Richard di San Marzano
“I was still a student who’d left school to take part in the battle, to enlist. At that time I was still filled with the exuberance of youth and everything was beautiful, magical, of course there was the awareness of why we fought, because we hated the invaders and needed to protect our motherland. At the same time, as I took part in the fighting, I really realized my country was beautiful, and that I needed to protect it. The reasons were simple, but encouraging, making me live enthusiastically, so I was very optimistic, I had no reservation.” Pham Thanh Tam (b.1932)
The variety and compelling individuality of Vietnamese propaganda art, and the circumstances under which it was created, define and distinguish it from almost all other art of its kind. Even now, almost forty years after the fall of Saigon, remarkably little is known about the art, or the artists who created it. For those visiting Vietnam opportunities to view authentic original posters are limited mainly to the few on display in certain museums and smallish, plastic wrapped prints sold from city book stores or there are the shops found around tourist neighborhoods, which apparently have a never-ending supply of ‘original’ prints. These sources can, at best, only provide a limited and superficial impression of this fascinating art and the many stories it has to tell. The most significant examples of the range and variety of original Vietnamese propaganda art are somewhat harder to find. These were created during more than thirty years of ceaseless war resulting in unimaginable sacrifice and hardship. Yet almost in defiance of these tragic times and circumstances, a pervading sense of humanity speaks though the work, and one can even find beauty alongside the bayonets, bullets and flaming aircraft. Hatred or anger is rarely depicted, and one can clearly feel the yearning and determination for national unification, freedom from foreign occupation and hope for peace underpinning all the works created.
“Our hearts beat the same rhythm with that of our nation. At that time everyone, every youth all directed their burning soul to the love for our Nation,”
Le Dung (b.1948)
“Artists are also soldiers, soldiers on the culture front”
Nguyen Thu (b.1930) quoting Ho Chi Minh
The first printed appearance of propaganda work as such in Vietnam is attributed to an image that appeared in the Doc Lap (independence) newspaper created by Ho Chi Minh himself in 1941 whilst working under the name Nguyen Ai Quoc. ‘Trumpeter for the Independence of Vietnam’ comprised a figure whose body and legs form the words ‘Doc Lap Vietnam’. Soon, established artists of the time, many of whom had studied and or taught at the French colonial and grandly-named Ecole Superieure des Beaux Arts de L’Indochina (1925-1945) were creating propaganda art. There were also schools in Hue and the Ecole des Dessins in Saigon, which had opened 12 years prior to the Ecole Superieure in 1913. These schools provided students with a classical fine arts curriculum in the Western tradition and during the ensuing decades, the great majority of the graduates and students of the school turned their artistic talents to creating anti-French and American propaganda posters and cartoons.
“I think back then anyone who was an artist more or less took part in designing and participating in such events. That’s something that’s unique to Viet Nam I think. It was not only artists trained and specialized in propaganda image-making that participated in making propaganda posters.” Nguyen Duc Tho (b.1945)
From its earliest beginnings in the 1940’s, it took little more than a decade for Vietnamese propaganda art to develop into a prolific, wide-ranging, often creative, and above all, a highly successful means of political and social communication. This movement was fostered and supported by Ho Chi Minh (1890-1979), who along with Vo Nguyen Giap, (1911-2013) enjoyed considerable personal contact with artists. They both placed great importance in the effectiveness of art in general as a diplomatic tool, and especially in the potential of propaganda art to communicate central government policies to both the general population, and especially the predominantly rural majority.
After the second world war, fighting between the French and the Viet Minh ( as those fighting against the French were known) intensified, and in the years prior to 1954, a widespread and effective means of resistance to foreign occupation took the form of slogans in graffiti , rather than the recognizable forms of propaganda art which survive today. It was a dangerous activity, conducted by volunteers and members of the revolutionary movement, many of whom also held burgeoning artistic aspirations as was the case of Pham Thanh Tam. These protagonists risked their lives daubing anti-French messages on walls, especially the leftover shells of bombed or dynamited buildings often found very near French fortifications as the structures had been cleared so as not to provide cover. Such activities are best described by those with experience of the times as illustrated in the accompanying passage.
“…They asked me to go draw and copy slogans at the village level, which means going into the heart of the enemy’s territory. So I went by myself, without even a backpack, only a sack containing a bit of gouache and a few clothing items. I didn’t have much clothing so it was mostly color pigments, brushes and a bit of binding agents to mix the colors. At the village I had an invitation paper from the office and they sent along another person from the village’s communications office. He took me close to the enemy’s base where there were pieces of walls called the ‘scorched earth’. Big brick houses or village temples bombed by the enemy left behind slabs of bare walls. We used those walls to write slogans to promote the resistance. I wrote and drew on those walls. For example, slogans like ‘Persistent Resistance Guarantees Victory’, or ‘Soldiers and People Unite’, or ‘Destroy French Invaders’, or ‘To Drink Wine Is To Drink Your Countrymen’s Blood’. At that time, drinking was a terrible crime – we’d just gone through the famine of 1945 where 2 million people died. Making rice wine was wasting rice, so you abstained from drinking wine to save the rice and fight hunger, those who drank wine were considered criminals…” Pham Thanh Tam (b.1932)
With the ever increasing tensions between the Viet Minh and the French occupying forces, the art school in Hanoi was moved out of the city in 1946 for the safety of the students and faculty staff before finally returning to the city following the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu when it was renamed The School of Fine Arts, Hanoi, and shortly following in 1958, Le Lam became the first of many art student graduates to be selected to go to the then Soviet Union (USSR) to study Russian propaganda art.
In the pivotal year of 1957, the Artist’s Association was created, with an administration composed of select, former students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and, significantly, also of artists who had taught or trained with the revolutionary forces in their stronghold in Viet Bac to the North of Hanoi chosen as the refuge and headquarters of the communist party from 1946 until 1954. Some of the teachers from the art school of Hanoi went to Viet Bac , notably, To Ngoc Van,(1906-1954) one of the first graduates from the French school in 1931 , and a famed artist, revolutionary , writer and teacher, who established and administered an art school in Viet Bac , and who along with other students and artists , went to Dien Bien
Above - “Long live the Vietnamese Labour Party”
Cuong Hanh - circa 1966 - gouache on paper 79cm x 49cm.
In this strikingly powerful poster, a worker with bulging forearms and a mighty grip, resolutely grasps the hammer and sickle against the red field and gold star of Vietnam - a fine example of Vietnamese propaganda art that is unopologetically reflective of Soviet iconic symbolism.
A rare early photograph showing artists including Nguyen Tu on left in forefront marching with their posters in 1949
Phu where he was mortally wounded, and died to be revered as an artist martyr for the cause of Vietnamese Independence.
The direction of the newly formed Artist’s Association challenged the artists’ traditional class backgrounds. Children of ‘Mandarin’ urban elites who had studied at the French administered art school mixed with artists from rural farming or military backgrounds, with the Association providing a standard, modest monthly stipend, art supplies and the possibility of participating in group exhibitions. Truong Chinh, head of the newly formed ‘Ministry of Information’, paraphrased the famous Leninist dogma, declaring that ‘art is not art unless it becomes propaganda’ and the organized production of propaganda art began in earnest. Artists both famed or otherwise, art teachers, students and numerous anonymous enthusiastic volunteers became engaged in the first wave of the production of poster art that would, over the following twenty plus years leave an extraordinary range and variety of propagandizing messages in the form of bright, bold, and spontaneously executed posters.
“Back then, art meant drawing, and we drew very fast when it came to propaganda images, so that they could be put up in time for each campaign.” Trung Be (b.1942)
The backdrop of more than three decades of conflict was further exacerbated by the cold war, with already poor conditions made terrible by the waging of the most intense and prolonged bombing campaign yet carried out in the history of warfare (it is calculated that an average of 400 pounds of TNT exploded every second for months on end somewhere across this small country).
“Regarding propaganda art, there were not just memories of difficult times. If the enemy plane arrives while you were drawing, you had to run. We were constantly on the go while drawing.” Kim Vinh (b.1932)
These and related events shaped and defined the tumultuous nature of the times in which, ideology apart, helped trigger and stimulate an outpouring and flourishing of propaganda art that has left a legacy of fascinating and varied imagery.
“So you have to understand the point of view of someone fighting from within the jungle. You cannot imagine what it was like with B52 dropping bombs on us. Let me tell you, I went through 80 raids by those B52. When I tell you this, my students say I said 100 raids. But I don’t need to exaggerate. The war was brutal, and when they drop those bombs and I’d bury my comrades, they’d come again and attack the same place so that my comrades’ bodies were completely destroyed. Lots of people were lost forever.” Huynh Phuong Dong (b.1925)
The volume and variety of the art produced from the last years of the 1950’s till the early 1980’s, defies easy definition. It ranges from the gloriously naïve, confidently and swiftly executed works, through to developed artistic pieces that exist as art in their own right. Socialist realism and a variety of foreign influences, especially of the Russian school are found aplenty, but do not ever truly dominate. Vietnamese propaganda art provides fascinating, insightful and rewarding viewing on multiple levels. The art works merit individual study. That this art is important as direct historical documentation of the dogma and events of the time, seems indisputable, as is the extent to which the creative imagination of patriotic artists caught up in those extraordinary circumstances, and the art they produced , helped the Northern Government
communicate with and motivate a great majority of the population. The art worked effectively at raising morale, disseminating information, and contributed to galvanizing support in the struggle to free the land from foreign control and unite the nation. It served to help people endure the hardships this entailed, and to believe in a cause that led to the eventual defeat of both France and then the United States and her allies. Propaganda art served a not insignificant role in the eventual victory of the North and the reunification of the country.
“I want to say propaganda posters have historical values, artistic values and political values in particular times. Therefore, we should respect them, and make the later generation understand the grand history of our forefathers. In terms of artistic value, particularly on the subject matter and style of propaganda posters, we can say that Vietnamese artists had proudly contributed a great deal to the resistance against France and America.”
Trung Be (b.1942)
There are numerous themes found in Vietnamese propaganda art. The largest general subject grouping is devoted to the military services. Along with mobilization came a specific call for men and women to take up arms, or otherwise serve to help reunite the country after the defeat of the French and the failure of the South to follow through with a scheduled national plebiscite which had been agreed to by all parties at the Geneva accords in July 1954 (though the US ‘demurred’). From that moment, the drive to unite the country and free the South by ‘driving out the foreigner occupiers and their lackeys’ took centre stage leading to a nation-wide calling to arms.
In the propaganda art , the subject of the continuously prolonged, ongoing war is approached from a variety of standpoints. The cherished heroic warrior tradition of Vietnamese resistance to foreign occupation over the ages, coupled with the galvanizing victory of Dien Bien Phu, lent a compelling and viable subtext to much of the propaganda and the drive for recruits. There are appeals for close co-operation between soldiers and civilians, for vigilance, for border defense, for the support of ethnic minorities, even the defusing of unexploded ordinance for recycling is depicted and celebrated. The long and arduous trek South on the Ho Chi Minh trail and the toil of both soldiers and porters alike carrying their arms or supplies appears frequently. We often see a simple and direct appeal for courage and determination on the battlefield. In the closing stages of the war, ‘going G’, the code for the final push to Saigon appears as in the example found on page125. Air defense is also a constant theme from the mid 1960’s. The first air raid against the North occurred in 1964, and soon, with the commencement of operation ‘Rolling Thunder’, the intensity of the air war directly affected the lives of the great majority of North Vietnamese. Artists were especially called upon to respond in helping to galvanize the popular spirit in the face of the heaviest bombing campaign in history. One of the central objectives of the propaganda posters concerning the air war was creating works that marked and celebrated successes of the air defense networks, and the crews that manned them. Some of the most interesting posters were created in response to this theme, and were especially created to mark and celebrate the number of claimed aircraft successfully shot down. Artists were often inspired to seek out new and fresh approaches to the subject. There are interesting examples on page 87 and 91, where they have succeeded in creating works that transcend the original requisite propaganda message, by successfully incorporating symbolism that the viewer would recognize with art that exists in its own right.
Ho Chi Minh was and remains the most cherished subject He is depicted galvanizing the moral of troops, supporting education or agricultural endeavor. His famous ‘slogans’ are heavily featured. These have entered the national psyche of the Vietnamese people, in particular, his most famous quote: ‘Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom’. The lotus flower is often incorporated into depictions of ‘Bac Ho’(Uncle Ho) and is an especially revered symbol of purity, elegance and sublime nobleness. It was intended to convey diverse and sometimes quite profound meanings. The lotus of Thap Muoi, is closely associated with Ho Chi Minh’s father and with the province of the Mekong where his father is buried and where this famed lotus grows.
“I followed the teachings of Chairman Ho, he said ‘you artists keep on painting, but only when 11 you can paint in a way that can move the viewer, the audience do you succeed.’ Propaganda art in particular, you had to communicate the message and encouragements. And in order to pass on the propaganda message you had to paint in the realism style so the viewers can empathize with the artist. If you wanted to draw the river you had to visit the river, if you wanted to draw the countryside you had to visit the countryside, if you wanted to draw city life you had to choose the appropriate location.”
Kim Vinh (b.1932)
An especially interesting and unique presence in Vietnamese propaganda art is the depiction of women and the extraordinarily significant role they played in all aspects of the war, barring flying Migs, and they are present in around half of all images. The most unique of them are the famed long-haired warriors, the women soldiers of the NLF ( National Liberation Front) of South Vietnam,.
‘When war comes, even the women have to fight’ Timeless Vietnamese saying.
The depiction of women under arms and especially in action on the battlefield is rare in the history of art outside of the Vietnamese oeuvre. There exists no comparative visual testimony on such a scale, of the participation of women in warfare, or any similar series of images excepting perhaps, sculptural relief and painted ceramic depictions of the semi-mythological Amazons from early classical times. Images such as that found on page 92, 93 and 94, 95, of women front line soldiers in combat are samples of the scope and range of their presence in the art, and the depictions of the many roles they played in the war
“There is probably no country on earth that had such an army” Nguyen Minh Triet (b.1942) former president of Vietnam
Propaganda art related to industry and agriculture was very important to the Northern government. Often full of Soviet ‘inspired’ iconic symbolism, the early posters of the 1960’s promoted Marxist Leninist ideology regarding industry and workers, and targeted the predominantly agricultural based economy with its vital, numerous peasant work force. With the hammer and sickle at the fore, this was Vietnam’s tailored revolution with its proclaimed intention to implement the revolution around modernization and development. The ‘dogma’ that the government disseminated through its Ministry of Information was essentially a blend of Marxist socialism with traditional Vietnamese socio-cultural nuances.
The education of children was a high prioritie of the new government in the North following the capitulation of the French after Dien Bien Phu in 1954, with the North becoming self-governing for the first time in almost century, under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, a party with an entirely new revolutionary political ideology, infused with nationalism and the cause of nationhood, came into power.
Many posters in the Dogma Collection deal with the subject of education. One of the first actions of the new Government was to commence the implementation its long-cherished educational policy manifesto, in which it had promised to provide an education for all children up to college /university level. This new undertaking faced many difficulties in having to deal with a vast rural population conditioned by traditional conservative Mandarin and Confucian ideas of education, class, landownership, and women’s rights, coupled with almost a century of French colonial and Catholic nuanced rule. Under the French, the possibilities of obtaining an education were very limited and only available to a small elite group. Ironically many of the leaders of the revolution graduated under the French education system, not least Ho Chi Minh himself, as well as a many of the artists who created the propaganda art promoting the belief in the importance of schooling for all children.
The long struggle for victory and appeals for universal peace are recurrent themes, as are calls for unity, public support for the armed forces, maintenance of the revolutionary sprit, and for moral values such as the ‘three responsibilities’, announced at the eleventh plenum of the workers party in 1965, which stated that women were expected to fulfill their domestic duties, respond to the needs of the nation and defend their homeland.
Open Air Exhibition of Propaganda Art in The NLF Base In Tay Ninh 1974
The celebration and marking of important events and anniversaries are all part, but by no means all of the messages and topics that Vietnamese poster art of the time addressed.
“Regarding propaganda art, it is a field that is very general. It has to generalize as well as meet the immediate needs of political current affairs, so each artist has his/her own personal drawing and expression style. Some people use color, some use contrasting colors, actually most use contrasting colors. Some use this situation or that situation to compose propaganda images. A lot of artists made propaganda art and I like them all.”
Trung Be (b.1942)
The creation of the propaganda art was especially inspired and fueled by an idealistic and strongly felt Nationalistic fervor that is historically part of the nature of the Vietnamese people . Ho Chi Minh’s leadership and encouragement of the arts galvanized and gave renewed life to the very real and evident passion felt fervently by the numerous artists, students and enthusiastic amateurs of the ‘art corps’ in the production of their work. Given the extraordinary times and circumstances, and complex background from which it was born, it is appreciable how styles, techniques and approach, can be as diverse as the numerous themes that are to be found in the works
A Rare Photo of The Dangerous Public Display of a Northern Propaganda Poster Painted and By Le Lam in the South.
“Perhaps, the fact that Vietnamese propaganda drawings are so rich, deep, and widely dispersed was thanks to the spirit of that time.” Nguyen Duc Tho (b.1945)
Influences are equally diverse, and come from all quarters, from the precedents of propaganda art of Russia where many artists studied, from China, and also from both Eastern and Western Europe. Many variations in both the treatment of themes, and the style of the art are present, though it is always in essence, a Vietnamese voice that speaks. Many of the artists studied under the influence of the classical approach of European art, under which traditions such as life drawing were taught, and even maintained after 1954, with even those students selected to attend advanced courses in the then ‘Soviet Union’, for the most part , did not fully embrace the Russian style in any dominant sense. Though the artists acknowledge a wide variety of external influences, they generally looked into themselves and each other in the creation of their art works. Poster texts can occasionally be surprising as epitomized in the following Zen like message, ‘HOLD YOUR GUN ARM STEADY TO KEEP THE COLOUR OF FLOWERS’, found on page 111. The accompanying text on a particularly interesting example of Chinese influenced kitsch from 1961 reads ‘KEEP THE PEACFUL MOON FOR OUR CHILDREN’. A poster dedicated to Gagarin’s space flight has the following text ‘GAGARIN THE PROPHET OF PEACE HAS ARRIVED IN SPACE’. The value placed on women’s contribution to the war is expressed with a punchy text that declares ‘THE SOUTHERN FEMALE GUERRILLAS ARE TRULY FULL OF GUTS’ pages 92, 93.
“I wasn’t conscious that this was the making of propaganda art, I simply thought of it as a form to help the public understand. It was only after that, meaning dozens of years later, in peaceful times, as I continued painting and studying, from newspapers, various articles and looking at other countries that I realized this was a unique form that has its own characteristics. For example, communication (tuyên truy?n) is a common word meaning to circulate information and to let people know what’s going on. But when you say to propagandize (c? d?ng) then it means certain phrases, slogans, big ideas condensed into concise phrases so that the vast majority can understand right away and follow. Communication is broad and long-termed. Propagandas usually are short-term agendas, momentary calls for action. Because the nature of propaganda is different therefore their designs are also different. They’re simple, unlike other sorts of paintings and art forms. They employ one clear solid picture, concise slogans to get the vast majority to understand easily and then execute quickly. That’s the nature of propaganda.”
Pham Thanh Tam (b.1932)
Phan Thanh Tam holding a propaganda poster he designed during his art school period. It features soldiers marching under a full moon under the guidance of Uncle Ho. This image inspired a famous song: ‘Bac van cung chung chau hanh quan’ which became a widely known and popular ‘hit’ at the time, as well as a morale builder.
In general, themes were pre-selected, and the artists were provided with a subject and or slogan or text much like a school assignment. Artists also, at times, wrote the accompanying text themselves, and experimented greatly in the variety of approaches to the same event or topic. An example is to be found in two posters that celebrate the same event: the claimed ‘downing’ of the three thousandth US aircraft celebrated in two very distinct manners and perspectives. (Pages 86, 87 and 90, 91)
In other examples, two artists in collaboration sometimes produced posters, and one can clearly identify separate individual’s signatures. Distributing and exhibiting propaganda art called for ingenuity and flexibility. Print runs were generally distributed in the North, whilst original art was displayed in temporary roaming exhibitions. The percentage of the art that was printed was quite limited as there was a constant demand for printing time on the available machines and the resources required were equally restricted. Posters that were selected for a print run were mostly adhered to walls with glue, and not generally included in the exhibitions, and thus few original prints remain in good condition today.
Ho Chi Minh At An Exhibition of Huynh Phuong Dong’s Art in 1968
Information including the name of the artist, the print run number and the printing house were included on the lower part of the print. It is worth noting that a purported original print without this information is not what it is claimed to be (caveat emptor for collectors).
Artists themselves might silk screen a smaller number of copies until the screen collapsed through use, or they ran out of paper and commonly, 20 or so ‘original’ copies of an art work were painted either by the artist, or a small group attached to him, often composed of art students, or volunteers, and thus the work of a gifted artist can exist in copied form, and many posters have group signatures. We consider these as copies made in good faith which were made so that there could be multiple exhibitions held in different locations at the same time, and one can find the same design executed with various degrees of skill.
There is no one single overarching or inherent approach in these art works that can easily define Vietnamese propaganda art other than that it is almost always direct, swiftly executed, and with the brush stokes visible. The images are often optimistic and frequently surprises one with a tangible sense of future hope, so often expressed in faces that are only very rarely express anger. That some eighty plus percent of the work is signed tells us just how different it, and the artists themselves, were to the anonymous artists who produced the propaganda art of China (with rare exception) and North Korea, and for a significant part of the famed propaganda art of Russia. It is compelling evidence of an unsuppressed confidence in their individuality which was fostered in the art schools.
“The academy only gave out general ideas, and we had to think, ponder and choose an angle that could express our ideas. From when we were young, the school had already oriented the students to think by themselves, and not copy other artists because this is art. They let us see some posters from Poland. I like Polish posters very much; they were very clever and concise. I often visited the international bookstores to see Polish stamps to learn their though process. These helped me realize my ideas. After that I’d apply and contemplate to find which symbol fitted my ideas.”
Le Dung (b.1948)
Many artists went to the front lines embedded with detachments of combat soldiers, or to areas prone to bombardment, drawing and producing much of their work, both posters and combat art whilst in the field.
Some spent up to a decade away from families and loved ones traveling the Truong Son (Ho Chi Minh trail) on foot with their art materials on their back and have remarkable and unheard tales of their experiences, on this arduous journey that took up to six months to complete in the earlier years of the 1960’s.
“My husband didn’t tell you about how long it took him to walk to the South, he spent 6 months on the road. The road was very difficult back then, even 10 years later when I trekked the Truong Son trail as a Youth Volunteer. By then they’d made the difficult routes a little bit easier, it wasn’t easy but it was easier.”
Huynh Phuong Dong’s wife and surgeon in the Cu Chi tunnels
Ho Chi Minh Attending An Exhibition of Le Lam’s Work in Hanoi in 1969
One of the most unique occurrences made possible by the artists’ presence with the army was the staging of exhibitions in the jungles and forests of the countryside. Sometimes art was even hung in trenches whilst action raged all around. These impromptu exhibitions speak volumes of the dedication of the artists, and the significance their work held for the others. An especially hazardous undertaking was the risk of being caught with or in the act of displaying posters in hamlets in the South, a photograph on page 12 shows such a poster display.
“Regarding propaganda designs, each artist came up with their own ways to design them depending on their situation, and they showed them in the jungle. It was fun! There’s never been any other country with exhibitions in the jungle during the war like us. At times we used soot from the pots, turmeric, anything that can give color.”
Huynh Phuong Dong (b.1925)
“Song of Victory was my first propaganda poster, I drew a young militant sitting in a room made from the remnants of an American jet and she was playing the flute. It’s not in our disposition to draw angry faces or cruel actions so I didn’t draw those.”
Vu Huyen (b.1944)
Research interviews have revealed the surprising degree of personal contact that various artists enjoyed with both Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, as the accompanying photographs show. The unforgettable encounters they experienced with these two legendary men of the 20th century figure prominently in their lives and in their art. These men, who shaped the history of the Vietnam in a way that had an impact felt around the world, spent more time than one might imagine with artists and in this context, it is interesting to take note of descriptions of several encounters between Picasso and Ho Chi Minh, in Paris years prior from the transcript of an interview with Phan Ke An
”How many times did you meet uncle Ho?
“In terms of brief meetings then many times. But the period I sketched him when I stayed with him and ate with him, that was 3 weeks. Uncle Ho was someone who understood arts very well, and knew many artists. First of all, in France he knew Picasso, he knew Picasso very well. In Vietnam, he often take part in the revolution I met him often. Here, I’ve hung up these (pictures): that was one of my teachers, here’s another one, and the third man is Vo Nguyen Giap. Those were three of the teachers I loved and respected the most. As for Vo Nguyen Giap, I met him every time I go on a special mission. I visited his house in Hanoi. Recently there was a photo of him in the hospital, when he couldn’t speak. Uncle Giap was also someone who associate often with artists. I also drew uncle Giap. I drew a proper portrait and gave it to him. I still owe him 3 drawings, they’re very difficult to draw. He was standing in the commander’s tunnel in Dien Bien Phu, walking in the tunnel. That night they decided to change the strategy from quick attack to attack solidly and win solidly. He had to fight with many other generals. There were people who wanted to attack quickly and win quickly, but that was not possible. They argued that the Central Committee had ordered to attack quickly, and to change the plan at that moment was to change the order from above. That was something he had to fight to convince others and redeem himself from the fault of disobeying central orders. But the central commands believed in Vo Nguyen Giap, and gave him permission to change. So to draw that scene when he stood debating on what to change was very difficult.”
Phan Ke An (b.1923)
“Ho Chi Minh came around the back, and I hugged him tightly. The security had to say ‘Dong, let go of Uncle Ho.’ I hugged him but could not say a thing.”
Huynh Phuong Dong (b.1925)
The intensification of the Vietnam - American War from 1965 on, led to a critical shortage of materials and especially paper. Paper was in such short
Pham Thanh Tam with General Vo Nguyen Giap (on left) Viewing An Exhibition of Propaganda Art in Hanoi in 1976
supply that artists were compelled to become more resourceful than ever, using virtually any paper they could lay their hands on. The discovery of life drawings on the reverse side of many of the propaganda posters in the Dogma Collection was one of the most surprising and unexpected findings of the archiving process. Many of these ‘forgotten’ life drawings compare favorably with the works of any classical fine arts academy, and often possess, for Western eyes at least, exotic Indochinese characteristics.
“At that time, how could we find any paper, we had to collect whatever was there and draw on them because we threw them away after finishing the drawing. Here, this picture belonged to some Ðan Tru?ng guy I don’t even know. He just threw it away, and when the school asked us to draw propaganda posters, I flipped it and drew on the other side. Through this we could see that that period was very difficult, pen and paper were scarce.”
Hoan Trang (b.1935)
The shortage of paper at times also extended to the re-cycling of the reverse side of pre-printed Russian, Eastern European, and North Korean propaganda posters along with maps, charts, and almost anything else deemed suitable enough to paint on. The works that appear on the reverse side of some of the Vietnamese propaganda posters are as fascinatingly a disparate group of images as one could imagine. There is a poster of Lenin, Polish theatrical posters, one for a Czechoslovakian ceramic exhibition dated 1963, and the upper half of a poster of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader who was dethroned after the Cuban missile crisis; rare oddities assembled by fate or happenstance in unique circumstances.
Richard di San Marzano