Art critic and culture researcher Phan Cam Thuong has published books about Vietnamese fine arts history since 1984. He teaches at the Viet Nam Academy of Fine Arts' Faculty of Art History and Criticism.
His latest book, To Ngoc Van – The Mirror that Reflects Vietnamese Society, 1906-1954, is about one of Viet Nam's top painters in the 20th century.
He spoke to Culture Vulture about the book.
What motivated you to compile the book?
Thai collector Tira Vanictheeranont wanted me to compile a book based on his new collection of work by artist To Ngoc Van. He bought the collection, comprised of sketches and studies by Van in the 1937-54 period.
Before buying the collection, Tira asked me to appraise it. It's rare to find paintings about the daily life of Vietnamese before 1945, in particular during the resistance war against the French (1946-54). I saw it had great potential for a comprehensive book about Vietnamese artists, fine arts and society.
I spent two years compiling the book. I went to Bangkok two times to research the collection and related documents. To Ngoc Van's son To Ngoc Thanh showed me a lot of notes about his father as well as his diary, which facilitated my research.
The diary was truthful and lively. It was kept carefully by Van until he died in 1954.
Did you face difficulties during the process?
I had to examine each sketch by Van to find out about the location and characters. I asked two friends to come to Thanh's house to take notes on what Thanh remembered about his father. I also spoke to many other people, including Van's students during the resistance war against the French, artist Mai Long, literature researcher Lai Nguyen An, writer Nguyen Ngoc and military historian Ho Son Dai. I went to the northern provinces of Phu Tho and Thai Nguyen, where Van had lived and worked for many years during the war.
The book has about 380 sketches with captions I wrote. It was completed at the end of 2013.
Why did Tira Vanicheeranont choose you? If a foreigner is interested in Vietnamese fine arts and wants to invest in such a collection, what do you think?
I was introduced to Tira in 2008. The first book I co-authored with him was Important and Priceless Works of Vietnamese Modern Art in 2010. We have since published three books together.
While many painting books have been published, they have no captions. Before the book on To Ngoc Van, I wrote two books about painters Nguyen Quoc Hoi and Ton Duc Luong. However, the books were not as systematic as To Ngoc Van - The Mirror that Reflects of Vietnamese Society, 1906-1954.
It is not important what I think, but what others think. I wonder why preserving a nation's culture depends on foreigners. Before working with Tira, I co-operated with the Viet Nam-Sweden Culture Fund.
I realise that many projects contributing to the nation's cultural development have come from foreign financial assistance. However, I said at the book launching ceremony recently that I was not glad when I finished the book, because a foreign collector is preserving the work of one of the greatest Vietnamese artists. It is a pity for Vietnamese culture.
Why did you name the book To Ngoc Van - The Mirror that Reflects Vietnamese Society, 1906-1954?
Many people have asked me this question. There are many talented artists, but few of them use their work as a mirror to reflect society. The artworks and documents left by Van clearly present a panorama of the life of the Vietnamese people in general and the life of Vietnamese farmers in war in particular. No artist from the first half of the 20th century has work featuring society entirely. — VNS