A Revolutionary Spirit - an Introduction to Vietnamese Propaganda Art - 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 Facing Page: The Hung Kings retained our homeland, now we must together retain our nation Doan 1966 - 80 x 55cm6 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 Phu where he was mortally wounded, and died to be revered as an artist martyr for the cause of Vietnamese Independence.