Paintings sold for less than $50 ten years ago now sell for more than $50,000. Nguyen Qui Duc, art curator and author, suggests why.
It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that art is big business in Vietnam. But a lot of money is changing hands in exchange for modern canvases, woodblock prints, or paintings on silk and the Vietnamese bark paper, giay. Gallery owners talk of selling individual works for tens of thousands of dollars, and some are financing frequent trips to the United States, Europe, and Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Tokyo. Meanwhile, artists in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hoi An are boasting about the houses they're able to build for themselves as a result of their commercial success.
The explosion of the art market in Vietnam started a mere few years ago. The increasing number of tourists since the early 1990's has a lot to do with the interest in Vietnamese art, particularly among visitors from japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Asian countries. But awareness of Vietnamese art can be traced back to a handful of individuals who, for commercial and cultural reasons, have played major roles in putting Vietnamese art on the international map.
Among these individuals are scholars, journalists, critics and writers, such as Jeffrey Hantover of Asian Art News, the scholar Nora Taylor and journalist Zina Matlock. Their articles have had significant influences on the careers of Vietnamese artists and their sales figures. The owners of Gallerie la Vong in Hong Kong, devoted entirely to Vietnamese art, have published glossy coffee-table books that are considered by some to be the bibles on Vietnamese modern art. Others disagree, but nonetheless it's thought that they have driven up the prices of Vietnamese art significantly.
The Smithsonian Institution and new Asia Review have devoted entire issues of their magazines to the arts in Vietnam. David Thomas, head of the Boston-based Indochina Arts Project, having had experience with putting together an exhibition of artwork by Vietnamese veterans, created a new show which was picked up by the Smithsonian. It's been touring the U.S. under the title An Ocean Apart, a survey of Vietnamese art from the 1940s to today, including a small amount of work produced by Vietnamese now living in America. The Indochina Arts Project has also been bringing artists from Hanoi to the U.S. for visits and residencies lasting several months.
In Vietnam, the critic/painter Nguyen Qhan and the poet Duog Tueng, both charming and both sporting the image of the archetypical Vietnamese intellectuals, have also been wielding much influence and gaining publicity through their contacts with Western media and cultural figures. Foreign owners and directors of galleries in Vietnam, such as Red River and Natasha in Hanoi, have been successful in creating attention for the artists they represent.
All the excitement - and hype - even prompted the New York Times to publish several stories about Vietnamese artists and their art; last year the paper ran a report about the heightened interest and rocketing prices.
But there is in fact good reason to be excited about contemporary art from Vietnam.
The French brought modern painting to Vietnam with the founding of the Fine Arts College of Indochina in Hanoi in 1925. until then the Vietnamese had focused primarily on village arts, which included woodblock printing, temple carvings and sculptures, and some brush painting learned from the Chinese. For 20 years the French teachers trained Vietnamese students in fundamental classicism, sometimes encouraging them to apply Western Techniques on traditional, native themes; the students, in turn, taught further generations in the art of painting.
During the years Vietnam was at war with America, artist of the northern half of the country required to work within the limits of socialist realism and propaganda art. Until just a few years ago, nudes and abstract or freer figurative works. Today, artists work in all styles. Oil paintings on larger canvases are becoming more common, but many artists still produce exquisite pieces, using gouache on paper.
Among the artists currently doing exciting and popular works, a great many are Hanoi artists such as Dang Xuan Hoa, Hong Viet Dung, Tran Luong, Ha Tri Hieu, and Le Thiet Cuong. These are men in their late twenties and thirties, painting mostly oil-on-canvas abstracts and works depicting elements of Vietnamese traditional society with great styles and confidence. Few women are well-known, except for Dinh Y Nhi, a young graduate from Hanoi's School of Fine Arts, fetching $500 to $1000 for black-and-white gouaches of whimsical yet harrowing stick figures. her prices may go up even further following recent exhibitions in France and Japan, and a stay at a prestigious California artist residency. Thanh Chuong, a former Hanoi graphic artist, paints vibrant self-portraits and village scenes both in gouaches and in oil. Most of his works starts at about $400. he recently produced hundreds of lithographs commissioned by a Korean representative of a large hotel chain. Le Quang Ha is another artist using vibrant colors to paint charming portraits, often with phallic lotus bouquets. Truong Tan, an openly gay man, has gained a measure of notoriety in recent years by painting men bound in tight ropes, and by adorning his works with English and French sentences confronting viewers with questions about AIDS and HIV.
In the south, works by Tran Trung Tin, Nguyen Trung and Buu Chi (a Hue art professor), are among the most interesting. Do Quang Em's hyper-realist approach has supposedly earned him $20,000 to $60,000 per painting, usually oil portraits of his wife or sill-life with minimal elements in extremely somber light. Nguyen Quan's oils of altars and disembodied womens' heads appeal to Dada lovers, who pay up to $5,000 for a painting.
With so many artists and so many galleries, lovers of Vietnamese art often find it daunting to acquire the works. Tourists seeking a reminder of their Vietnam trip simply buy gouache renderings of Vietnamese country life, many under $100 or even less expensive, in small towns. The more serious collectors seek works by the masters such as Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Nguyen Sang, Hoang Tieh Chu and Bui Xuan Phai. These are among the first graduates of the College of Fine Arts, and their works are rare to find, with perhaps the exception of Nguyen Tu Nghiem's. Bui Xuan Phai is undoubtedly the most well-known with his charming Hanoi street scenes. But the artist, who died in poverty in 1988, is also the most copied, since collectors will pay amounts almost impossible to imagine for paintings that ten years ago were being sold for less than $50.