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Artists' war history a national treasure

Update: March, 03/2013 - 08:00

Drawn from the heart: Artist Biet still follows his passion of drawing paintings of the soldier theme. VNS Photo Doan Tung

Artists who spent a major part of their life drawing wars, comrades, underground meetings of party cells, resistance heroes and the daily lives of soldiers and volunteer youngsters have left a legacy for the nation. Vuong Bach Lien and Vu Cam Giang report

During the Viet Nam resistance against French and American invaders, many Vietnamese artists walked into people's daily lives, observing soldiers, battles, rural labourers and the simplicity of life in the countryside, which they translated into moving sketches.

The authors of these paintings sometimes sacrificed their creativity and modestly stepped back to become a "secretary of the time" and succeeded in sketching reality, despite the ever-present dangers from bombs and bullets.

Long history in art: Ton Duc Luong looks through his portfolio.

Ton Duc Luong and Le Duc Biet were among them.

I met Luong for the first time five months ago at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ha Noi where he was holding his first-ever exhibition of sketches from the anti- American war.

Luong's exhibition was organised by Thai art collector Tira Vanichtheeranont, who had spent years collecting his works.

"I wish to present to the public a talented artist whose works are very important in the history of painting and sketching in Viet Nam," said Tira.

Before the exhibition, despite his outstanding work, Luong was virtually unknown, mostly due to his modesty.

The 87-year-old artist, standing out among the crowd with his long white moustache, touched the audience with his stories about the difficulties he experienced on the battlefield.

He spent his life drawing the war, comrades, resistance heroes, as well as the daily lives of soldiers and volunteer youngsters.

His old drawings are now faded, lost to the passage of time and worms, but the stories he wants to tell will never grow old.

Born in 1925, Luong attended the 18th academic period, the last generation of graduates from the Indochina College of Fine Arts, along with artists Nguyen Sang and Bui Xuan Phai. His only master was painter Nam Son, the co-founder of the College (together with French painter Victor Tardieu).

Luong is one of the few surviving graduates of the colonial art school.

His long life has been associated with many long trips thoughout the country during which his sketches were created.

From 1948, during the Resistance War against the French, Luong was a painter in the Central Committee of Youth Union, creating illustrations and designs for the you newspapers, including Xung Phong (Assault) and Suc Tre (Youth Power).

During this period, he took frequent field trips to draw country boys and girls in their farming activities.

From 1953, he began to work for Tien Phong (Vanguard) newspaper (where he retired in 1982). In the war , Luong followed Youth Union branches and drew young farmers involved in local irrigation and other fieldwork.

Luong said he was interested in sketching young people at work.

"During my artistic life I have always been inspired by the enthusiasm of young people. I admired the youths who were ready to overcome many difficulties to fight for the reunification of their country," he confided, emotions in his wrinkled eyes.

Everywhere he went, Luong brought a French nib pen for sketching.

"I learned to hold the pen differently and tilt the tip to create different styles," he said.

Nora Taylor, professor of South and Southeast Asian Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, called Luong " an artist of human values".

"His drawings are valuable for what they teach us about history and equally valuable as historical artifacts. They offer us a glimpse of what it was like to live in the aftermath of colonialism and at the brink of war. But more importantly, they are also deeply personal. They reveal the depth of his character: a man who humbly chose to draw to teach, to educate, to learn and to capture the humanity of his country."

Vietnamese critics have also hailed Luong as a senior cultural figure.

"His scripts have a certain historical value, through which we ascertain the subtle and human view of the artist," said art critic Phan Cam Thuong. "He didn't simply copy the reality as he saw it. Each behaviour and object depicted, even if drawn only by a couple of draft strokes, would be enough to show his view and attitude."

Some of his sketches along with his oil-on-canvas, silk paintings and wood engravings are preserved at the Viet Nam National Museum of Fine Arts and the Army Museum. A number of his paintings have been exhibited in China, Poland and some countries in Eastern Europe by the Viet Nam Fine Arts Association.

Despite his success, for 60 years Luong has lived in a small house with his wife and children in Hang Trong Street, in the Old Quarter. The house has many souvenirs and memories for the artist and he doesn't want to leave it or to renew it.

Vivid record: The sketches created by artist Ton Duc Luong feature the Ha Tinh Assault Youth's Ballast Production in 1970.

Vitality of war sketches

Similar to Ton Duc Luong, artist Le Duc Biet has a huge collection of sketches depicting Vietnamese people during the wartime.

Biet was among the first students to graduate from the Viet Nam University of Fine Arts, previously known as the Indochina College of Fine Arts.

Born in 1948 in Binh Dinh, Biet's talent was not discovered until sculptor and artist Diep Minh Chau saw his paintings by chance and decided to send him to drawing classes in Ha Noi. At the age of 19, Biet started to work as the chief author of many large-sized posters in Ninh Binh and Thanh Hoa provinces, where are called "the fire ordinates" due to the dense US bombardments in the area.

"Usually, we worked through the night to finish a political poster, just to see it being destroyed in the next morning by fire," recalled Biet.

Most of his paintings were made under the moonlight, on the walls of northern province villages instead of artist panels, so all did not survive the war. Still, Biet had another way to revitalise moments during the war years. He managed to preserve most of his drawings, which now are invaluable artworks in various national museums and private collections.

"At that time, it was difficult to send them to publications, so I kept them just for myself in a folder, which became heavier and heavier as time went by. I drew sketches like I wrote a diary. Usually, we artists just had only five to ten minutes to finish a sketch", Biet said.

Biet marched across the northern provinces and lived in tough conditions to witness the war first-hand and convey it in his sketches.

"There were times when I had just finished a scene, and some minutes later the whole area was leveled by bombardment."

With an artist's eye for composition and a reporter's instinct for human interest, Biet often used charcoal or ink pen to render a scene quickly and accurately. His most outstanding sketches were during the period of 1966 to 1973, with subjects covering every aspect of life, both behind the lines and at the front. Drawings that depict daily life continuing as normal: an afternoon meal of an evacuated family, a postman delivering newspaper and documents, a love story between two young soldiers. At the front, scenes included the places where fierce bombardments attacked or portrayed regular soldiers and militia men and women in motion. Given the harsh conditions of the artists, it is surprising that every sketch reflects the artist's positive sense.

Was drawing an escape for him from a cruel reality of war or was it a reflection of a burning desire for peace of a people? "Painting is not made to decorate houses," Picasso once wrote. "It is an instrument of offensive and defensive war against the enemy."

Broad portfolio: Ninh Binh province's landscapes and the image of soldiers are depicted vividly in Biet's sketches.

 

Although the work of an artist often stands up for his own individual creative freedom, the drawing collections of artists Luong and Biet reflect a "people's war", where it might be said the artists have actually stepped forward to stand side by side with other Vietnamese, and their desire for an individual mark is replaced by the desire for victory of the national cause.

"What made me feel the most pity was that nearly forty years after the war, thousands of sketches of other war artists have yet to be "rediscovered". While most of the artists are old enough to have their work fall into oblivion, many sketches have been sold to private collectors at home and abroad," said Biet.

Recently, Biet gave his best work to the Military History Museum.

"As a precious legacy of the country's history, they need more attention from national museums and the Government," he said. — VNS

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