Walk down the street in the artists quarter of Hanoi and with only a slight stretch of the imagination it is possible to believe oneself on the Left Bank in Paris early last century. Here contemporary Vietnamese artists, writers and musicians come together, drink coffee in French style coffee-houses and exchange ideas. In the tradition of Renaissance man, which still persists in Vietnam, many artists are also poets or a graduate of the College of Drama and Cinematography, Le Quan is a theatre designer, while Nguyen Dieu Thuy was formerly a concert violinist. Vietnam is a country, which places an unusually high value on its artistic heritage.
The present flowering of the arts in Vietnam, which has startled and delighted the art world, not only in Asia but all over the world in the past two decades, possess both great depth and great breadth. It stems from a strong and deep- rooted artistic tradition, one, which has survived a long struggle against a background of war and years of colonial rule to emerge again, refreshed and rejuvenated. Today it also encompasses a surprisingly wide spectrum of styles, sources of inspiration, media of execution and subject matter, from portraits to landscapes and cityscapes, from lacquer and folk – art inspired painting to works in oils on canvas.
Sculpture in Vietnam dates back to ancient times, with works of art including wooden statues, ceramics and relief decoration on pagodas, temples and communal houses. Two dimensional images focused on brush and ink drawings, and the coloured woodblock prints made for Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar new Year. Modern painting emerged in Vietnam in the 19th century with the arrival of the French Colonialists, who quickly imposed their influence on the Vietnamese intelligentsia. In 1925, the Academie des beaux Arts de I’Indochine was founded in Hanoi to train indigenous artists in the French classical style. Still Life’s, landscapes and portraits thus joined the traditional Vietnamese genres. In its 20-year life, the Academie trained over 120 painters and sculptors in the European tradition. Many of these artists, such as the master Bui Xuan Phai, who graduated in 1945, became leading figures in the development of modern art in Vietnam.
Many leading contemporary artists such as Thanh Chuong, Le Quan and Dang Xuan Hoa, in this exhibition, are graduated from the Hanoi College of Fine Arts, the successor to the Academie. But while all have been influenced by Western art movements and especially by artists such as Picasso, Gaugin, Cezanne, Matisse, Klee and Kandinsky, they have in no way aped their ideas or style.
Le Quan’s (B.1953) lyrical paintings show a close relationship to the French Impressionists, as seen in the importance of light and colour in his work. Quan excels at depicting the beauty of dappled sunlight on ancient street, old quarters and flower markets. Yet while his style may recall Western painting, his inspiration is his native Hanoi, with its vivid scarlet Banyan of flowers and the elegant simplicity of honest woman in traditional ao dai and conical hats going about their daily lives.
The romantic cityscapes and seascapes of Le Thanh Son (B. 1962) equally display the influence of Claude Monet, as well as Bui Xuan Phai. Son’s landscapes are mainly inspired by Hanoi, while his seascapes originate in the island of Cat Ba, 150 kilometres away, near the Chinese border, Hoi An in the South and Danang. His work varies from the tranquil luminosity of a single figure at dawn or girls in white ao dai strolling or bicycling by the lakeside at dusk, to the drama of bold seascapes with crashing waves and threatening skies, which have a strong Expressionist quality.
Dang Xuan Hoa (B.1959), in contrast, is intensely aware of the traditional aspects of Vietnamese culture and depicts a diversity of Vietnamese motifs in order to translate this awareness into contemporary art. Even so, while his still Life’s owe much to the folk art inspired work of Nguyen tu Nghiem (b.1922), many of his portraits are reminiscent of Van Gough and the influence of Picasso and Jackson Pollock are also evident. Hoa shows a desire to unite the aesthetics of West and East.
Thanh Chuong (b.1949), too, harks back to the village in his painting, expressing this return to tradition both in his medium, lacquer, which has an important cultural role in Vietnam, and his subject matter. Inspired by childhood and the countryside, Chuong’s work epitomises nostalgia for rural life, using age-old subjects such as buffalo. Though clearly influenced by Western art, the limited colour range and motifs are those used in traditional Vietnamese prints.
Departing in another direction, Nguyen Dieu Thuy (b.1962), paints figurative works and still life’s in a subdued, almost monochromatic palette. Her paintings, depicting graceful young girls in traditional dress in reflective poses, have a pleasing graphic simplicity of line and an instinctive feeling of balance in their composition. These are delicately refined works, though not, without a sense of mystery and sensuality and a distinctly Vietnamese mood. It seems that despite their great diversity of styles inspiration and subject matter, all the artists shown share a common aim: having absorbed the influence of Western art, they strive towards an artistic vision which is purely Vietnamese.