific" meant to abandon religious themes, mysticism, and idealism and to accept and to popularize a Marxist perspective. To be "national" meant to be totally dedicated to the needs and aspirations of the Vietnamese nation, to put one's art in the service of the revolutionary cause. To be "popular" meant to produce works that would simultaneously appeal to and educate the vast majority of people-laborers, farmers, and soldiers-inciting them to be loyal to and to be ready to sacrifice for the revolution. These three characteristics were inseparably interwoven. The basis of their successful integration and development was to be socialist realism.
Socialist realism, based upon scientific Marxism, would "assist cultural fighters to comprehend the objective laws that govern the universe and society. . . ." This was understood to be a mode of artistic creation that would "portray truth in a society evolving towards socialism," i.e., selectively depicting in a realistic manner examples of the inevitable triumph and glory of the revolution and the new socialist society it was expected to produce The line between art and propaganda was thus blurred, while the schism between those who followed this line and those who did not was widened.
It was believed that through the study of Marxist-Leninist thought, and by living a militant life among the masses, artists could learn to produce useful works with broad appeal without sacrificing artistic merit. Artists were to live with peasants to paint rural life, to live with soldiers to paint military life. And their works were to be judged by the common people of
Vietnam, not by elitist critics or Western aesthetic criteria.
All four of the younger "Four Pillars" of contemporary Vietnamese art supported the Resistance effort. Nguyen Tu Nghiem taught art along with To Ngoc Van and Tran Van Can, and he also produced some outstanding examples of the socialist realism school. Nguyen Sang designed the bank notes for the new provisional government, joined military operation to sketch the combatants, and later took part in land reform campaigns. Ouong Bich Lien broke with his family, which included prominent scholars and officials, to support the revolution. He served for a time in a combat unit, and in 1952 spent some time with Ho Chi Minh, doing sketches for a portrait. Bui Xuan Phai also joined the Resistance forces in the hills, but suffering from poor health and homesickness, he returned to
Hanoi in 1950. These men, and many others, had gone into the hills to live with the resistance forces and to paint the ideals and triumphs of the revolution. But they also captured the beauty of the countryside.
Twenty Years of Division: 1955-1975.
In 1954 with the defeat of the French at
Dien Bien Phuand the Geneva Convention,
Vietnam was and the essential humanity of the people engaged in this historic upheaval. Their work was rarely if ever crass or bloodthirsty. And on both sides of the cultural and political divide, however, in the cities and in the hills, it seems that almost all the best paintings were produced by former students at the Indochina School of Fine Arts. To Ngoc Van, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, and others unquestionably in the front rank of Vietnamese painters made extraordinary efforts to reconcile their artistic skills and temperaments with the propagandistic needs of the revolution, divided at the 17th parallel. Most of the more prominent painters in
Vietnam were in the north and remained there; and by and large they continued to paint, and to teach, within the tradition of socialist realism. Among them was Nguyen Sang, who had been born in the south and at a relatively young age was recognized as a major talent.
A few major painters-most notably Nguyen Gia Tri, but also the ultramodern Ta Ty and a few others of note-had gone to Saigon and there continued the modern tradition in Vietnamese art. Nguyen
Gia Tri became Director of the
Fine Artsin Gia Dinh, on the outskirts of
Saigon, and another very lively and flourishing
Fine Artswas established at the
Hue in 1957. Between1955 and 1975 Vietnamese painting in the south was characterized by extreme diversity, experimentation, subjectivity, and individualism. International influence was strong and there were many abstract paintings. By the late 1960s many paintings were expressing anguish over the suffering and destruction caused by the war.
In the north, many artists, writers, and intellectuals returned to
Hanoiwhen peace came in 1954 eager to participate in building a new society. Most of them had accepted the discipline and hardships of the revolution with scarcely a complaint. Even many of those who were unable to bear this spartan life remained sympathetic and supportive, like Bui Xuan Phai, who went to the hills for a while but then returned to his beloved
Hanoi. Almost all of these painters had done their best to serve the needs of national independence as they understood them at the time. This was true of a great many noted writers and poets and scholars as well. But once back in
Hanoi, some of these people desired greater freedom and chafed under the continuation of ideological constraints upon artistic creation and intellectual discourse.
Beginning late 1956, the role of the artist in society was vigorously debated. A few journals published essays and poems that seemed to grow more critical with each issue. Duong Bich Lien contributed a frontispiece to one of these issues. Some of these journals were closed down. Many of the more outspoken intellectuals were eventually subjected to intense pressure, and a few were even sent to " reeducation" through labor, or even jailed. But controversy continued throughout 1957.   ;
Amidst the turmoil of 1957 various "associations" were created under the Ministry of Culture to extend state influence more effectively in art, literature, music, and drama under the guidance of the Party. One of these new associations was the Vietnamese Association of Fine Arts, which had 108 members. As a culmination of this series of events, in January 1958 the Central Committee of the Communist Party formally demanded a "rectification" of the mission of arts and letters in the Democratic
By the late 1950s there was a new emphasis upon depicting the joyful determination of new socialist work teams engaged in collective production and many retrospective portrayals appeared of revolutionary solidarity between soldiers in the People's Army and the common people. Duong Bich Lien was among those sent to the countryside to depict the new socialist work teams, but he produced only a somber landscape entitled "An Afternoon at the Border."
It was in this atmosphere that a "new"
Fine Artswas created in
Hanoiin August 1957 under the Ministry of Culture to provide college-level training to new generations of painters and sculptors. The
Fine Arts represented both continuity and discontinuity with the past. It occupied the same site as the Indochina School of Fine Arts. Almost all of the teachers had attended that school, and some had taught there. But most had also been associated with the "Resistance Class." The purpose of art was to produce social solidarity and artists were to be trained to be "scientific, popular, and nationalistic."
To Ngoc Van had been killed in events leading up to the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954; but Tran Van Can, another of the "Four Masters," served as rector of the school until 1964, when he was replaced by Tran Dinh Tho, another graduate of the Indochina School of Fine Arts. Mr. Tho served as rector until 1984. To meet the still-growing needs of the state, another art school, the
Industrial Arts, was created in
Hanoi in 1958.
Industrial Artsoffered courses of specialization in commercial art, industrial design, interior decoration, pottery-making, and other applied skills that would bring art into the daily lives of the masses. But the first year of training was almost identical to that of the
Fine Arts, and one of the majors available was in lacquer painting. Many fine painters in
Vietnam today were trained there.
Students in both these schools were still taught that they were "soldiers" on a cultural battlefront. And for some of them this literally became true as the north mobilized from the early 1960s until 1975 to "liberate the south." Revolutionary heroism soon became the dominant theme in painting. Many artists worked directly in support of military units, while all others worked to some greater or lesser degree in support of the war effort.
The line between art and propaganda was still blurred, although many artists never completely stopped doing some painting for the sheer pleasure of it in addition to the work that was required of them.
Bui Xuan Phai is famous for the virtually obsessive way in which he painted the streets of
Hanoifor decades. These paintings acquired a haunting, collective force. The streets of
Hanoi were by and large empty, bleak, devoid of both color and human activity. But Phai also produced many vibrant paint­ings of indigenous folk opera (Cheo), boldly conceived portraits, and still Ides. He also secretly pro­duced many abstract paintings in the privacy of his home, concealing them in a box.
Duong Bich Lien resigned from the Party in 1959 and became increasingly withdrawn. He painted many portraits, and gave most of them away. In 1973, at the height of American bombing of
Hanoi, he painted "The Trenches," a work so bleak and stark that it disturbed many in the art establishment. As These four men (Phai, Sang, Nghiem, and Lien), dissimilar in temperament and in artistic approaches, shared a serious commitment to art that they maintained in the face of various kinds of adversity. While none of them used an artistic vocabulary to directly challenge the establishment, they were all strong, independent artists who never fell victim to artistic fads or excessive political pressure. They shared a strong sense of artistic integrity and a devotion to creating a genuinely modern, genuinely Vietnamese art. And they shared friendship, spending many hours together over many decades drinking and eating and talking, or simply sitting companionably side by side.
Phan Cam Thuong has observed, "the cold, terrific impression given by the painting ended by condemn­ing the artist to a state of discrimination against him" (Phan Cam Thuong 1994: 63, 66)
Nguyen Sang, too, was a maverick. Even his earlier patriotic works were criticized for lacking sufficient political sensitivity, for insufficiently glorifying socialist warriors and workers. As time went by, he increasingly painted portraits, still-lifes, animals, and a variety of other nonpolitical subjects. He had the boldest and the sharpest tongue of the artistic community in
Hanoi, and an ego to match his talent.
Of the Four Pillars, Nguyen Tu Nghiem moved furthest into abstraction. But he took his inspiration from traditional village forms and thus avoided condemnation.
On the whole, painters in
Hanoi, like other creative artists and intellectuals, were unified into a moral community by the struggle for independence and national reunification from 1945 until 1975. Animated by passionate conviction and a sense of past injustice, they effectively put their talents to work to serve the political cause with few complaints.
Some people grumbled about rigid and simplistic guidelines and made fun of bureaucratic excesses, Others complained about certain incompetent and officious managers, leaders who "pointed with all five fingers." And some, often secretly, continued to paint as they wished to paint, ignoring official guidelines. But basically the artistic community in
Hanoiaccepted the responsibility to do their duty as citizens of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. They made sacrifices, endured hardships, and looked forward to happier days. With the capture of
Saigonin 1975, these people anticipated that
Vietnam would rapidly become peaceful and prosperous.
The Emergence of Contemporary Vietnamese Art: 1976-1996 Vietnam was formally unified in 1976 into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, but hopes for peace and development were quickly shattered. An ethnonationalist insurgency erupted in the central highlands. Heavy fighting between
Vietnambroke out in 1977 and Vietnamese troops were tied down in
Cambodiafor years. In 1979, in response to
Vietnam's occupation of
Cambodia, the People's Republic of
China launched an attack upon
Vietnam's northern borders, inflicting heavy damage. Refugees were pouring out of the country. An international embargo was imposed. This was an extremely difficult time.
Between 1976 and 1980 the national economy grew at an annual rate of only about 0,4 percent. Per capita income declined by about eight percent. Annual per capita food production decreased from a barely adequate 274 kg in 1976 to a meager 238 kg in 1978.
Forest cover plummeted from about 30 percent in 1974 to only 24 percent in 1983. Severe erosion and soil degradation ravaged denuded hillsides. Consumer goods were still very scarce and shoddy.
Amidst this crisis, there seems to have been a growing lack of purpose and loss of conviction among many of the very people who were supposed to make the system work. The earlier consensus over the ends of means of painting, sculpture, literature, cinema, journalism, the social sciences and humanities, was slowly eroding by 1979. The same process was at work in agriculture, in domestic and foreign trade organizations, and in the State Enterprise system (Beresford and Fforde 1996: 6-16). This malaise was a,general one.
Some intellectuals were beginning to express discontent. And bureaucratic controls were stifling creativity among artists. The ideological filter for art began when applications to attend art schools were screened assigning considerable weight to a candidate's class background and the political history of his or her family. Even relations between the sexes in schools were monitored with regard to political considerations.
The art schools in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and then after 1975 throughout the country exposed students to a selective glimpse of world art, but a socialist realist approach to painting and other art forms was mandatory. The world was to be depicted not as it actually seemed to be but as the "objective laws" revealed by Marxist-Leninist thought asserted it must become. The proper subject matter of painters and writers was not the reality their eyes perceived, but the world as it was expected to become, as the Party and the government desired it to be. Reality was depicted only in the future tense. Schooling was either free or heavily subsidized, and scholarships were available to cover the living costs of students who wanted to pursue higher education. In art schools materials were provided through a cumbersome and heavily subsidized administrative system. Students, for example, had to ask their designated "class leader' to fill out requisition forms for paints. These forms then had to go through a chain of command gathering signatures as they rose to higher levels. This process eventually produced a few hundred grams of paint per student per month. The paint was of low quality, produced in subsidized state plants assigned production quotas according to state plans. There never seemed to be enough paint to meet the demand. All art supplies were scarce and rationed.
There was no market for paintings or sculptures. The labor of artists, like that of all other occupational specialities, was "rationally" distributed to meet the needs of the state bureaucracy in the arts as in other fields. After graduation the school and the Association of Fine Arts coordinated with the state system to determine where graduates would be assigned. Artists had to obtain their art materials (as well as shoes, clothes, and other goods) in state stores using coupons issued by the unit to which they were assigned. Both salaries and prices were low. What was important was having coupons and finding what one needed in a state store. This was true of virtually all goods.
Consumer goods were sold through a national network of state outlets as part of a coordinated trade, distribution, and pricing system that was at the heart of the planned economy. Prices were determined by the state and were the same everywhere. Even with ration coupons and money in one's hand, one had to accept what was issued, regardless of condition. No exchanges were permitted. Damaged goods were not reduced in price. And resale for profit was forbidden.
Though all basic goods were rationed from about 1965 to 1981, they were cheap and access to them was highly egalitarian. But they were usually of poor quality and in short supply. Sometimes people had to line up before dawn to purchase their rice allotment. Even then, however, sometimes after hours of waiting the supply was exhausted before one reached the counter, and one would have to get up in the dark yet another day to get a place near the head of the line. And then sometimes the rice one obtained was virtually inedible. And there was never enough rice. Nor was there ever enough meat, or eggs, or cloth. One had to stand in line to buy a pair of slippers, or a glass of beer. A series of reforms throughout the 1980s gradually increased the role of market mechanisms, and shortages eventually eased. But into the late 1980s shortages persisted, sometimes severe ones.
Even the very best artists were seriously affected by these harsh living conditions and shortages of materials. Bui Xuan Phai painted many miniatures on match boxes and cigarette packets to satisfy his creative urges. Both he and Nguyen Sang (and other artists) made gifts of paintings now worth many thousands of dollars to the generous and art-loving proprietor of Cafe Lam, where they were permitted to drink coffee for which they could not otherwise pay.
By 1979, however, after decades of hardship and sacrifice and discipline, pressures for change were palpably increasing. Initial expressions of doubt about existing policies were tentative and limited, whether they were about agricultural production or arts and letters or distribution networks or trade. The official responses were a number of partial reforms that were perceived to be isolated compromises to deal with temporary crises. But between 1979 and 1981 a whole series of such partial reforms appeared. Many different problems, doubts, and minor reforms in many fields seemingly converged to produce a more fundamental and systematic critique of the social-political-economic system. Pressing problems generated a need for change; and change beget further change. (Beresford and Fforde 1996: 10-16; Jamieson 1993: 371-373). Reforms continued culminating in the explicit policy of "renovation" in late 1986.
As part of the gradual opening up of
Vietnam and the reforms that took place during the 1980s, the ability of artists to sell their paintings and to purchase the materials they needed to produce them steadily increased. In the early 1980s a few foreigners were already making their way to the home of Bui Xuan Phai to negotiate the purchase of his paintings even though relations between Vietnamese and foreigners were tightly restricted.
During the early 1980s Bui Xuan Phai produced much of his best work, received much of all the money he earned in his entire life, and enjoyed greater public recognition than at any other period. His only solo exhibition, representing the peak of his career, was held in 1984. His health, never robust, soon failed, and he died in 1988 at the age of 67.
The fate of many Vietnamese artists, especially in the north, was similar. Nguyen Sang, one of the giants of Vietnamese art for over 30 years, had studied at the Gia Dinh School of Fine Arts as a teenager, then graduated in the final class of the Indochina School of Fine Arts. He painted what may be some of the most successful works of socialist realism (although some of them were criticized on ideological grounds), as well as a large body of other works, encompassing a wide range of subject matter, media, and styles. Yet his first and only solo exhibition also came in 1984, when his artistic power was in serious decline. By then the demand for his work had exceeded his ability to produce it for several years, and he had few paintings left in his possession to exhibit. Most of the paintings at the exhibition were borrowed from a variety of owners. Between the 1984 exhibition and his death in 1988 at age 65, his paintings were in great demand, while his capacity to produce them was very limited.
The solo exhibitions by Phai and Sang were sponsored by the Vietnam Association of Fine Arts. The association also invited Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Duong Bich Lien to hold such exhibitions. Nghiem accepted the invitation, but Duong Bich Lien declined, further contributing to his isolation and relative obscurity compared to Phai, Sang, and Nghiem. Lien drank himself to death in 1988, the same year in which Phai and Sang died. But by then change was underway, change that would validate their values and affirm their worth, but which came too late to nurture their talents, or their purses.
In December 1986 the Sixth Party Congress announced a policy of "renovation." This dramatic announcement of a package of reforms appeared to be a sudden shift in direction, but for the most part it merely legitimated and accelerated a process of change that had begun years earlier and is still far from being completed. In art, for example, one could say that each of the Four Pillars of contemporary art had been "renovating" themselves and their work for many years. In 1970 Bui Xuan Phai confided to his diary: "True values will end up being recognized. All this bragging, these stupidities, the undeserved glories will soon be over" (Bekaert 1996; Tran Han Tuan 1995).
Part of renovation involved acknowledging the reality of the current state of the revolution, frankly taking note of past errors and current shortcomings. "Future-tense-ism" was losing its grip. Tolerance for criticism increased in many areas. The outspoken Nguyen Van Linh was elected Secretary General of the Party, and he himself expressed the opinion that "our arts and cultural achievements have been poor." While noting that some good works had been produced in the past decade, he concluded that "There should have been a lot more." (Nguyen Van Linh 1988: 99).
In October 1987 Nguyen Van Linh held an informal meeting with artists and cultural cadre in
Hanoi. In response to requests that writers and painters and other creative artists be "unshackled" from strict Party supervision, General Secretary Linh responded that he "learned with surprise that even in your domain there is also a mechanism of bureaucratic administrative management based on state subsidies."
"If we should promote democracy for producers in economic fields," he added, " I don't see why you should not exercise your right to mastery in your domain." "Stick to your guns," he told them. A month later Politburo Resolution Five relaxed the strict ideological control over arts and letters in
Vietnam. The purpose was to encourage greater quality and variety of artistic products. The resolution admitted that in the past management of cultural activities had been "simplistic, coarse and superficial, and undemocratic."
Over the past ten to fifteen years the world in which the artist conceives of his or her subject matter, obtains the materials needed to realize the finished painting, and disposes of the creative output, has been radically transformed. Painters and sculptors, like farmers, have regained control over the means of production and are making their own decisions. The number of painters has in creased. Painters have become more productive. The number and variety of paintings have been steadily increasing.
Decades of strenuous effort and significant expenditure by the state to produce several generations of artists to help fight a series of wars and to help create a new socialist society have produced a large number of trained painters. Newly energized by enhanced material well-being, greater freedom, market forces, and the intellectual stimulus of rapid social change, these painters now greatly exceed both in quantity and in quality anything one would expect to find in a country as poor as
Vietnam has been, and still is. Building on the achievements and sacrifices of earlier generations, contemporary Vietnamese art is now a much bigger and more vibrant field than it was ten years ago, or even only five years ago.
The total membership of the Association of Fine Arts in 1958 was only 108, covering the northern half of the country. By 1983 the membership was 547. By 1989 the membership had reached 800, by 1994 it was over 900. In 1994 in
Hanoialone there were 288 painters who were members of the Association of Fine Arts. In its newly opened exhibition hall in downtown
Hanoithe Association of Fine Arts sponsored 15 exhibitions in 1991; 33 in 1992; and 52 in 1993. But individuals and groups of painters were renting space in
Ho Chi Minh Cityand organizing their own exhibitions. There are now hundreds of exhibitions of one kind or another organized in
Vietnameach year. And galleries of various sizes and catering to a wide range of tastes are scattered throughout
Vietnam's larger cities.
A spate of nudes appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but these were a relatively decorous celebration of the possibility to explore ground that had long been forbidden. And there was virtually no overtly political art of protest, as one can find in many other countries where the rule of socialist realism was relaxed. Most artists, and especially the better ones, are simply trying to become even better painters, and to support themselves in this endeavor through the sale of their works.
The policy of renovation has been in existence for ten years now. Shortages, ration coupons, and long lines have been replaced by well-stocked markets, new shops, and mini-marts. On the streets and in the markets, on farms, at bookstalls, in restaurants and art galleries, scarcity and uniformity have been replaced by diversity and abundance.
The streets of
Hanoi have changed dramatically as well. The once leisurely flow of bicycles, pedicabs, and oxcarts has been joined and enlivened by a growing torrent of motorcycles, delivery vans, taxi cabs, and private automobiles. And during the same period representational paintings of socialist labor teams and revolutionary heroes have been jostled and crowded by a rich new mix of styles and themes. A process of diversification and revitalization is touching many domains of Vietnamese society. This is the context in which contemporary Vietnamese painting is vigorously developing.
Yet, amidst this rapid change and blossoming diversity, in contrast to the past fifty years, there is now only one Vietnamese art. Earlier divisions between traditional and modern, north and south, socialist and capitalist, representational and abstract, national and international, are blurring. Many