Vietnam behind the lines
An unusual display organised by the British Museum goes some way to showing how it was possible for a country of mainly poor farmers and workers to defeat the mightiest military power in the world.
The first of its kind in Europe, and the first Vietnamese art exhibition ever to be held at the Museum, it brings to life one of the great national liberation wars of the last century.
A few bare statistics give a picture of what the Vietnam war was about.
Between 1959 and 1975 more than 2 million Vietnamese and around 58,000 Americans died. In addition another 300,000 Vietnamese liberation fighters and 2,211 US soldiers were missing in action. During the conflict with the United States, the average Vietnamese soldier stood 5 foot tall and weighed around six and a half stone (just over 40 kilos).
The show focuses mostly on the ten year war against the United States forces, but it also shows the roots of the resistance movement – and the art which came out of it – in the last years of French colonialism.
The campaign against the French was led by Ho Chi Minh who formed the Viet Minh resistance movement. After the spectacular defeat of the French at the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, “art to serve the people” became the official line.
There are a small group of official propaganda posters which convey direct political messages in a simplified Socialist Realist format, clearly influenced by Soviet and Chinese styles.
Cultural policy was based on “socialist realism”, the dogma imposed by Stalinist leaders in the Soviet Union. But Vietnamese artists, Sherry Buchanon writes*, ‘paradoxically continued to paint in the “poetic realism” style they learned from the French’, in the art schools established in Vietnam earlier in the 20th century.
A bitter debate erupted between the purveyors of socialist realist dogma and artists and writers who wanted to develop creatively. The dispute became known as the Giai Pham/Nhan Van affair. The editors of two magazines who opposed the imposition of prescribed themes in art were punished and sent to labour camps, while artists who contributed illustrations were blacklisted. Censorship was enforced through various means including public humiliation, jail sentences and social ostracism.
Despite the official dogmas, most of the artists shown here continued to work in the style they had learned at art colleges in Hanoi, Saigon and Hue, under the influence of the French Impressionists and 20th century painters like Matisse. The bulk of the drawings and watercolours are of closely observed views of life on the ground. We see soldiers resting, waiting, reading, making music, talking, and civilians working on the land and in factories.
Nguyen Thu: Listening to the radio in the forest, 1965
As the catalogue notes, “the American-Vietnam war was not a conventional conflict of epic clashes but it was a guerrilla war. As with most wars, it was a matter of enduring long periods of dread and expectant waiting on both sides.”
The social revolutionary side of the war comes across in a variety of ways. In the dozens of images of ordinary Vietnamese, especially women, we see how the entire people was involved at all levels of the struggle. Most notable is the key role of women as fighters, factory workers, nurses, and farmers.
Not only do we see what people were doing, but we can enjoy the ability of the artist to condense the essence of what was going on around him or her into a few lines of the pencil or strokes of a watercolour-filled brush.
An individual touch enlivens wonderful drawings such as Nguyen Thu’s picture of soldiers listening to the radio in the forest or Van Da’s soldiers resting between bouts of fighting.
Quang Tho’s pen and ink drawing shows a girl operating a hand loom in a textile co-operative. Looking more closely we suddenly realise she has a (Russian-made) Carbine, slung like a handbag on the frame of the loom, with grenades like balls of wool casually lying on the floor behind her.
This political message is all the more powerful because many of the people we see are shown as symbolic icons and as individual personalities busy with whatever activity they are engaged in.
Despite the ferocity of the war, the arts were encouraged and army branches in the occupied areas held courses on creative writing, poetry, music, popular performance and drawing. War artists at the front published their drawings in local newspapers or showed them hung on a piece of string tied between two palm trees.
Buchanon records the special role of visual artists in an interview with soldier-artist Quach Phong in Ho Chi Minh City.
“The soldiers would ask me to draw their portraits in case they died. It was a kind of historical evidence for them. This way they felt they would have a tiny part of history. They told me about their hopes and dreams while I drew them. They liked watching me draw – it made them feel calm.”
Vietnam Behind the Lines is in Room 91 at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, WC1 until 1 December 2002. Admission is free. Associated events include: Artist in Residence Professor Nguyen Thu, Vietnam on Film and Gallery Talks. Information@thebritishmuseum.ac.uk www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk
*The colour catalogue by Jessica Harrison-Hall has newly commissioned photographs, interviews with Vietnamese artists and archival photographs. £17.99