Throughout the second half of the 20th century, as Vietnam went through various upheavals – the Vietnam War, opening up to the world, and economic reforms – Vietnamese art developed a unique style.
Running until February 28, The New Wave | Modern Vietnamese Art exhibition at Bonhams gallery in Admiralty aims to reveal how the country’s social circumstances influenced stylistic development and subject matter, and how the artists’ works, in turn, reflected people’s lives at the time.
The art market’s present focus is still very much on a select few first-generation Franco-Vietnamese artists. Their styles were influenced by the West as they were born in a peaceful Vietnam, and most of them studied in France, settled in Europe and never returned to Vietnam.
Yet 10 key second-generation Vietnamese artists presented in the exhibition never really left the country. “The first-generation never wanted to go back because Vietnam was in a mess, but the second generation didn’t have the privilege to choose,” said Wang Zineng, Bonhams’ head of Asian modern and contemporary art.
Born from the late 20s to 40s, artists saw their lives and careers intertwined with the profound shifts experienced by Vietnam and its people through the changing of the times, which can be seen in their works.
“Plenty of works in this exhibition depicted people and situations,” said Wang. “Its value is much greater than artwork; it’s a documentary.”
Two popular mediums for paintings are lacquer and silk, and some of the finest of these two are presented in the exhibition.
Hoang Tich Chu’s Capture of a US Prisoner of War (1969) depicts a northern army triumph during the country’s tumultuous times, in which soldiers and civilians look in the same direction while the prisoners of war dejectedly sit in a boat.
This history painting remains one of the most famous lacquer paintings executed by the artist, who is a great advocate of this medium.
The only silk painting in the exhibition is Nguyen Sang’s Family (1957), which is a textbook example of this medium as the brown tone and waterline in the painting are believed to have used the qualities of silk itself to achieve a unique presentation.
History, family, and Vietnamese noble ladies are typical subjects in Vietnamese art, while some artists use their works to express their personal feelings.
In another lacquer painting of rural life in Vietnam, Landscape by Nguyen Van Binh, the artist’s relaxed mood is channelled into the picture.
The composition and brushstrokes also see the influence of Chinese art.
After 1975 when the war was over, many paintings showed a sense of new hope. In Bui Xuan Phai’s Happy New Year (1987), a pink kitten stands in the middle with “Happy New Year” written in Vietnamese in the background, just like a cute greeting card.
Optimistic art like Bui’s found wider acceptance, while a newly liberalized and open economy brought forth a convivial and resurgent spirit in the art world.
Another painting that reflects the time of opening up and economic reforms is Fisherman Family (1980), which also serves as an outstanding example of Nguyen Trung’s figurative painting, depicting a fishing village.
Nguyen was a leading figure among his peers as he also worked in a divergent style – symbolist abstract painting.
“His abstract art is not just a formalist work but is about visualizing abstraction content,” said Wang. “He is the person who can bring together two different styles.”
His abstract paintings, led by Ochre Gate (1997), often combine the spirit of abstract expressionism with symbols and elements drawn from Buddhism.
Subject matter and sentiments that had been previously suppressed came to the fore in artists’ work due to the social changes and the open environment.
“Vietnamese artists rarely follow a particular pattern and don’t pander to what the viewer thinks is good or what they want to see,” said Wang.
The exhibition aims to explore what it meant to create in the country at that time, as well as see the diversity of modern Vietnamese artists. “In their work, you can often see the authentic Vietnamese society.”
(This article was published at The Standard on January 17, 2020: Weekend Glitz: Vignettes from Vietnam )