His gait was crooked, yet firm. His greying beard, thick near-sighted glasses and unadorned garb were deceiving, veiling an authoritative presence that rebounded with each of his steady steps.
Nam Son held me captive from the moment he entered my first class at the Indochina College of Fine Art. Viet Nam’s most famous artist, the great professor proved an inspirational figure to me in the 1940s.
Every day after his drawing class finished, I had the pleasure of his company as we rode bicycles from the college (near Van Mieu, the Temple of Literature) to Son Tay Town. Many students from the school travelled on the same route, but no one else dared to pedal alongside him.
There our friendship took shape. He made thoughtful recommendations to me about the lessons in class, advising me to study cultural relics from ancient pagodas and to practise sketching human models.
Once he asked me to stop, pointed to a white wall and asked me, "If you had to draw this wall, how would you draw it?"
I looked closely, trying to figure out what he meant. Fearing he would think it rash of me to give an instantaneous answer, I replied after a while, "Sir, this wall is coated with whitewash, so I think we just take white colour to paint it."
He shook his head, smiling. "Only painters would do so. Drawing an image, we must carefully observe it. In front of the wall is a lawn, above is the blue sky, around are trees, water jars and sunshine. These things affect the wall from all sides and make its white no longer purely that of painters’ whitewash. When drawing, you should portray the reflection of these colours on the wall."
It was a basic lesson on colour, which stuck with me. And when my classmates did their homework quickly so they could go out, the master advised me to learn the fundamentals well and stick to the books because – unlike my easygoing peers – I did not attend a pre-college course. After months of Master Nam Son’s devoted tuition, I made quick pro-gress.
But the March 9, 1945, coup against the Japanese disrupted that when the Asian occupiers forced the college to close and detained its rector. A month later, Master Nam Son and artist To Ngoc Van reopened a toned-down version of the school in the French army buildings for those of us clamouring to study, as Van Mieu had collapsed after a shootout.
Arranging exhibits of student work in Son Tay, Nam Son defied the authorities’ pro-Japanese stance to stir up nationalistic patriotism through a student poster salon titled "Independent Viet Nam".
The posters denounced the exploitation of the Vietnamese people at the hands of foreign aggressors, resulting in both a great famine and an obscurantism drowning local youth in hedonism. Of course the French colonialists were the face of villainy, but they implicitly roped in the Japanese and called for an uprising for independence.
After the master selected four of my posters for the show, he entrusted me to complete a 1.2x1m piece of work he had sketched in pencil depicting a peasant with a worn conical hat and latania raincoat, and carrying a book with the Chinese inscription "Heavenly Book".
It took two days of frenzied work, closely following his instructions – from the ochre hues to dotting technique – but his drawing was easy to understand, its pictures and colours simple and its layout sound.
That was the last lesson, the last attention given to me by Master Nam Son, as the college closed in 1945.
I never saw him again.
Though a student of the Master, I knew little about him because I rarely saw his drawings and his instinctive modesty shielded the multitude of international acclaim and respect his work garnered.
At the time I only knew he had taught at the college since its founding, had been a professor on a par with French teachers and taught Vietnamese painting in Japan. He once showed a print of his Nui Phu Si (Mt Fuji) during a lesson – though he never mentioned it was his – but I recognised his style from the Heavenly Book poster. That’s all.
In recent years, books and journals have plugged the gaps in his history for me – such as the fact that he is the only Vietnamese artist since 1930 whose work has been bought and exhibited by the French National Museum.
The piece, Cho Gao ben Song Hong (Rice Market on the Right Bank of the Red River), an Indian ink painting from 1930, is his most famous, though others include Nha Nho xu Bac (Confucian Scholar in Northern Viet Nam), Me toi (My Mother) and Nguoi Nong Dan Viet Nam (Vietnamese Peasant).
Between the global praise he earned 70 years ago and his role as a founder of the Indochina College of Fine Arts, Master Nam Son could easily be known as the "founding father" of modern Vietnamese art.
It is a badge of pride and admiration that we as students should engrave in our minds. — VNS
Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency