The fine art of listening to a Vietnamese museum’s stories

By George Burchett   August 25, 2019 | 10:19 pm PT
Works at the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts in Hanoi tell fascinating stories from the Bronze Age through revolutions.

From bronze to lacquer (1000 BC - 1925)

I often take friends, or friends of friends and their friends from abroad visiting Hanoi to the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts, on 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, opposite the Temple of Literature.

The museum is not only a good introduction to the arts of Vietnam, but also to Vietnamese history through the arts. I am not a historian, so what I am sharing here I learned by visiting the museum many times and learning more and more about the stories the exhibited artworks and artefacts tell.

The visit starts chronologically with the Bronze Age or Dong Son culture, which developed around the Red River Valley from 1000 BC to approximately the first century of our era, on a territory roughly corresponding to today's greater Hanoi region.

The most famous artefacts of that period are the Dong Son bronze drums, decorated with mythical birds – the mysterious Lac bird in particular – and other animals, as well as scenes of human activities: ceremonies, hunting, fishing. They give some idea of the environment and life in that distant time. The finely decorated bronze drums themselves testify to a high level of technical skill in bronze casting.

Dong Son bronze drum, circa 500 BC

Dong Son bronze drum, circa 500 BC

The Dong Son people, also known as Lac or Lac Viet, cultivated rice in irrigated fields, kept buffalo, pigs and other domestic animals, fished and sailed in long dugout canoes. Theirs was a well developed agrarian society, not unlike today's rural Vietnam.

Most nations have their "creation" stories.

Legend tells us that the Viet people were born of the union between the sea-dragon king Lac Long Quan and the beautiful mountain fairy Au Co. They fell in love and married after Quan saved Au Co, – who had turned herself into a white heron – from the clutches of a giant bird of prey. Au Co bore a golden sac with 100 eggs from which hatched one hundred male babies who grew to become fine young men. But Lac Long Quan wanted to live by the sea and Au Co missed her native mountains. So the two decided to part amicably, each taking 50 of their sons, Au Co to the mountains and Lac Long Quan to the sea. Thus were the coast and mountains of Lav Viet populated and the children of the sea-dragon king and the mountain fairy became the Hung Kings, commemorated as Vietnam's founders to this day.

Dragons and fairies feature prominently in Vietnamese popular culture and connect the people to their earliest ancestors, the Dragon King and the Fairy. One of Hanoi's most famous streets, decorated with the world's longest mosaic wall, is named after Au Co.

Apsaras – the fairy tale continues

We leave the Bronze Age and Red River Delta for the Kingdom of Champa, which occupied the coast of today's central and southern Vietnam from approximately the 2nd century to 1832.

The history of Champa is being constantly revised and still remains something of a mystery.

There is a reason why in colonial times Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were collectively known as Indo-China. Indeed, India and China meet in Vietnam, with Chinese influence dominating the north, known as Tonkin under the French, and gradually spreading south.

Cham religion, culture and society were influenced by Hinduism and relate to the cultures of India, Cambodia and Java among others. The Cham, seafarers and traders rather than cultivators and farmers, are thought to have come from Borneo.

Hindu fairies or angels are called Apsaras. They feature prominently in Khmer and Cham art. They are beautiful female mystical beings and have inspired what are probably some of the most sensual representations of the female body in the history of art.

My other favorite Cham sculptures are of elephants. Their smooth roundness somehow complements the graceful female bodies on display.

Apsara and Elephant sculptures, Champa, Quang Nam Province, VII-IX centuries, sandstone

Apsara and elephant sculptures, Champa, Quang Nam Province, VII-IX centuries, sandstone

Heaven and earth

From mysterious, sensual Champa we return to the north and its agrarian society. And as we do so, we also enter the cultural and spiritual territory of Mahayana Buddhism.

Here begins Viet culture – as distinct from some of the other 53 ethnic groups that constitute Vietnam – as it still exists today. Every Vietnamese village or commune has two main public buildings: the pagoda, or chua, dedicated to the Buddha and the dinh, or communal house, dedicated to practical village affairs, festivals, local saints and other cultural activities

To the right, as we enter the museum's third room, is the Buddha, who told us about the eternal cycle of birth and rebirth, the realm of spirituality and contemplation.

To the left is the dinh, village life, everyday reality, earthly existence, with its roots in the mud of the rice fields and surrounding nature, coexisting with local deities and mythical creatures, including dragons and fairies.

So, we have on the right abstract, spiritual concepts expressed in majestic sculptures of lacquered wood, created according to ancient canonical models, which do not vary much from China, Japan, Korea and other regions influenced by Mahayana Buddhism. And on the left, we have everyday life, a kind of village-based social realism.

There are no contradictions between the two: they exist together, in harmony.

Wooden marvels

The museum's collection of dinh art is outstanding. Every time I visit it, I marvel at the wonderful wood carvings, full of life, humor, playful mischief and keenly observed reality. The village craftsmen were not copying approved models, they were giving free expression to their creativity and drawing from life around them. I always discover some new scene or detail to wonder at. And they inevitably put a smile on my face, as I recognize something I can observe in real life, in Hanoi or elsewhere in Vietnam.

Tiger hunt, Tay Dang Temple, Ba Vi, Hanoi, XVI century, wood

Tiger hunt, Tay Dang Temple, Ba Vi, Hanoi, XVI century, wood

If you want to know what life was like in a Vietnamese village in the past – and still is like, in many ways – just look at the carvings. It's all there, like in a film: village festivals, hunting scenes, drinking scenes, flirting scenes, in other words, earthly life mixed with mythical beings and animals in folk legends.

And if you want to contemplate the spiritual and celestial, sit in front of the One Thousand Eyes Buddha and let him elevate you to the heavens, as he did a prominent Australian public intellectual and radio broadcaster whom I took to the museum. He seemed totally hypnotized by the Buddha's one thousand eyes which are, in fact, as many hands.

The thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara, But Thap Pagoda, Bac Ninh Province, 1656, lacquered wood

The thousand-armed and thousand-eyed Avalokiteshvara, But Thap Pagoda, Bac Ninh Province, 1656, lacquered wood

Buddhist realism

The fourth exhibition room of the museum is dedicated to Buddhist saints. The text on the museum wall introduces this room:

"The art of the Tay Son period, especially the Buddhist cultural images, is considered to attain the zenith of Vietnamese ancient sculpture. Although the Tay Son dynasty only lasted 14 years (1788-1802), the art of this period managed to define its own style, in which stand out realism and humanism... Perhaps artists of former days used religious themes merely as pretext to portray real people in the then society. Each image manifests its own thoughts and sentiments, its personality and dynamism."

It is important to state that the exhibits in these two sections of the museum are still an integral part of a living culture. They do not just belong to a distant historical past, they are part of daily life, part of religion and traditional beliefs that are constantly maintained and renewed. The stories they tell, are also part of a vibrant popular culture and the collective memory of a nation, rich in history and tradition.

Two Buddhist Saints, Tay Phuong Pagoda, Thach That District, Hanoi, 1794, lacquered wood

Two Buddhist Saints, Tay Phuong Pagoda, Thach That District, Hanoi, 1794, lacquered wood

It should also be noted that most of the artefacts presented up to here are made of bronze, stone or wood. There is almost no painting. And there are no names attached to them. They were produced by anonymous artisans and craftsmen.

To meet individual Vietnamese artists, mostly painters, we must move to the second floor of the museum and the second part of this story, to see art for the people.

A context to the French Revolution

French colonialism can be – and should be – denounced on many levels, but it did make an important contribution to Vietnamese art and culture: the École Supérieure des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine, today's Vietnam University of Fine Arts.

Indeed, in 1925, the French colonial government decided to open a fine arts school to train talented colonials to use the traditional techniques of lacquer and silk painting to produce decorative works that would represent the colonies at world expositions and decorate fashionable bourgeois salons.

This was, within the limits of colonial logic, a progressive and enlightened idea, in keeping with France's "mission civilisatrice" or civilizing mission, if not quite the revolutionary ideals of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité – Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The ideals would have to be fought for by Vietnamese patriots.

Le Van De, Young girl by a pond, silk, 1943.

Le Van De, Young girl by a pond, silk, 1943.

The French art teachers taught a conventional academic curriculum, which required students to draw nude models from life and go out into the countryside to draw and paint from nature. This may sound traditional and academic, but for budding Vietnamese artists – steeped in Confucian tradition that required endless copying of Chinese models in all aspects of culture – this was indeed revolutionary.

Suddenly artists became individuals, signed their works with their own names, and reclaimed and liberated their native landscape – and natural body – from imposed rigid models. In other words, through art, they reclaimed their national physicality and reality, be it landscape, portrait or, even more daringly, nude.

The first generation of Vietnamese artists – that is the first graduates of the École – are revered as the founding fathers of modern Vietnamese art. They are: Le Pho, To Ngoc Van, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Nguyen Gia Tri, Le Van De, Nguyen Tuong Lan, Le Thi Luu, Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Khang, Huynh Van Gam, Duong Bich Lien and Ta Ty.

Nguyen Gia Tri, Girls in a garden, 1939, lacquer.

Nguyen Gia Tri, Girls in a garden, 1939, lacquer.

The Vietnamese Revolution

The second revolution in Vietnamese art happened in 1945, when Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam as an independent nation.

A remarkable group of École graduates, led by To Ngoc Van, joined the revolution and used their talents to record the decade-long armed struggle for independence, from 1945 to 1954. It is ironic that it was the French art education system that armed patriotic Vietnamese artists with an important weapon: the ability to draw from nature and represent real life.

Not since Goya's The Disasters of War did artists systematically record live – with pencils, pens and paints – a war of independence, while actively participating in it.

The works exhibited in the museum are of immense historical value. They also happen to be very good art, produced by talented artists who were not only very skilled, but also believed in the cause they were serving – and to which some, like To Ngoc Van, sacrificed their lives.

To Ngoc Van, Roadside Break, 1953, lacquer.

To Ngoc Van, Roadside Break, 1953, lacquer.

This was the second revolution in Vietnamese art, when the artists produced art for the people, and not to impress visitors to international expositions with exotic images from faraway colonies.

Art with the people

And thus we move to Vietnam's third art revolution: Art with the people.

After French colonialism was defeated at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, led by President Ho Chi Minh, was established north of the 17th parallel.

Artists, poets, writers, musicians and all intellectuals were invited to actively participate in the development of a national culture accessible to all the people, not just the cultured elites.

The creative professions were encouraged to practice the three togethers: work with the people, live with the people, eat with the people, to travel the country, visit remote areas, observe and depict life as it is – which is what the French art teachers had also encouraged their students to do.

This period is not very fashionable these days and is dismissed as "propaganda."

I disagree. For me the best period of Vietnamese art is from 1954 to 1962. The works speak for themselves, no need for me to "propagandize" them.

Just go and look at the magnificent lacquer landscapes and compositions, so detailed, so well observed, so beautifully composed, drawn and painted. And so recognizably Vietnamese.

I am no big fan of Soviet-style social realism – although it has its artistic achievements. But even when Vietnamese artists of the time do treat "socialist" themes, they do it with typical Vietnamese elegance and finesse. I can look at the works again and again and feel "Vietnam." Not some abstract exotic Indochina, but a real Vietnam, populated by real people depicted with great love and attention by a remarkable generation of Vietnamese artists.

And again, the works capture an important period of Vietnamese history, a period of optimism and great hopes, shared by a great number of people around the world, who also aspired to independence, liberty and a more equitable world.

Nguyen Tien Chung, Thrashing paddy (detail), lacquer, 1972.

Nguyen Tien Chung, Thrashing paddy (detail), lacquer, 1972.

Those who dismiss this art as "propaganda" and sneer at it, pointing at Western modernist art from around the same time as a contrast, miss an important point.

Art doesn't exist as an abstract absolute, like some universal religion. Every country, every nation develops its own art which evolves according to specific historical, geographical and other conditions.

There are more rooms to visit in the museum, but my guided tour usually ends with the works of the great classical master of Vietnamese painting and one of the first graduates of the École des Beaux Arts: Nguyen Phan Chanh. And my favourite painting in the museum, his Rattan Weavers.

All the grace, strength, elegance and vitality of Vietnam is there, in the mute earthy tones painted on silk.

Nguyen Phan Chanh – Rattan Weavers, 1960, silk

Nguyen Phan Chanh – Rattan Weavers, 1960, silk

There is a timeless quality to Nguyen Phan Chanh’s painting. It merges dinh art and pagoda art, the secular and the spiritual. The artist depicts a simple scene from daily life and turns it into a sacred, iconic image. Every Vietnamese can recognize and appreciate it. Every art lover will also recognize it a masterpiece of world art, because it captures the essence of a people, a nation and makes it universal in its masterful simplicity.

Thus speaks truly great art.

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