Above, approaching Khe Sanh. A watercolour completed by Pham Thanh Tam in December 1967.
Pham Thanh Tam enjoys a unique status as a prominent member of a rare group of elite Vietnamese battlefield and propaganda artists. With the publication in 2005, of his illustrated journal from the Battle of Dien Bien Phu entitled, Drawing Under Fire, Pham Thanh Tam attained international recognition.
Drawing Under Fire is a Thames & Hudson publication, with a Foreword by Jessica Harrison-Hal, Curator of Vietnamese Art, the British Museum. It is edited by Sherry Buchanon (see link at bottom of this article).
Artist Tam has the unique distinction of being present at the day siege of the French at Dien Bien Phu and then, some thirteen years later, during the height of the Vietnam - American War, at the siege of the American marine firebase at Khe Sanh in January 1968, from which time the above water colour work is dated. It was painted when troops paused to refresh themselves at a stream. The moment inspired Tam to ask the soldier, who forms the subject of the painting, to pause and pose for him.
This eloquent and quintessential painting of a warrior dappled in light infiltrating through a thick forest canopy provides an example of a painting style often referred to as 'Poetic Realism'. It's a style where one can readily see the lingering influence the French introduced in the classes of the Hanoi Fine Arts Institute. Divergent cultures converge in a beautifully modulated work that speaks with a unique Indochinese voice.
Tam's artistic talents were forged as a youth under the gunfire of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. The works following that depict a marching soldier on the jacket of his book, and a beautiful portrait of a singer attached to the army, are but two examples of the unique style of Colonel Pham Thanh Tam.