First Generation Artist: École des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine French Influenced
N guyễn Hiêm was born in 1917 in Châu Đốc, An Giang Province. Hiêm’s parents were poor, uneducated farmers that did not attend school or practice art – although his father did have a photography studio. Hiêm showed his talent for art as a young boy by making clay sculptures of the buffalos he cared for on his family’s farm. Making use of his early artistic talent, Hiêm took the entrance exam for the Gia Đình Fine Arts Practicing School, even though he did not have the necessary art materials to compose a piece. Nevertheless, Hiêm passed the exam with a sketch (phỏng hoạ) of a rooster.
Hiêm studied at the Gia Đình Fine Arts School under the teacher Hồ Văn Lái with classmates and future artists Nguyễn Xiên and Nguyễn Sáng. After graduating from Gia Định Fine Arts School, he could not immediately further his studies at the Fine Arts School of Indochina in Hanoi due to joint pains, which perennially impaired his movement. However, he eventually did join the Fine Arts School of Indochina, which he graduated with a diploma in 1940.
Nguyễn Hiêm talking about his painting Trận Tầm Vu to Lê Thanh Trừ, “Story of an Artist,” Labour Newspaper, 4-6 January 2002
After graduating the Fine Arts School of Indochina, Hiêm travelled to Cambodia to paint architecture and made several paintings of pagodas and monks there. While there, Lê Minh Hiền, an artist who later became director of the Hanoi Cartoon Film Factory (Xưởng Phim Hoạt Hình Hà Nội), visited Hiêm in Cambodia. Although Hiêm did not feel confident enough, Lê Minh Hiền encouraged him to enter the Indochina exhibition of Fine Arts in Cambodia and eventually sent a selection of Hiêm’s works to the exhibition. Together with Tô Ngọc Vân, Hiêm won a gold medal at the exhibition. Being still a struggling artist at the time, Hiêm requested a cash prize instead of the gold medal to ease his economic situation. Many of the paintings Hiêm made in Cambodia were lost after been asked by the resistance in Vietnam to send them to be exhibited in India in 1947.
From 1940 to 1945, Hiêm painted prolifically, despite struggling to find paints and materials, and furthered the style of Vietnamese art. In one lacquer painting, “Through the Monkey Bridge” (Qua Cầu Khỉ), Hiêm broke from the traditional methods of making a
From 1945, Hiêm worked as an army artist, serving in the Military Newspaper Department, recording enemy stations in drawings during the First Indochina War against the French. In 1947, Hiêm was transferred to the Political Department (Phòng Chính Trị) of Military Zone 9 and continued to work for various newspapers drawing illustrations for articles. In 1949, one such article for the newspaper Gunfire (Tiếng Súng Kháng Địch) detailed guns donated by an Overseas Vietnamese (Việt Kiều) based in Thailand sent to a youth platoon of the resistance. Other subjects included women preparing rice and men working in the fields.1
In 1951, Hiêm was transferred to Long Châu Hà Province2 to work for the Provincial Political Department, close to his hometown in Châu Đốc. Here he was given the title of Chief of Management Board (trưởng ban quản trị) and printed news of the war in the local journals (tập san). His art works and poems had focused heavily on the relationship between soldiers and the local population. He worked with other artists, including Nguyễn Chi, who were glad to have someone as experienced as Hiêm – a graduate of the Gia Định Fine Art School – to lead them.
During the dry season of 1953, Hiêm was assigned on a political mission (đoàn công tác chính trị) to a construction site working on digging a canal to improve the alkaline soil, making several sketches and paintings of the work in Bạt thưa Forest. On his return to the office in Long Châu Hà Province, the Head of the Political Department (trưởng ban chính trị) Bùi Thanh Khiết recognized Hiêm’s skill as an artist. As a result, Bùi Thanh Khiết allowed Hiêm to focus solely on drawing, therefore beginning his professional artistic career.
As a professional artist, Hiêm travelled far and often, carrying the works he created in a large tin tube (ống thiếc).3 His considerable bodies of work documented battlefields, soldiers and the local population from Long Châu Hà Province to Military Zone 9, through the districts and towns of Chắc Đăng, Đập Đá, Huyện Sử, Thới Bình, to Cái Nước, Cầu Rau Dừa. One such series depicted his experience of the Battle of Tầm Vu with gouache, detailing the initial attack and the final victory of Việt Minh forces, the capture of enemy trucks, 105mm artillery guns and French soldiers. His images were later published in the newspaper Gunfire (Tiếng Súng Kháng Địch), praiSed for their realism and detail. During this time, Hiêm married Trần Thị Châu, who offered invaluable support for Hiêm and even travelled with him on assignments.
In July 1954 a ceasefire was declared leading to end of the First Indochina War in August. This began the mass movement of people from South Vietnam to North Vietnam, and vice versa, as part of the Geneva Accords signed in July 1954. As he moved constantly, Hiêm left painting tubes with families in certain locations for safe keeping. Upon receiving the order to evacuate (lệnh tập kết) Hiêm defied orders and travelled to a civilian’s house to collect a tube before the family burnt the paintings in fear of marauding French soldiers.
On 5 November 1954, Hiêm travelled on a Soviet ship (Xta vơ rô bôn) carrying over 2000 soldiers from the Sắc River in Cần Thơ Province to the South China Sea.4 During the trip, Hiêm painted life on the deck, in the holds. On 7 November, Hiêm painted female singers from the Voice of The South troupe (Tiếng nói miền Nam), Việt Minh soldiers and a delegation of Russian sailors celebrating the Soviet Union’s Revolution Anniversary. The ship arrived at the port town of Sầm Sơn on the morning of 9 November. Disembarking before the others, Hiêm camped under a cluster of casuarina trees to document arrival, almost completing the painting “Going Through Sầm Sơn Gate” (Qua Cổng Sầm Sơn) on the spot. With the works he created, Hiêm took part in the 1954/1955 National Fine Arts Exhibition in the capital, Hanoi. He participated with 30 selected paintings on the theme of the southern resistance and won the grand prize.
While living in Hanoi, Hiêm worked as an artist for the General Department of Politics (Tổng Cục Chính Trị) and was sent on many field trips to several army units based in the countryside and islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. With these works, Hiêm entered the 1958 National Fine Arts Exhibition. Subsequently, the Vietnamese Fine Arts Association brought the exhibition to Eastern Europe and Russia. One of his paintings “Night Operations” (“Hoạt động ban đêm”)5 was printed in the book Collection of Vietnamese Visual Art or Arts and Nations around the World (Tuyển Tập nghệ thuật tạo hình Việt Nam) in 1962.6 It was then purchased by the Vietnam National Fine Arts Museum after the show. Using that money, he bought air tickets for his wife and daughter, still staying in Saigon, to join him in Hanoi.
During the Second Indochina War, Hiêm travelled south (đi B) again, using the Ho Chi Minh Trail at the end of 1966 through 1967. He travelled with composers and writers like Nguyễn Khải, Huy Du and Hồ Phương. True to his previous work ethic, Hiêm painted constantly, gaining the approval of the soldiers he travelled with who used to hold umbrellas over him to protect him from the sun as he painted. He was based predominantly in Military Zone 7, but his exact movements until liberation are unclear. However, he was still based in Saigon at the end of the Second Indochina War in 1975.
Nguyễn Hiêm’s only daughter, Nguyễn Mai Khanh,7 born in 1954 at the resistance base in Long Châu Hà Province, passed the university entrance exam of Hanoi Medical School in 1973. When she finished the second year of school, Vietnam was liberated with the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. Unfortunately, at this time, Hiêm’s health had deteriorated from constant travelling and work. As a result, his daughter transferred from the Medical School in Hanoi to the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts University to follow her father’s profession, which she graduated in 1981.8
While working in Military Zone 7, Hiêm was given a house on the banks of the Saigon River. He converted the living room into his studio and used documents from the First Indochina War and the Second Indochina War to create a body of work. He also began a series of sketches of new statues that were erected throughout Ho Chi Minh City.9 Sadly, Hiêm suffered a fatal heart attack before he could finish the series.
Nguyễn Hiêm passed away on 30 December 1976. His daughter Nguyễn Mai Khanh lives in the same family home on the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City.
Lê Thanh Trừ, “Chuyện Về Ông Thợ Hoạ Sĩ” (“Story of an artist”), Báo Người Lao Động (Labour Newspaper), 4-6 January 2002
Nguyễn Chi, “Họa Sĩ Nguyễn Hiêm” (“Artist Nguyễn Hiêm”), Văn Nghệ (Art)
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- Nguyễn Chi, “Họa Sĩ Nguyễn Hiêm (Artist Nguyễn Hiêm),” Văn Nghệ, 2012.
- A former province in the southwest Vietnam that included the distrcits Tịnh Biên, Tri Tôn, Châu Phú A, Châu Thành, Thoại Sơn, Thốt Nốt, Giang Châu and Phú Quốc. The province was not recognized by the Vietnamese National Administration of Bảo Đại and the government of the Republic of Vietnam. Long Châu Hà Province is now a part of An Giang Province.
- Apparently made from a disused Bazooka barrel.
- Hiêm’s wife remained in Saigon as not qualified to take a ship north.
- Others included “Combat together” (“Hợp đồng chiến đấu”), “Pass by an old battlefield” (“Qua chiến trường cũ”), “When soldiers came to houses” (“Khi bộ đội ghé qua nhà”), “Mường hamlet after Điện Biên liberation” (“Bản Mường từ ngày giải phóng Điện Biên”).
- Collection of Vietnamese Visual Art or Arts and Nations around the World (Tuyển Tập nghệ thuật tạo hình Việt Nam), 1962, Soviet Fine Arts Publisher, Moscow.
- Who provided most of the information in this biography on Nguyễn Hiêm’s life to Witness Collection
- Nguyễn Mai Khanh went on to work for Information and Culture Department.
- These included “Ho Chi Minh with soldiers” (“Bác Hồ với Bộ Đội”), “Construction Workers” (“Công Nhân Xây Dựng”) and “Taking American Pilots” (“Bắt Giặc Lái Mỹ”).