HANOI: Vietnam’s wartime propaganda art inspired the masses a generation ago but as the communist country is hurling itself into the capitalist era the faded posters are getting a new lease on life.
Images of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, golden stars and square-jawed soldiers now grace coffee mugs; T-shirts and knock-off posters sold by the thousands to tourists as iconic souvenirs from Vietnam’s turbulent past.
Surviving original artwork from the ‘American War’ that was slowly rotting away a decade ago now fetches top dollar, and one foreign collector has amassed a large collection that may soon hit the Asian gallery circuit.
“A soldier has a rifle to fight in the battlefield, but I used my paintbrush as a weapon,” said Luong Xuan Hiep, a master of the genre who worked as a young artistic cadre when the former Saigon fell to communist troops in 1975. Sitting in his Hanoi studio, the 56-year-old showed off his first picture to be reproduced in a national print run, an idealised view of victorious soldiers, workers and students celebrating the unification of the country.
“The war was long and many Vietnamese people had died, so when the country was unified, everybody was happy,” he remembered. “I saw that happiness, and I wanted to reflect that great passion of the people in my picture.” Hiep said he learned to paint from his father, Luong Xuan Nhi, a classically trained artist who died this year at age 94 after a lifetime of producing propaganda posters, first against the French then the Americans.
“I learnt from my father that it’s not necessary to use so many colours for a picture,” said Hiep. “Some basic, simple colours can help a painter reflect what he wants to say and make a powerful point.” It is the simple pop art-like aesthetic of the posters that has caught the eye of a new generation of aficionados, along with a sometime ironic appreciation of the romanticised images and communist battle slogans. Official translations of some captions include:
“The fire of struggle is roaring,” “Bombs and bullets cannot kill a heroic people” and “Bring into play the skills of our traditional crack troops”. The graphic style borrows from the socialist-realism of Soviet Russia and, later, Maoist China and typical themes include patriotic farmers enhancing food production, or a gritty guerrilla mum with a baby under one arm and an AK-47 assault rifle under the other.
Many images feature indigenous elements such as bamboo and lotus flowers, Asian symbols of purity, to soften the hard martial themes. “Uncle Ho”-as the late guerilla leader who became president is affectionately known-is usually depicted immersed in study or playing with children. Other posters unashamedly demonise the enemy, showing captive US pilots unshaven with bowed heads, forests scorched by napalm and defoliant Agent Orange, or the face of then US president Richard Nixon on the tip of a missile.
“The images are powerful because they show a country in a time of struggle,” said Dominic Scriven, a British investment fund manager who runs Ho Chi Minh City’s Dogma Gallery and has hundreds of propaganda posters.
“Painters, journalists, the media as a whole had a hugely important role in the Vietnamese struggle for independence. Propaganda art relied on visual images that could be easily absorbed in the countryside.” Scriven, who this year co-published the book “Dogma: Morale from the Ministry,” plans to take his collection to Hong Kong and other Asian galleries within a year to share what he says is a uniquely Vietnamese style.
Ironically it was the French who laid the foundation for the propaganda artists when they set up the Fine Arts College in Hanoi in 1924, spawning generations of painters who blended European styles and Vietnamese themes. Many of these classically trained artists, among them Hiep’s father Nhi, would from 1945 use their talents to help expel their colonial overlords.
“Culture, literature and art are also a battlefront, and you are all fighters on that front,” Ho said in 1951, ringing in the era of socialist realism when the dictum was “art to serve the people”. Nudes and abstract art were banned, and painters became state-salaried artistic cadres sent to rice paddies, coal mines and, as American military involvement heated up, battlefronts. Much of the art reflects Northern wartime frugality, with most posters hand painted, sometimes on American parachute silk, or reproduced in limited print runs using woodcuts, then delivered by bicycle to villages.
Reprinted from TheNews