Saturday, 1 December 2012

An art tour with Sophie

The lovely Sophie at Frontline Gallery
Yesterday Jessica and I took part in Sophie’s Art Tour of Ho Chi Minh City, visiting five of the city’s galleries to explore how the Vietnamese art world has developed and augmented through the recent periods of colonialism, war, independence and globalisation. We met in a café in the city centre in the morning, where we drank and iced coffees and heard an introduction to the tour by our guide, Sophie Hughes. Sophie has worked in the arts in Ho Chi Minh City for three years and began her tour as a way of providing the information about Vietnamese art history that is neglected in the city’s museums. She is a lovely young woman- fun, knowledgeable and friendly.

There were to be four sections of the tour: the colonial period and the development of Vietnamese art under French influence, the two Indochina wars, covering the documentary work of combat artists and propaganda artwork, the pre- and post- reunification period and its effect on the lives and works of artists, and finally, the post-Doi Moi (open door) period and the subsequent development of modern, abstract and commercial Vietnamese art.
Sophie began with a background to French presence in Indochina. An effective element of her tour was the use of an iPad to show the group photographs and artwork to accompany her explanations; the images she used were well-chosen to provide context and background. One of such images was a poster for the Exposition Coloniale of 1931 in Paris (right), which Sophie used to demonstrate the influence that l’Indochine had on French culture during this period, from fashion to architecture. The poster is aesthetic but inaccurate as the ‘Indochinese’ man in the image, wearing a conical hat, looks black rather than Asian.

In 1651, the French Jesuit scholar Alexandre de Rhodes introduced a Romanised version of the Vietnamese language to a country with very low literacy rates as the established written language, Nom, which used adapted Chinese characters, was incredibly difficult to learn. In 1860, Romanised Vietnamese was introduced to French-run schools, sparking a boom in literacy rates and the development of the educated, intellectual class. From here onwards, the development of modern Vietnamese thought and a turn away from traditional Confucian ideas can be marked. This was significant for the development of the arts and politics.

A portrait of Duc Minh
The first gallery we visited was the Duc Minh Gallery on Duong Le Quy Don. This is a commercial gallery with a private collection that belonged to Mr Duc Minh, an art collector who managed to hold on to his 1,000 or so works throughout the communist takeover period. He had offered his collection to the National Museum in Hanoi on his death in 1983, on the condition that the collection be held under his name. The museum refused this request and so his collection remains in Saigon. This private gallery offers a selection of the works. Many of the works in this gallery came from students of the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l'Indochine, established in Hanoi in 1925 by Victor Tardieu and Nam Son. The school taught artistic disciplines such linear perspective and anatomy, and introduced oil painting to Vietnam. Surprisingly, it was also this school that introduced lacquer as an art form. Lacquer, made from the dried sap of the Asian sumac tree, has long been used in religious decoration in Vietnam, but it was a French teacher of the art school, Joseph Inguimberty, who first encouraged the use of lacquer for art, which can be adorned with crushed eggshell, mother-of-pearl and gold leaf to create distinctive artwork. It was here that Nguyen Gia Tri, Vietnam’s most celebrated lacquer artist, was trained.

Sophie demonstrated how impressionist depictions of light and movement on water could be seen in a painting of wooden sampans on a river- a distinctly Vietnamese subject, and explained the controversy of To Ngoc Van’s Girl with Lilies (1943) in depicting a beautiful, rosy-cheeked young girl posing beside a large, open flower: provocative, sensual and challenging to perceived ideas about the function of depicting women in artwork.

Girl with Lilies by To Ngoc Van (1943)

In 1945 Ho Chi Minh declared the independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Ba Dinh square, Hanoi. Many artists followed him in the Viet Minh resistance movement and relocated to the hills in the North-West of Vietnam. Eight years of fighting ensued as the French attempted the regain control of Vietnam following the end of the Second World War. In 1954, the French surrendered after being overwhelmed at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. In an attempt to prevent all of Vietnam ‘falling’ to communism, the international community decreed at the Geneva Convention to split Vietnam at the 17th parallel of latitude, with a communist, Russian-supported North and a capitalist, US-supported South. The USA installed Catholic and anti-communist Ngo Dinh Diem to preside over South Vietnam through a fraudulent plebiscite in 1955. Diem’s lack of popular support and the widespread corruption within the South Vietnamese government led to the state digressing into a military one. American troops were sent to monitor the situation and to aid the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN) in opposing resistance groups, the roots of the two decade long American War.

Richard compares an original to its reproduction 
We looked at the work produced by combat artists who documented both wars from the frontlines, and the propaganda art that was produced during the period. The two were often interlinked. Firstly, we visited Frontline Gallery in the home of Richard di San Marzano and his wife. Richard is the curator of the Dogma Collection, the world’s largest collection of propaganda posters. We visited the Dogma Gallery and Shop later in the day. The artworks in Frontline gallery were mostly reproductions of canvas and paper paintings and sketches produced by combat artists. Sophie explained that as 60% of combat artists were killed in the battlefields, those who survived were reluctant to let go of pieces of art that were very meaningful to them, testaments to the experiences they lived through. Reproductions were seen as a solution to this difficulty- allowing artists to keep their original artwork while displaying copies for the public to appreciate. Many of the artists on the frontline met former students of the French art school in Hanoi, some of whom would set up workshops or exhibitions in the jungle. In this way, French art lessons were passed between young Vietnamese artists in the midst of the resistance fight against the French, Sophie neatly observed. She pointed to a sketch of a group of soldiers by Nguyen Duc Tho that uses a composition technique typical of the Italian Renaissance, whereby the composition is formed in a spiral shape to draw the eye to the centre of the image, replicating natural forms such as shells, flowers and fossils.

The images in Richard’s gallery weren’t masterpieces- most were produced very quickly due to the dangerous environment- but they were very interesting and important historical documents of the lives of soldiers and civilians at the forefront of the war. Huynh Phuong Dong’s Decorated Hero, Nguyen Van Dung (1963) (right) shows the bravery of both the subject and artist in facing oncoming South Vietnamese tanks and US helicopters in a battle. Another value of the work of combat artists was the therapeutic effect on soldiers of sitting for portraits. In the dehumanising environment of war, soldiers greatly valued this care and attention and would treasure the images produced by the artist. Indeed, artists were highly valued within the military. It was interesting to note that several of the works on display featured children; Sophie reminded us that the war permeated everyday life for much of the Vietnamese population. Civilians were often armed and would occasionally shoot down US planes!

We went on to the Dogma Gallery and Shop at 43 Ton That Thiep, where we saw a sample of propaganda posters produced during the war and afterwards, in the rebuilding of the reunified nation. In fact, socialist realist-style propaganda remains the preferred method of public communication by the People’s Committee, as can be seen by looking at government posters across Ho Chi Minh City. Sophie explained that Vietnamese propaganda art is unique from Chinese and Russian counterparts as the images are individualised, the wording is poetic and works are often signed. They were often naive in style as they were produced by untrained artists. Many feature distinctive iconography such as the lotus, the national flower, and images of ethnic minority people, who helped liberation soldiers from the lowlands by showing them how to find water and avoid disease in the jungle highlands. It is also worth visiting the great little souvenir shop on the ground floor which sells mugs, magnets and notebooks based on propaganda images.

'The most beautiful flower is the lotus; the finest name is Uncle Ho'- from the Dogma collection online 

At the Fine Arts Museum we compared artworks of the pre- and post-reunification periods and saw work from Southern artists for the first time. In the wartime period art flourished in Saigon, where there was relative peace and the fashion and rock n’ roll culture of the swinging sixties took hold. Sophie showed us around some of the work and pointed out how European art had influenced the work of Vietnamese artists, albeit with a significant time lapse. When the North Vietnamese Army and National Liberation Front forces captured Saigon in April 1975 and reunified the north and south under a communist government, many artists fled the country and abandoned their work to escape persecution. Therefore the collection at the Fine Arts Museum is rare and valuable.

The new communist government, primarily made up of Northerners, appreciated the importance of artists but were careful to rigidly refocus and regulate their work. Artists were sent to ports, railway lines and factories to document the reconstruction of country in a celebratory nature (although the government ceased to send artists to ports when so many of them went missing). They would also be subjected to eight-hour lectures on Marxism and Vietnamese culture by Ho Chi Minh’s right-hand man, Trung Chin. Art was stifled into uniform, socialist realist propaganda pieces. In 1975, a Northerner named Nguyen Kao Thuong became the headmaster of the Saigon Fine Arts University. He set about destroying all nude sculptures in the buildings and redirected the school to only produce government-approved artwork.

Where the Vietnamese art scene came into its own was following the Doi Moi, or open doors policy, of 1986, when the government opened up enterprise and foreign investment to the country in order to kick-start its shattered economy. Foreigners and returning Vietnamese informed the new art scene; investment allowed artists to experiment with expensive mediums such as sculpture. The two prevailing streams at the time were that of abstract art as an expression of the excitement of new-found freedom, and a nostalgic return to the romanticised imagery of the ‘old Indochina’. In 1990, the first commercial gallery was opened on Dong Khoi and many more followed. Unfortunately, many of these were exploitative of artists who were desperate to make some money for the first time in decades. With this boom, artists, previously a highly respected but impoverished class, could become incredibly rich by producing commercial, popularised art. Sophie gave us the example of a hugely popular Saigon-based artist named Nguyen Thanh Binh. He began producing very beautiful and simple paintings of Vietnamese girls wearing white ao-dais carrying lotuses or ballet-dancing, which have become incredibly popular in Vietnam. On a trip to the UK, he was taken to Cambridge and was so besotted with the town that he vowed his children would study at Cambridge University. Returning to Vietnam, he continued to produce artwork following the popular trend, often very repetitively, in order to fund his dream. Sure enough, both of his children went to British universities (although Newcastle and Hull, not quite Cambridge) and Binh was satisfied. When asked about his work, however, he feels that he is merely producing a popular product, not art.
One of Nguyen Thanh Binh's works

Me outside San Art
In the final chapter of our story, we visited San Art, an artist-run exhibition space and reading room in Binh Thanh district since 2007. Such places are very important to the Vietnamese art scene in filling the gap left in the rigid teaching of art in state education. Apparently, foreign teachers in Vietnamese government schools are not permitted to teach art theory or critique to students, only the technical aspects. It takes independent galleries and projects such as this one to provide the diverse study and access to information that young Vietnamese artists may miss out on. San Art recently hosted Vietnam’s first artist-in-residence project over a six-month period, the results of which we went to see.

I learned from this tour that there is more to Vietnamese art than the approved socialist realist pieces of the Fine Arts Museum and the replicas of Van Goch and Klimpt in the Dong Khoi commercial galleries. Hidden in residential streets behind wrought-iron gates are private collections that mark the most interesting cultural moments of 20th and 21st century Vietnamese history. Sophie’s tour was successful in putting the pieces together of a dramatically changing art history. But at 950,000 dong (almost £30) a pop, it is very dear. With the Fine Arts Museum providing very little information for visitors, and considering the lack of government funding for the and the censored education system, it seems that, sadly, for a real art education, students, tourists and Vietnamese alike must turn to the private sector.

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