|Memorable scene: A sketch of a Khmer temple at Dam Be Base, now part of Cambodia's Kampong Cham Province.
by Le Huong
Carefully opening rolls of faded watercolour paintings from a stained and rusty metal box, originally a heavy machine gun bullet container from the American War, former Police Colonel Luong Manh Tam examines what he calls his "war treasures".
They are sketches he painted and photos he took with a Canon during the 1960s and 70s, and he has just donated most of them to the Museum of Public Security. His 400 donated sketches have also been published in Khoanh Khac Chien Truong (Battle Moments).
"During our revolutionary wars against foreign invaders, many people did not think of becoming painters," Tran Khanh Chuong, Viet Nam Fine Arts Association chairman, noted in the foreword of the book. "Yet with their talent and enthusiasm, they have become real painters. Tam is such a good painter of battle scenes."
Chuong added that Tam sketched very vivid faces bearing deep thoughts and feelings.
"His pencil lines look simple but require close observation and great passion," he said.
Tam depicted many aspects of the war that he experienced firsthand: a rare peaceful moment at a makeshift healthcare centre, a village devastated after a series of bombings, a mother feeding her baby on a hammock, the liberation flag flying on the South Vietnamese Presidential Palace on April 30, 1975. There are also many portraits of people he met during the war.
"I sketched thousands of paintings between 1967 and 1976," Tam said. "It's hard to remember the circumstances in which I created the paintings. Just one thing I know for sure: many people I painted died during the war and I had no chance to see them again to give them my paintings."
|Picturing battle: Retiree Luong Manh Tam looks through his war sketches. — VNS Photos Le Huong
Tam travelled to the south and Cambodia to spy and set up communications between revolutionary units in the liberated north and the south, which was under the control of the US-backed Sai Gon regime.
"I remember visiting a Khmer temple in what we called Dam Be Base, located in what's now Cambodia's Kampong Cham Province, in February 1971," he recalled. "The nearby village was almost totally destroyed by a series of American bombs, which killed 70 Cambodian people. Just a few weeks before that bombing, my unit settled down there and received lots of help from locals."
"I then quickly took out my piece of thin wood from my backpack, along with a pencil and brush to sketch the scene. The familiar lines of trees were broken and burned with resin; the broken branches were like blood pouring out from humans' injuries."
His portraits include those of noted heroes during the American war like Muoi Chi (also known as Muoi Thuong), his wife Trieu Nha Nam, Hong Thanh and Nguyen Van Son, said poet Dang Vuong Hung, who initiated the movement to collect war objects for the museum.
Beside quick sketches of portraits and landscapes, Tam also composed paintings depicting historic moments in the nation's history, including the Mau Than General Offensive (1968), Paris Agreement Signing Ceremony (1973) and Dien Bien Phu in the Air in Ha Noi (1972).
Tam feels relieved that his work is being kept at the museum in proper storage conditions.
"At least I can share my treasures with the next generations, which my offspring could not do when I pass away," he joked.
Painter Chuong said the paintings were not only valuable in an artistic sense, but also reflected the passion of a generation of security workers who headed south to support the revolutionary cause. — VNS