Tradition meets modernity in Vietnamese’s contemporary art scene.
Vietnam oozes with authenticity and charm, yet all the while displaying signs of development and change within its capitals and its art scene.
Art is everywhere in Vietnam, whether you are admiring Hanoi’s colonial buildings, discovering small galleries at every street corner in Hoi An, wandering into pottery villages or entering a lacquer painting shop. Expressive portraits, rural vignettes and skilled lacquer works are on the menu in this exotic country.
There is a noticeable array of styles, colours and textures within the many galleries in Hanoi. Undeniably, Vietnamese art possesses a strong dose of French influence. During the French colonisation, the French founded “L’Ecole des Beaux Arts d’Indochine” in the 1900s. Consequently, given that their education was based on the French model, the students painted landscapes in a realistic and impressionistic style. Still, one can observe other French artistic movements within Vietnamese artworks such as pointillism and cubism; accompanied by fresh, pastel colours such as blue, pink and green, resulting in poetic and dreamy artwork landscapes.
After the North and the South of Vietnam were unified in 1975, although the North still continued to work in a more realistic manner, the South however, adopted a more politically united approach. By the 1980s, the unification of the country had changed aspects of Vietnamese everyday life, allowing artists greater freedom of expression and creativity, leading to record more personalised experience and furthermore, enabling them to be exposed to new international influences. This exposure led to new levels of artistic experimentation, resulting in abstract art work. Abstract work is an increasing dominating style that I have observed, presented with warmer colours and a strong preference for red, which could appeal to international collectors. Amy Cappellezo did mention, the use of red and other bright colours are the works which sell the most.
Contemporary Vietnamese artists have now more freedom to represent their inner-selves within their work. Moreover, as these artists face Vietnam’s rapid development towards modernity, the painters are being influenced by the renewed interest in traditional village ceremonies and the renovation of historical sites such as pagodas, tombs and shrines. They are inspired by ancient motifs, including Vietnamese cultural traditions to commemorate, honour and respect their ancestors and their heritage, to maintain their authenticity in the face of change. Consequently, many of the main themes I have encountered do encapsulate this idea of restoring their heritage such as representing traditional every day life activities (for instance drawing Vietnamese woman cultivating rice in their iconic conic hats), portraying women from ethnic minorities, depicting themes of buddhism worship, or criticising the state of Modern society as in Bui Thanh Tam‘s works.
Artists are distinguishing themselves in terms of style and technique, thus creating their own pattern of development and their own story, which I find emotionally stimulating. Many of the paintings I have seen, project charged expressive portraits (such as portraits of young ethnic minority women from Sapa). The works are also powerfully colourful in warm and bright colours, beautifully communicating the story of Vietnam’s past. They have a strong narrative as the artists personalise and modernise their work by implementing elements of their childhood life, which have particularly marked or have defined an aspect of their personality.
The style of these artists may be French, but the content is purely Vietnamese. Here are a selection of interesting Vietnamese artists I have encountered or heard of during my stay there, while also introducing a popular and emerging artist who was present at Art Stage Singapore 2014.
Do Quang Em
Do Quang Em, born in 1942, is based in Ho Chi Minh City. He graduated from Gia Djinh College of Fine Arts in 1965. The artist emerged in the early 1980s. Since 1994, he mainly exhibits in Hong Kong and overseas. Do Quang Em specialises mainly in figurative work and is Vietnam’s most distinctive figurative painters. He combines a photo realist approach to give people and objects an exaggerated light effect, that heighten awareness of both the spatial context of the figure and the psychological drama unfolding in the scene. The light and the gaze of the portrait turns the viewer into a voyeur due to the “intense psychological presence”. The technique of light and shadow results in intimate and dramatic work.
Nguyen Quang Huy
Nguyen Quang Huy, born in 1971, is from a traditional handicraft village in Vietnam, Ha Tay in the River Delta nearby Hanoi. His style is slightly similar to Do Quang Em’s work (see above). Nguyen Quang Huy employs a photo-realist and documentary approach to his paintings by using a monochrome oil palette. Huy only portrays women from his village as a way to pay homage to them, thus venerating their memory for eternity. He aims to “revere each woman’s individual identity and their mothers’ and ancestors’ who helped construct the foundations of Vietnam through years of hard toil and labour, so that their memories are respected, honoured and never forgotten.” Apart from portraiture, Huy also depicts the landscapes of Sapa, which has a cold climate and is often under fog and mist. Consequently, his paintings reflect the mysterious and dreamlike coolness of the mountains and the beauty of the Hmong girls.
Nguyen Quang Huy has participated in many residencies in Germany, Australia and the USA. His works are included in the permanent collection of the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, including the World Bank Art Program in the USA.
Dao Hai Phong
I saw this artist’s work at a lovely and spacious gallery in Hanoi named Viet Fine Art Gallery. As a viewer you are immediately entranced into the painting’s bright colours of red and blue. Dao Hai Phong is the son a well-known film artist Dao Phuc. The artist has a degree in both cinematography and theatre from the Ha No College of Film and Theatre and from the College of Drama and Cinematography, where he studied in the Art Film Design Department. As a result, his paintings represent landscapes inspired by his travels when working on films. He portrays village scenes, including streets of Hanoi. Hanoi painters do have a certain awe when it comes to the streets of Hanoi, along with its alleys, lakes and parks. Owing to his film and theatre education background, the strong colours in his paintings (i.e blue, yellow, green or red) draw the viewer’s attention to the key elements of the painting and underscores their structural simplicity. His paintings are characterised as enchanting and fresh. Dao Hai Phong enjoys using blue and other luminous radiating colours demonstrating his appeal for the beauty of the countryside.
His art works give us space for serene, peaceful and sincere contemplation through measured and controlled work.
Vu Dang Dinh
This artist is also represented by the same gallery Viet Fine Arts. The gallery exhibited an interesting abstract piece of art from this artist, which also caught my eye.
Vu Dang Dinh is a member of Vietnam Fine Arts Association as well as the Vietnam Architecture Association. He is quite experienced in combining decoration and graphic arts, which helps form his own painting style. The artist has a particular interest in landscapes of the countryside and the old charming and authentic old quarters of Hanoi. I was drawn to “Dream at Noon” due to its typical Vietnamese shape being the conic hat, the soft warm colours of orange and yellow and the open composition that it presents. All these elements direct the viewers to a new way of aesthetic perception.
Le Nhu Ha
This artist is also represented at Viet Fine Arts Gallery and exhibited a gorgeous piece called “Viet Pagdoa”. It communicated such tranquility and peace through the layout, colours and lighting. Moreover, the size of the piece added to its majesty.
Born in 1945 in Hanoi, Le Nhu Ha graduated from University of Applied Fine Arts in Hanoi. He is also a member of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association and the Hanoi Fine Art Association. He has exhibited in many group shows such as in Singapore, Hong Kong and in Europe.
The light and shadow technique add a spiritual presence into the painting by guiding this light onto certain objects or places within his paintings, such as “Legendary House” (2002) or “Enter Pagoda” (2011).
Nguyen Dinh Hop
Last artist I found at this gallery is Nguyen Dinh Hop from Haiphong province, born in 1975. He graduated from Hanoi Fine Arts University in 2004. The work that caught my eye is titled “Street Vendor”.
He is a lovely example of East meets West and embracing Vietnamese tradition of lacquer wood painting. Thanks to the dark and bright spectrum of orange and the shiny polish from the lacquer reflected from the gallery’s light, the viewer feels immersed and part of the hot sticky summer weather in Vietnam, wandering in Hanoi’s gorgeous streets, surrounded by vendors of all kinds. I was instantly enchanted.
Of course, I thought I should mention the rising star of Vietnam who is represented by AP Contemporary in Hong Kong and attended Art Stage Singapore this year. He was very successful at the fair and possesses an impressive record of exhibitions. He was born in 1985 in Thanh Hoa Province and has received a Bachelors of Arts degree from Vietnam University of Fine Arts in Hanoi and is currently pursuing a Masters course in painting at the same university.
He is one of the youngest Vietnamese painters who achieves in combining tradition and modernity, by blending surrealism and dark humour.
His style is very unusual as he depicts cows in pinstriped Armani suits posing. This is due to his fascination with cows at a young age since he was born in the countryside and thus helped his family handle cattle as well as collecting grass to feed them.
His work constitutes of fashionable office men in identical stripped shirts, suits and shiny black shoes. The body may be human yet they have cow shaped heads! They are very often posing identically very close together or lined up in ranks. When we think cow, it reminds us of cattle or herd behaviour. Indeed, the artist is alluding to the idea of this cattle herd mentality we possess in today’s modern society, owing to the way we dress and even think. He states:
“People turned out to be identical in their feelings. They copy each other, both in a fashionable sadness or fashionable happiness.”
This realistic description is accompanied by a surreal and somewhat Pop Art style. He blends the surreal with satirical undertones along with a hint of darkness. AP Contemporary gallery describes the artist as a man who “possesses an uncommon palette in which the shades, colours and tones seem like an echo of a remote place and time in pale purple, light pink, ochre, grey – all invoking nostalgia, anxiety and regret.”
I could add there is a certain “dead silence” to it due to the empty stares the “men-cow” give us and through the shades and chiaroscuro effect. Could this be a way from the artist to make us review our cattle-herd mentality…or the way we dress?