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Nguyen Sang – Huge and Tender

Nguyen Sang – Huge and Tender

From the introduction to the book, Nguyen Sang
Nguyen Quan - Vietnamese painter Nguyen Quan
A self-taught painter, sculptor, art researcher and art critic. Participated in many solo and group shows in VietNam and around the world
In the early 70's, taken by a friend on a visit to Nguyen Sang at his walk-up on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, I already decided that he was an artist of first importance of our contemporary art after 1945. This was prevailed upon me by a small-size self-portrait of light brown-yellow color in a solid wooden frame, which seemed too big for the frailty of the painting. The whole thing - the bald head, the sinewy neck, the seemingly dehydrated and hardened muscles - seemed inanimate like a big round pebble whose formal beauty is due to the rigor of the style. The eyes, dazed, were filled with childish astonishment as though bewildered, probing and wondering. Worldly-wise and experienced yet always agape and ready to marvel at things, such is the face of a sage. And it was in this light that the painting presented Nguyen Sang to me. Modern Vietnamese artists seldom paint portraits, God knows why (however, ancient sculptured portraits of the Trinh-Nguyen period still found in pagodas, temples, communal houses... are real splendid). Nguyen Sang is an exception in this line of consideration, a real master in visualizing the subject's destiny rather than his or her character or features. The portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Tran Thinh, Mr. and Mrs. Viet Chau, writer To Hoai, writer Nguyen Tuan, artist Bui Xuan Phai, artist Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Mr. Lam the cafe owner ... done by him, all represent the subjects' different destinies in robust, thick strokes like village wrestlers and in a weighty gamut of colors with very few melodramatic or Iyrical elements. He read out those destinies in a deep, heavy and well-articulated voice without fripperies or explanatory or analogical redundancies. Looking at those portraits, you are dispensed from asking such routine questions as: who? where? when? how? - a kind of snare which is likely to make painting narrative, metaphorical or prone to analogizing. You are directly faced with a person whose destiny carries you away as does a natural current. In Nguyen Sang, is plain to be seen a daring, rigorous conciseness verging on brutality, something that only those masters of language endowed with a tremendous vocabulary and a consummate wordcraft can effect so succinctly, so robustly and so beautifully with such economy of means.
Nguyen Sang -- Vietnam artist
A native of the South, Nguyen Sang went to study fine arts in Ha Noi, then settled there. Not until almost 50 years after did he come back to Saigon to pass away there in poverty. All his life, he never knew what happiness and leisure are like. Having fought the anti-French resistance to the end, he was however in bad odor for advocating the "Humanism" movement afterwards. Some colleagues of his generation then occupying leading posts, though thinking highly of his talents, dared not pay tribute to his merits publicly. To all these reverses of fortune was added the loss of his sickly wife with whom he shared just a few short years of conjugal life. For quite a while afterward, he suffered a slight form of mania of persecution.
In 1984, his first and last solo exhibition organized by the Viet Nam Fine Arts Association at the Fine Arts Museum made a hit. Featuring over 140) works, mostly oil and lacquer paintings, collected from, many parts of the country, it was an extraordinary event which marked an epoch. Up till now, I have always believed it to be the most monumental one-man show ever put up in Vietnam. To be sure, and understandably enough, backbiters did wag their tongues out of envy, but on the whole, those still "in the shade" and misappreciated like Duong Bich Lien, Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Tu Nghiem and artists of the younger generation enthusiastically acclaimed it with infinite emotion. All of a sudden, everybody recognized Nguyen Sang with his monumental The Enemy Burned Down My Village, Admitted As Party Member on the Dien Bien Phu Frontline, Saint Giong, The Fatherland's Brass Citadel, Night March in the Rain ... as the No. 1 painter of the Revolution, an eminent representative of the school of socialist realism in Vietnam. Among a tremendous amount of narrative, descriptive, illustrative, conformist stuff, Nguyen Sang stood out there, august like a wiseman, speaking out stately of the pathetic and the fate of the laboring people in the Revolution. The topical agenda passes and his works remain there, imposing like cliffs at the ebb tide. In the National Fine Arts Museum in Ha Noi where are kept major works dealing with the theme of Revolution, Nguyen Sang's paintings are the highlights.
Nguyen Sang -- Vietnam artist
Nguyen Sang was very skilled and painstakingly careful. There were anecdotes about him, but he did not like to be puffed up nor to relish on petty witticisms like those "would be masters" prone to act as "neglected geniuses". It seems to me that he never blame his unfortunate plight on anybody or anything. He was self-confident, not self-conceited. "I prefer our folk paintings to Matisse's works", he said to a foreign visitor when the latter sang the praises of the French master before him. At his exhibition, he were very polite with the leading cadres, but when a dignitary set to explain his work to another one, he calmly dismissed the comment: "Leave it to me, please" "We are all grown-ups" he often told his friends, this sounded like a joke, but he was very serious. He drank "Tonkinese" alcohol, smoked 555 cigarettes, rode a Peugeot motorbike, wore a Leninstyle cap and declined invitations to visit foreign countries lest he could not get used to the ways and customs abroad. "Lions always go by themselves" and "Phoenixes don't feed near their nests" were what he repeatedly said. He seldom discussed about art and to whoever takes a fancy to philosophizing, he just shrugged it off: "When did you unearth a philosophy in our country?" and that's that. He would absorbedly chalk one after another sketches on the tiled floor of his room till he got thick, twisted lines representing something like boas or wrestlers at grips with one another and a constellation, which later were elaborated in the lacquer painting titled "Universe" commissioned him by a Japanese who never came back to pick it. He was always a solitary man - in my and many others' memory. It is that solitary life in essence that makes him a personage without any need of prose or verses or camera or stage to embellish
Nguyen Sang is one of the three artists - the two others are Nguyen Tu Nghiem an Bui Xuan Phai - who broke off with the French realistic, impressionistic style taught at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux Arts d'Indochine and blazed the trail for the younger generations toward a national-modern art. His painting throbs with life on flat backgrounds, is sparing of colors but rich in tones and hues, and therefore, highly evocative of space. On a flat background as firm as a carefully rubbed-up stone surface evoking an undisturbed afternoon sky with all innermost feelings repressed, stand out compact, occasionally thin, but invariably robust and free-wheeling strokes punctuated with supple swervings, which help create spaces and volumes while remaining tenderly emotive Nguyen Sang's art is not alien either from drawings of the early period of this century, or from Dong Ho, Hang Trong folk prints which are so fancy-free yet so tender to every detail After Nguyen Gia Tri, Sang is a first rate master in Vietnamese lacquer painting. However, he did not resort to either decorative elements or traditional screens, as did the former; without frilleries or ancient calligraphy, he brought lacquer painting to its most denuded, purest essence of visual material. Therefore, his painting is very modern and not far from the work of modern European artists (in the 1915-45 period) with whom he kept dialoguing enthusiastically. It is safe to say that if Bui Xuan Phai's influence is emotive and Nguyen Tu Nghiem's suggestive in aesthetic language, Nguyen Sang's is a kind of irresistible ascendancy emanating from his style and spirit as a whole. In him, the implacable, strong candidness of Nam Bo is complete with the deep-lying profundity and time-honored noble elegance of Bac Ha. "No place for ugliness in Sang's art", that is the unanimous comment of a good many friends and disciples of.
Nguyen Sang -- Vietnam artist
No doubt, among the cultural and artistic achievements in Viet Nam in the l945-85 period, the most mature ones are in the domain of painting with the three pillars Phai-Sang-Nghiem in the lead. They closed a period and opened up a new one, and the humanist aesthetic value of their works will come over all discontinuities to go with us toward the future.
Nguyen Sang departed in misery before gaining fame in his home place whereto he came back after a half-century. Back to my mind comes a line from Nguyen Du's Kieu: "The thought the long road ahead fills (me) with dread", which corresponds so well to the fate of every genuine creator as is vividly exemplified by Nguyen Sang's. And the only salvation lies in blissful creation and death.
From the introduction to the book, Nguyen Sang


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