A little-known group of Vietnamese artists helped reinvigorate a waning art scene during the war years. 

Scholars have paid much attention to a younger generation of contemporary Vietnamese artists working after the Doi Moi economic reforms of 1989, but little has been written about the influential artists who trained during the Indochina wars between 1945 and 1975. Art Radar travels back in time to meet five of these artists. 

Pham Thanh Tam, 'Khe Sanh', 1967, watercolour on paper, 14.5 x 20 cm. Image courtesy the Witness Collection.

Pham Thanh Tam, ‘Khe Sanh’, 1967, watercolour on paper, 14.5 x 20 cm. Image courtesy the Witness Collection.

This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

The Vietnamese Young Artists Association (VYAA), established in November 1966 and disbanded in 1975, is remembered with fondness by many artists, curators and gallery owners who worked during the war years. In the midst of political instability, the group’s members gathered together to promote progressive art making that challenged artistic conventions and political suppression. The group features a number of successful artists, many of whom have participated in international exhibitions.

Vietnamese art history has been hard to document as the Asia Art Archive explains in its excellent digitial archives. The group’s existence is largely absent in official Vietnamese records and archives, yet the VYAA is considered by many to be one of the most influential modern art groups to come out of Vietnam in the mid-20th century.

Phan Ke An, 'Ho Chi Minh', 1948, charcoal on paper, 27.0 x 20.8cm. Image courtesy the Witness Collection.

Phan Ke An, ‘Ho Chi Minh’, 1948, charcoal on paper, 27.0 x 20.8cm. Image courtesy the Witness Collection.

The historical context for an emerging VYAA

Vietnam’s ongoing wars with France and the United States significantly impacted the art scene between 1945 and 1975. Prior to Vietnam’s push for independence from the French colonialists in 1945, the country witnessed an increase in artistic production as artists who trained in and outside of the Ecole Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine or FACI (Fine Arts College of Indochina) experimented with a mixture of Western, Eastern, modern and traditional aesthetics and techniques.

It was this period between 1945 and 1975 that produced two Vietnamese artists who have come to be known as ‘the fathers of modern art’: Bui Xuan Phai (1922-1988) and Nguyen Tu Nghiem (b. 1922), known for their resistance to restrictive art regulations.

During the 1945 August Revolution, northern communist nationalists led by Ho Chi Minh overthrew the imperial French and seized power in the north. France continued to fight for rule of the country until it was defeated in 1954. This resulted in the Geneva Accords, which divided the country, along with its art scene, in two. The North ceded control to Ho Chi Minh and the South to Emperor Bao Dai.

In North Vietnam, artists were employed as propagandists to paint and sculpt images of a prospering society under the communist leadership of Ho Chi Minh. Despite their adherence to the Communist Party, the government distrusted artists working in avant-garde styles, suspicious of its potential to foment ideas of bourgeois individualism. Artists in the North were enlisted to work in Soviet Socialist Realism. Those artists working in Hanoi, many of who had previously experimented with Cubism, Impressionism and Surrealism, compromised their artistic interests to paint safer subjects, including portraits of Ho Chi Minh, images of happy, hard-working citizens and verdant landscapes rife with peasants eager to fight for their communist government.

Following the Geneva Accord, over 800,000 northerners fled to the South in 1954, including artists uninterested in adhering to the North’s socialist realist doctrines. The mass exodus included numerous intellectual elites, such as Ta Ty, who considerably bolstered the South’s artistic development in the following years and profoundly contributed to the foundation of the Young Artists Association in 1966, though he chose to remain anonymous in its list of founding members due to privacy reasons.

Ta Ty, 'Nguyen Sa', 1965, gouache and ink on paper, 35.5 x 30.9 cm. Courtesy the Witness Collection.

Ta Ty, ‘Nguyen Sa’, 1965, gouache and ink on paper, 35.5 x 30.9 cm. Image courtesy the Witness Collection.

Southern Vietnam, then known as the Republic of Vietnam, was more open in its artistic leanings, allowing artists economic, political and stylistic freedom. Between 1955 and 1963, following the migration of intellectuals and artists to South Vietnam, Saigon witnessed a golden era of artistic production. According to the records of the Saigon-Gia Dinh College of Fine Art, the South held over 50 exhibitions per year, which amounted to nearly one exhibition each week. The International Exhibition of 1962 was considerably the largest, held over three weeks with the participation of overseas artists.

By the mid-1960s, however, the war with the United States and increasing attacks from North Vietnam dampened the momentum of the South’s art scene. By 1965 artistic events were scarce and art supplies were difficult to attain. Artists became negligent and uninspired, and galleries began showing commercialised works rather than new, challenging pieces. The members of the VYAA banded together in the midst of this crisis in the hopes of revitalising the industry to its previous health in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Nguyen Trung, 'Lunar Arc', 1992, oil on canvas, 95 x 95 cm. Image courtesy Thavibu Gallery.

Nguyen Trung, ‘Lunar Arc’, 1992, oil on canvas, 95 x 95 cm. Image courtesy Thavibu Gallery.

The Founding of the Vietnamese Young Artist Association

According to artist and VYAA secretary Trinh Cung, the VYAA was initially conceived of by two prominent figures in the Republic of Vietnam government: the Minister of Youth, Dr. Nguyen Tan Hong, and Commanding Officer of the Air Force, Ngi Cao Uyen. The latter was a respected artist and the former an intellectual. The two of them, along with artist Cu Nguyen were the first to discuss assembling a group of well-known artists to reinvigorate Vietnamese art.

In the absence of a separate headquarters, the first official meeting of the VYAA took place at the home of Dr. Nguyen Tan Hong on Phan Thanh Gian Road in Saigon’s District 3 in November 1966. In addition to Dr. Nguyen Tan Hong, the attendees included painters and sculptors Ngy Cao Uyen, Nghieu De, Cu Nguyen, Nguyen Trung, Hieu De, Nguyen Phuoc, Nguyen Lam, Mai Chung, Dinh Cuong, Ho Thanh Duc and Trinh Cung. Painter Ngy Cao Uyen was elected Interim President of the Association, Nguyen Trung and Mai Chung became deputies and Trinh Cung took on the role of secretary.

Nguyen Lam, 'Abstract IV', oil on canvas, 100 x 130 cm. Image courtesy ArtBlue Studio.

Nguyen Lam, ‘Abstract IV’, oil on canvas, 100 x 130 cm. Image courtesy ArtBlue Studio.

All of the artists were fairly young, between 22 and 30, and successful at the time the group was established. A majority of them entered the VYAA with major awards, such as the Spring Painting Prize (est. 1959), the International Art Prize Saigon (est. 1962) and the Presidential Award in Arts and Literature. With its first exhibition at the VYAA’s headquarters in January 1967, the group aimed to present works that liberated Vietnamese art from both the imperialist Oriental aesthetics imported from China and Japan and from the recently assimilated styles of the West. In a brochure from its most popular exhibition on 10 November 1973 at La Dolce Vita Gallery, located in the Hotel Continental Saigon, the group declared:

[The dependence on Asian aesthetics and Western techniques] confine[s] Vietnamese art [like a colony] so that its achievements are always undervalued in the Western perspective.

The Association’s headquarters was located in a bustling arts district on Le Thanh Ton street in Saigon, between Cong Ly and Nguyen Trung Truc. The space measured approximately 150 square metres, and was made of pine wood and white paint in a modern, minimalist architectural style. The VYAA artists traded their own artworks with the Republic of Vietnam Air Force to acquire the materials to build the house in 1966. It acted as a hub for artists in Saigon until 1968, when it was felled to make space for the National Library. Following this period, the artists met in cafes across the city and exhibited their work in La Dolce Vita gallery in the Hotel Continental Saigon between 1973 and 1975, thanks to French owner Phillippe Franchini’s assistance.

Nguyen Khai, 'Circuit', 1995, mixed media, 117 x 91 x 13 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nguyen Khai, ‘Circuit’, 1995, mixed media, 117 x 91 x 13 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

The VYAA disbanded in 1975 following the North’s victory over the South. After serving time in re-education camps in the years after reunification, most of the VYAA artists fled Vietnam, including the five artists noted below. These artists have been credited not only for their profound contributions to Vietnamese art history, but also for being pioneers and proactive advocates of avant-garde art in the South.

Although scattered around different parts of the world, the five artists are still creating work. The first exhibition to feature seven of the original VYAA artists together since 1975 was “Trung Phung”, held in 2012 at Viet Art Gallery in Houston, Texas. Trịnh Cung, Nguyen Trung and Nguyen Lam have all held recent exhibitions in Vietnam and Singapore in 2015, while Nguyen Khai and Ho Thanh Duc continue to make work in the United States.

Nguyen Trung, 'Monastery', 2002, mixed media on canvas (acrylic, paper marche and oil), 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Thavibu Gallery.

Nguyen Trung, ‘Monastery’, 2002, mixed media on canvas (acrylic, paper marche and oil), 100 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Thavibu Gallery.

1. Nguyen Trung

The VYAA’s second chairman, Nguyen Trung, was born in Soc Trang in 1940 and remains among the most famous and influential painters in Saigon today. The artist has participated in exhibitions in Singapore, Japan, Korea, Italy, France, the United States, Taiwan and Thailand. His works can be found at Thavibu Gallery, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, the Singapore Art Museum and the Bassano del Grappa Fine Art Museum in Italy. While his earlier works consisted of more realist expressions, his recent paintings feature a return to abstraction, showcasing textured elements of European rationalism rendered within Asian-inspired spaces.

Nguyen Lam, 'Abstract VIII', 2015, oil on canvas, 140 x 160 cm. Image courtesy ArtBlue Studio.

Nguyen Lam, ‘Abstract VIII’, 2015, oil on canvas, 140 x 160 cm. Image courtesy ArtBlue Studio.

2. Nguyen Lam

Saigon National College of Fine Art graduate (1965) Nguyen Lam was born in 1941 in Can Tho, and is known as a master in oil painting and wood lacquer. The artist was selected to exhibit his works in the Paris Biennale in 1961 and 1963. He won the Silver Medal from the Spring Exhibition in 1962 and the Certificate of Honour for the first International Art Exhibition in Saigon in 1962. He has exhibited in France, New Delhi, Malaysia, the United States, Japan, Thailand, Belgium and Singapore, and his works can be found in the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum and the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. His recent works include modern, minimalist abstractions inspired by calligraphy.

3. Ho Thanh Duc

Born in 1940 in Danang, Ho Thanh Duc was the co-founder and director (1968 – 1975) of the VYAA. He graduated from Hue College of Fine Art and is mostly known for his skills in acrylic painting, with bright colours and religious themes permeating the works. He has won a number of awards, including first place in the Spring Exhibition in Saigon in 1963. He has participated in exhibitions in Japan, the United States, the Philippines, India, Sri Lanka and Taiwan.

Nguyen Khai, 'Silent', 2015, oil on canvas, 76 x 102 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Nguyen Khai, ‘Silent’, 2015, oil on canvas, 76 x 102 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

4. Nguyen Khai

Saigon College of Fine Arts graduate Nguyen Khai (also known as Buu Khai) was born in Hue in 1940. He won the bronze medal at the prestigious Spring Exhibition before graduating in 1963 and quickly climbed the ranks of influential artists in Saigon during the early 1960s. He relocated to the United States in 1981, where he has continued to present his work as well as holding exhibitions in France, Japan, India, Brazil and the United States. His works feature a mixture of traditional figurative and abstract mixed media elements.

Trinh Cung, 'Autumn', 1990, oil on canvas, 68 x 85 cm. Image courtesy Plum Blossoms Gallery.

Trinh Cung, ‘Autumn’, 1990, oil on canvas, 68 x 85 cm. Image courtesy Plum Blossoms Gallery.

5. Trinh Cung

Born in 1939 in Nha Trang, Trinh Cung graduated from Hue College of Fine Arts in 1962. He was elected secretary of the VYAA in 1966 and has continued to lecture on the Association’s history at various international events. The artist won the first National Fine Arts Exhibition prize at the Saigon Biennial in 1962 and has presented his work at the Paris Biennale and the Tunis Biennial. He currently lives in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where he continues to create art and lecture on art and art history at Hoa Sen University. His most recent exhibition “Consciousness” took place in Hanoi in January 2015.

Min Ho

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This article was written by a participant in our art writing diploma programme. Do you want to write for Art Radar, too? Click here to find out more about our Diploma in Art Journalism & Writing.

 

Related Topics: Vietnamese artists, painting, censorship of art, contemporary art in Vietnam, overviews, lists

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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