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Nguyen Tu Nghiem -- A passionate artist (November 18, 2003)

Nguyen Tu Nghiem
Standing in front of Apartment 110, on the ground floor of a block in Trung Tu residential quarter, Hanoi, I was looking up and down for the doorbell-button but found nothing at all. Seeing me as a stranger, a Japanese dog, with white and bushy hair, barked noisily. Following it was an elderly man on the wrong side of eighty, medium-statured, with a skin rarely tanned by the sun, in quite good shape. I understood at once the dog was his special bell.

He opened the door, saying: "I've been living here for more than 10 years and seldom go out of house."

He showed me his three-room apartment, his kitchen and the little verandah. The main room was littered with frames and paintings, some of them still unfinished, piled up in the corners or in heaps behind a few wooden icon-like statues that he had collected long ago, and the bedroom at the back was in the twilight.

Nguyen Tu Nghiem
With his wife, Nguyen Thu Giang.
Nguyen Tu Nghiem was born in 1922, from a Confucian scholar's family, in Nam Dan - Nghe An Province. His father, Nguyen Tu Ai, a Ph D second grade, worked as a feudal official in Hue, but later resigned his office to live in seclusion. The sixth child in a family of seven kids, Nghiem was the only one to embark on the artistic path. He entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts de l'Indochine in 1940, but his study was interrupted. As the conclusion of his course was nearing, the August Revolution in 1945 broke out; he returned to his home village and took part in the local uprising. As soon as the nation won independence, Nghiem went back to school to finish his graduation papers, which was not long before the French colonialists staged their comeback, once again to invade the country and the people launched a resistance war against it. Like others, Nghiem joined the resistance movement. At Viet Bac resistance base in the northernmost part of Vietnam, he took charge of the painting studio run by the Association of Literature and Arts, gave lectures and drew illustrations for the paper Toan dan khang chien (People's Resistance) of Bac Kan.

Life then was very hard, but he still fully dedicated himself to painting with great passion. He trekked to all corners of the land, with a rucksack on his back, a pad of paper and his paint-brushes, all travelling with him like a shadow. He made sketches of real life, the struggle of ordinary people, the scorched earth policy, etc. He met quite a few painters, musicians, writers and reporters who joined the resistance movement like himself.

Nghiem's first painting to be displayed in the National Resistance Exhibition in Tuyen Quang in 1949 was titled Du kich Phu Luu (the Phu Luu Guerillas) and won first prize. The money for this award was used to pay for the purchase of paper and oil-paints for his creations. He said: "Joining the resistance movement was on a voluntary basis, with no pay nor perks, and I seldom had ready cash to procure the artist's meterials."

Nguyen Tu Nghiem Nguyen Tu Nghiem
Thuy Kieu and Kim Trong (Lacquer).

Returning to Hanoi in 1954, he joined the Executive Committee of the Fine Arts Association and for some time gave lectures at the Artisan's School (predecessor of the College of Industrial Arts of today), and later transferred to the team of artistic creation. Living in a small room on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street he did everything, all of the housework, and his painting with exceptional passion and industry, oblivious to the spring coming in or the autumnal leaves falling. He became lost in the patches of colours and the figures on the paper so that, whenever he walked out of his home, he seemed to see the leaves dancing and waltzing in front of him.

Then, more than 10 years ago, love, a belated love, came to him: Nguyen Thu Giang, daughter of the well-known writer Nguyen Tuan, held his talent in high regard and fell in love with him. They lived together in a small house, tranquil and peaceful. He was now seldom seen outside he had someone to take care of his housework.

Nguyen Tu Nghiem Nguyen Tu Nghiem
'Ancient Dance' (Gouache). 'Ancient Dance' (Lacquer).

In the dark of his dim room, the painting Dieu Mua Co (Ancient dance), one of his famous works, still looked bright and vivid, and still enables people to figure out the dances of the young girls of the ancient Viet, that still look alive on ancient statues and graffiti, and in folk paintings.

Nguyen Tu Nghiem is an artistic and deliberate individual, but never lonely. On the contrary, he visualises, generalises and gathers all in the strong and profound intuition of his own. He said: “I'm not attached to any foreign arts; I only seek things in national art and find both humanity and modernity in it.”

Nguyen Tu Nghiem Nguyen Tu Nghiem
Embarking on a passionate hunt for the beautiful. 'Saint Giong' (Lacquer).

In such other paintings as 'Thanh Giong' (Saint Giong), 'Con Giong' (Animal Figurines) and 'Dieu Mua Co' (Ancient Dance), in lacquer or in gouache, the viewers always find characters, old and young, men and women, in strange positions. These you can only find in Buddhist grottoes, on altars of temples and pagodas, on hundreds of Buddhist statues, big and small, of bronze or lacquered wood, standing or kneeling, turning right or left, lost in the offerings of flowers or engulfed in the smoke of the burning incense sticks. Upon scrutiny, you will find in them all contemporary people that look so familiar - real people from the streets or villages, who exist to the rhythm of his creation. Nguyen Tu Nghiem seems oblivious of himself and keeps up the immutable mission of art. He appears to sincerely revere, almost religiously, the fate and happiness of ordinary people, men in the street, to the common rhythm of society. He came to the art of painting in the village lane of Vietnam, on which the flow of ancient arts attracts him and permeates in him, particularly Dong Son Art. He draws his inspiration from Dong Ho folk paintings, folk tales and national dances. It seems he has divorced himself from the principles of classical art of Europe to turn himself to the old national traditions. And this comeback has brought him closer to modernity. As art critic Duong Tuong puts it, “He’s drawn his inspiration from a profound source, and his art may induce people to easily mistake it with simplicity, delicacy hidden in children's innocence.”

In the many tales that he told me, quite a few things or details were neglected, even part of his life. However, with such a difficult life, this oblivion looked like the traits of a bas - relief - a man oblivious of himself, who has embarked on a passionate hunt for the mystery of the beautiful in the life of the ever day world.

Reprinted with permission from Nhan Dan Newspaper


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