The inscrutable face of a Vietnamese girl half sitting on an antique French chair-some time during the occupation of Indochina during World War Two-what makes me, a man born in the early 1960s in Matlock, a small agricultural town in the county of Derbyshire, northwest England, fall in love with a painting of an eight year old girl sitting in a room in Hanoi’s Hang Cot Street in 1943?
We all have our favourite paintings, our favoured pieces of music and books, associated perhaps with our memory, our childhood, our family, our education, our lives and they usually evoke a strong emotional response within us. But how many times have we sat down to see if they were created, painted or written in our lifetime or by people from our own culture? We are all proud of our own cultural identity-it provides a cornerstone to our sense of self whether it be defined by geography, nationality or ethnicity. But art more often than not transcends these cultural barriers-it’s certainly not unusual to find Mozart lovers outside of Austria or tango lovers outside Argentina!
I wish I could say that the first time I saw ‘Em Thuy’ a thunderbolt struck me followed by a triumphant chorus of recognition for something inherently beautiful, that it was love at first sight, but it wasn’t like that. I cannot actually remember the very first time I saw a reproduction of the painting. It was certainly before I arrived in Vietnam because when I saw it here in Hanoi in an art catalogue I immediately recognised it as something already in my consciousness, perhaps from a fine art coffee table book I leafed through absentmindedly in a friend’s house or bookshop years ago in London or Manchester? However, I can remember the first time I saw the painting for real-it was (and still is) hung high up on a wall in the Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi’s Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, crowded in by other Vietnamese works from the 1930s and 1940s. For me it stood out like a beacon of serenity. I suddenly felt very emotional and I shed a solitary tear for its absolute simplicity and for Thuy herself, sitting there looking over me as the guardian of the memory of my childhood.
Since then the picture, painted by her uncle Tran Van Can, has gradually entwined itself around my soul much like Vietnam has. It reminds me of myself as a child and of children in general. I too was shy, pale, introverted just like Em Thuy. I sat like that on half of the chair seat with my hands together for some sense of security against the world but also for poise and politeness-my face was often emotionless and inscrutable as my inner turmoil struggled to make sense of the world around me. I was also proud like Thuy but her pride is as solid and unmoveable as a mountain.
Somehow through the magic of art, a shy gamine sitting in a chair with a blank look portrays an overwhelming sense of indomitable pride, dignity and above all mystery. Perhaps the painting is a vessel for me, or a mirror to help me understand myself and Vietnam, my new home. And it is also a clue to why we all need to find our own sense of self and identity in ways that transcend words, numbers, and logic. Through the magic of art Tran Van Can has painted a picture in which I can see, sixty years after it was painted, someone who knows who she is, where she is from and where she is going, but at the same time who is as vulnerable as a bird and shrouded in hidden meaning. What better analogy of the human condition or being a child is there?
As a composer, I tried to capture the bittersweet feeling of childhood in music in a piece I call Little Thuy's Minuet. It’s a simple children’s song in waltz time dedicated to the painting and the feelings it inspires in me. It is the first of three pieces written since I’ve lived in Vietnam that I collectively call The Hanoi Suite. When Thuy, and her husband, Phuc, heard it for the first time this summer close to her 67th birthday, he noted that the piece although sweet and innocent nonetheless had a musical question mark at the end-a hint of a darker mood. He’s right, the coda hears diminished arpeggios breaking up the neat symmetry of the previous measures. Does this allude to the impending storm I can sense in the painting, or a child on the cusp of innocence and something darker, more real?
So for me the journey that is my love affair with this painting, as well as having a connection to my own past, also has new routes and new relationships with other people. At the debut of The Hanoi Suite played by the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra the connections began to appear almost before the applause had died away. For Thuy it made her vividly recall her uncle who loved her so much and who always brought her presents on returning from trips. Although the family was large with many children, Thuy was Can’s favourite. My Vietnamese teacher, Binh, told me that the minuet reminded her of Hanoi in the autumn-her Hanoi and her autumn-not mine. The conductor, Graham Sutcliffe, who also kindly arranged the suite for string quartet and orchestra, told me that a member of the string section wanted a copy of the minuet for himself and, the next day, that he had received several phone calls from people who wanted to know more about the music. An Australian friend, Martin, also in the audience, told me that he couldn’t believe a Westerner could write music that evoked in him a flavour of Vietnam-his Vietnam, not mine.
Beyond the concert hall the connections continued. One of our British Council staff, Ha, who knows the painting well, as do most Vietnamese I meet, thinks that our Information Centre Manager, Thuy, looks just like Em Thuy and this makes British Council Thuy feel cheerful (and it’s true there is a clear likeness). I scan a postcard of the painting and a picture of Thuy at the debut concert and e-mail them to my friends in Canada, Indonesia, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and the USA. Some write back congratulating me on the debut and saying how beautiful the painting is and how Thuy retains her elegance to this day. And the reactions abound until I realise that we all need to be connected in ways that transcend the normal-family, work, logic, politics, economics-and art is often the most powerful connector.
I have been very lucky to meet Thóy now in her later years and also to see other portraits her uncle painted of her throughout his life. (I was especially moved to see a portrait of Thóy in her twenties, painted by TrÇn V¨n CÈn and given to Phóc to remind him of his wife when he went to study in the Soviet Union.) It is not every day that you have the privilege of meeting a national icon who so clearly reflects the spirit and character of the nation she lives in as well as the universally accepted values of modesty, self-respect and pride. At our first meeting Thóy recounted to me that she was impatient when sitting for her uncle in the hours after school in sticky summertime Hµ Néi-it seemed a tedious task to her, although she also recalls the painting was completed quite quickly after several previous unsatisfactory attempts. Little did this child know what feelings her portrait would inspire. CÈn clearly adored his young niece. And through the magic of art he has painted every child in the world and the child in all our souls, and he is telling us to look after both.n
Paul Zetter is Assistant Director of the British Council in Vietnam and has lived in Hanoi since 1998. If you would like a copy of the piano music of Little Thuy’s Minuet please contact Paul on 00 84 (0) 9034 17270 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Reprinted with permission from VASC Orient