Vietnamese nudes fetch big bucks abroad but remain taboo at home

By Linh Do   July 7, 2019 | 04:45 am PT
At foreign auctions, Vietnamese nude paintings sometimes fetch upward of $1 million, but within the country they remain under wraps.

In May this year, Post-Impressionistic Vietnamese master Le Pho’s Khoa Than (Nude) oil-on-canvas sold for a record $1.4 million at a Christie’s auction. This is a record price for Vietnamese paintings at public auctions.

Khoa Than (Nude) by Le Pho.

Khoa Than (Nude) by Le Pho.

At the same auction on 20th Century & Contemporary Art, another painting by Le Pho, the silk-on-cardboard Tam Bien (The Bath at Sea) was also sold for $505,000.

As many as 138 out of the total 232 works showcased at the auction came from Vietnamese artists and they were all sold, suggesting the stronger status of Vietnamese paintings in the international art market, said industry insiders.

In the nude genre itself, Vu Cao Dam’s Nghi Ngoi Sau Khi Tam (Rest After the Bath) was sold for $629,219 last year by Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

Though nudity first appeared in Vietnamese fine arts as early as in 1929 with painter Nam Son’s Cam Do Phat (Tempting the Buddha), it has remained a controversial subject yet to be fully explored by local artists.  

Local painters agreed that nudity isn’t a popular subject in Vietnam. According to painter Bui Thanh Phuong, if nude paintings are considered the hottest in Italy, in the Vietnamese market, they are still sensitive.

Another painter, Tran Thanh Canh, told local media that many artists have painted nudity, but they don’t want to exhibit or draw public attention to their works, preferring to keep them within their small professional circles.

One reason is low public demand. Art scholar Ngo Kim Khoi said that although nudity is a quintessential subject in art schools, it remains taboo in the eyes of many Vietnamese viewers because it is deemed to violate Vietnamese "habits and customs." 

For their part, cultural officials have assured local media that nudity isn’t forbidden but is treated as any other subject. Permits are still being issued to nude works and exhibitions, but there are few applications for personal exhibitions of exclusively nude works, they said.

Last year, a nude photo exhibition was organized for the first time in Hanoi. The event was considered "historic" because it was organized by a government agency, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism’s Department of Fine Arts, Photography and Exhibition itself.  

A work by photographer Duong Quoc Dinh which was displayed at Hanois first nude photography exhibition in 2018.

A work by photographer Duong Quoc Dinh which was displayed at Hanoi's first nude photography exhibition in 2018.

Though the photos were carefully selected to ensure there would be no controversy as the exhibition was open to all audiences, it was viewed positively by many people as a healthy sign of openness. Photographer Hao Nhien’s exhibition of nudes in HCMC in 2017 was the first of its kind in Vietnam.

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