With the advent of Doi Moi (new change or renovation), Vietnamese fine art has been developing rapidly. After the end of the American War in 1975 until 1986 (when Doi Moi was implemented) the art community was stagnant partly because of a shortage of materials, but especially because of a dearth of new ideas. After 1986 artists were allowed to paint about wide variety of topics and in different styles which combined with the influx of tourism created a greatly revitalized art scene. The result was a tremendous gust of creativity sweeping through the country as studios and then galleries began appearing throughout the cities.
Along with the increased level of artistic activity came the inevitable process of self reflection and analysis. How much of the new artwork was genuine and of high quality? Which art reflected the true Vietnamese character and spirit? What new artwork was being produced solely for personal material gain? These questions had never been asked before and it is vital that before addressing this kind of inquiry one needs some understanding of the Vietnamese painting tradition.
Beginning with the establishment of the Hanoi Fine Art College in 1923 by the French painter Tardieu, the prevalent techniques and theories of Western painting entered the Vietnamese artist community. Before then the majority of art and craft was heavily influenced by centuries of contact with the Chinese. Eventually more and more Vietnamese were educated within the rigorous structure of the three French art academies (Hanoi, Saigon, Hue). The young Vietnamese students absorbed and then adapted this new knowledge to produce artwork which was largely a synthesis of European style and Vietnamese topics. The result over the successive decades was an elegant, finely executed regionalist approach toward redefining what constituted "fine art" in Vietnam.
Taking most of their cues from Western art movements, Vietnamese artists reflected, from their own perspective, a mirror image of themselves seen through a European filter. While much of the art ended up being a form of mimicry or flattery for the French colonial regime, some of the better more free thinking Vietnamese artists produced some strong and original images. Some examples of the most talented and independent artists of this period would include : Nguyen Phan Chanh (silk paintings), Nguyen Gia Tri (lacquer paintings), Bui Xuan Phai (oil paintings). Claims of authenticity become diluted when taking into consideration the natural changing nature of artistic movements öno artistic style or content dominates for very long in any country.
Vietnam, though, is unique in the world in one important way. It was virtually isolated from the rest of the world from 1975-1986 and for 30 years before that had been engaged in various versions of civil war. Understandably, the Vietnamese fine art world was deeply affected by this instability and lack of fresh information. In effect, much of the Vietnamese artistic sensibility had been "frozen" in time with the European post- impressionist style firmly established along with small traces of modernism. Meanwhile the development of the Western art world continued unabated with movement after movement, eventually superceded by the newest movement. So when Vietnam opened up in 1986, it was like peering into a time capsule. While much of the artwork was charming and unaffected, it was also staid and conservative, relative to the rest of the world.
By this time, 1999, after 13 years of a massive "art boom", Vietnam has witnessed a virtual flood of images. As in any country, most of the work could be described as not great, mediocre or even poorly done. This is to be expected, especially in Vietnam, where the art world was dormantfor so long. But it is an important period of growth because many new younger artists have had the chance to express themselves openly and some of the more established artists have had the opportunity to experiment and push their work forward. In addition, being cut off from the latest art information can be seen as an advantage because there is greater potential for truly original artwork when it is made outside the mainstream. Without a doubt, this recent period has yielded some significant work which will hold up in the future. It can be argued that this is one of the most exciting periods of Vietnamese art history owing to the wide range of imagery and the high degree of energy behind the artwork.
Probably the most enduring influence that this current period of art making has had on the Vietnamese artist is the widening of their world view. The art that they are making now is informed by current art trends, seen by people of many other countries and, most importantly, has a more universal intent. The best artwork is being made for eternity, for everyone in the world, not simply for the lone painter in his private studio. The character of the nation, the soul of the individual and a collective sense of the human race can be seen in Vietnamese contemporary artwork today. The visual artist of today is part of the vanguard which is introducing Vietnam to the world and welcoming the world to Vietnam.
Feb. 1999 Translated by Bradford Edwards
Reprinted with permission from http://www.hkw.de/english/culture/1999/vietnam/gap/gap.html