First Generation Artist: École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine French Influenced
Tạ Tỵ was born Tạ Văn Tý on 3 May 1921 in Hà Đông (now an urban district of Hanoi). However, due to imprecise birth records at the time, his birth certificate stated that he was born on 22 September 1922.1 2
Between 1936 and 1937, Tỵ was greatly inspired by music. After hearing the music of Đỗ Thế Phiệt at the Hanoi Opera House, he started learning the piano. After a few years without making any real progress, he quit the piano to concentrate on painting. Outside of school, Tỵ began visiting the library to read fine art books and French newspapers, such as L’Illustration, containing works by Gaugin, Matisse, Van Gogh and Utrillo. In his own words, it was this exposure to Western painting that gave him the idea of exploring different styles beyond those taught at school, which he described as “mediocre things, picked up without creativity.”
In 1941, as a prize for one of his paintings, Tỵ was given permission to visit the imperial capital of Huế in Annam. Although the trip might seem commonplace now, Tỵ’s experience would have been akin to travelling to another country, given the division of Vietnam into the three protectorates: Tonkin, Annam and Cochin.
In 1943, Tỵ graduated from the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine. A year later, Tỵ’s painting Summer won an award at the Unique Salon exhibition in Hanoi.
At the start of the First Indochina War in 1946, Tỵ joined the Việt Minh resistance movement against French colonial occupation. He was one of the first art teachers in Military Zone 3, together with other notable artists Bùi Xuân Phái, Lê Quốc Lộc, Mai Văn Nam and Lương Xuân Nhị. While there, Tỵ painted Remember Hanoi (1947) which stands as one of the earliest examples of Tỵ experimenting with Western painting techniques.4 In 1948, he held an exhibition in Military Zone 3 with artists Bùi Xuân Phái and Văn Cao.
However, in May 1950, Tỵ fled his Việt Minh base in the northern provinces and returned to Hanoi, writing to a friend that, “My way of thinking does not suit the resistance after a few years of living with them.” Tỵ’s disenchantment with the resistance cause no doubt grew from the increasing control the Democratic Republic of Vietnam government (DRV) had on all forms of artistic expression. At the 1948 National Congress of the Arts in Hanoi, the communist political leader and theoretician Trường Chinh had stated, “Cubism, Surrealism, Dadaism are poisonous mushrooms on the decaying woody body of the imperial culture.”5 Although such declarations met staunch criticism from other artists such as Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc,6 recurrent “critical meetings”, urged on by Chinese officials, forcing Tỵ to explain the revolutionary theme in his Cubist paintings no doubt led to his admitting, “It is not easy for me to defend myself against those naive questions, because they have no knowledge of painting. I wanted to go crazy, but I tried to stay calm until the end of the meeting.”7
Tạ Tỵ, in a letter to Bởi Trần
After returning to Hanoi, Tỵ began to compose prolifically over a range of disciplines; fiction, poetry, scriptwriting and journalism, as well as painting. In this period, Tỵ started to paint with lacquer alongside other contemporary artists such as Nguyên Giá Trị, Lê Phổ and Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm until he switched to oil.8 In 1951, he exhibited 60 paintings at an exhibition entitled Modern Art in Hanoi. One oil painting included in the exhibition, Loneliness, was sold at a Sotheby’s auction in Singapore in April 2000 for SDS19,550. The auction catalogue stated: “Loneliness is one of the typical works of Tạ Tỵ’s Cubist period.”
In 1954, after the Geneva Accords and the withdrawal of French troops from Vietnam, Tỵ moved to Saigon, following many other creatives drawn to South Vietnam after the country was divided. There, after graduating the in the third class of the Thủ Đức Military Officer School as a first lieutenant, he served for the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel in the General Department of Political War. Tỵ’s work from his time in Saigon up until 1956 explored Cubism, distancing himself from the Social Realist art of North Vietnam admired by the Vietnamese Communist Party.
In 1956, at the beginning of the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm affair in North Vietnam, Tỵ held a solo exhibition of more than 60 paintings in Saigon, the first Cubist painting exhibition organized in South Vietnam. Again, in 1961, Tỵ exhibited another 60 Cubist and abstract paintings. This exhibition signified Tỵ’s artistic development from Cubist to Abstract art, which came to define him as an artist.
While in Saigon, Tỵ also dedicated a considerable amount of time to a series of portrait oil paintings of notable writers, poets and actors living in Saigon and South Vietnam such as Vũ Hoàng Chương, Đại Đức Tuấn, Vi Huyền Đắc, Dương Thiệu Tước, Võ Hồng, Sơn Nam, Thanh Tâm Tuyền, Nguyên Sa, Trịnh Công and Phạm Duy.9 Tỵ intended to display 100 portraits at the end of 1975, but the Liberation of Saigon meant the exhibition was never held.
Until the end of the Second Indochina War, Tỵ collaborated with numerous newspapers, magazines and publishers. However, after liberation in 1975, many works by artists such as Tỵ were burned by the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) or destroyed by the artists themselves for their own protection. In 1976, the reunification under a communist government meant a crackdown on “unpatriotic” creativity and thought, Tỵ was arrested and sent to a re-education camp, passing through seven camps in six years. In 1982, upon his release, he travelled with his wife and children to Malaysia en route to the United States, where he settled. Tỵ continued to paint in the United States until 2003 when he moved back to Ho Chi Minh City.
On 24 August 2004, Tạ Tỵ passed away at 83 years old at his home in Ho Chi Minh City.
Tạ Tỵ, Pebbles – Episodes of Stories, 1962, Nam Chi Tùng Thư, Saigon
Tạ Tỵ, Love and Vengeance – A Collection of Stories, 1970, Phạm Quang Kha, Saigon
Tạ Tỵ, Ten Faces of Art, 1970, Nam Chi Tùng Thư, Saigon. (Republished in Hanoi by the Vietnam Writers Association in 1996)
Tạ Tỵ, Pham Duy and That Sadness, 1971, Văn Sử Học, Saigon
Tạ Tỵ, For Life, 1971, Khai Phong, Saigon
Tạ Tỵ, Ten Faces of Literature Today, 1972, Lá Bối, Saigon. (Reprinted in the United States by Xuân Thu in 1991)
Tạ Tỵ, When – A Collection of Stories, 1972, Gìn Vàng Giữ Ngọc, Saigon
Tạ Tỵ, The Thought (magazine), 1974, Khai Phong, Saigon
Tạ Tỵ, Hell’s Day, 1985, Thằng Mõ, United States
Tạ Tỵ, The Artistic Faces Throughout My Life, 1990, Thằng Mõ, California, United States
Tạ Tỵ, My Hamlet, a collection of stories written in exile, 1992, Xuân Thu, United States
Tạ Tỵ, Cloud Bay, poems, 1996, Miền Nam
A trip (2000)
Collection Book Ta Ty published in 2001
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum
Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Fine Arts
Private international collections
Tokyo, San Francisco, New York and Paris10
Sydney and Melbourne art museums
1943 – Unique Salon Exhibition, Hanoi
1948 – Exhibition held in Military Zone 3 with artists Bùi Xuân Phái and Văn Cao
1951 – Modern Art, Hanoi
1956 – Solo exhibition, Saigon
1961 – Exhibition of 60 Cubist and Abstract paintings, Saigon
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- “Tạ Tỵ (1921-2004).” Visited on 26 June 2019.
- “Tạ Tỵ: Biography – Works – Self-Portrait.” Visited on 26 June 2019.
- Tạ Tỵ, Hợp Lưu 32, 1992, Xuân Đinh Sửu, pg. 216.
- “Tạ Tỵ in a letter to Bởi Trần on 14 August 2001. Bởi Trần, “Tạ Tỵ (1922-2004) – a pioneer in Vietnamese art,” August 2004, Sydney. Visited on 26 June 2019).
- Trường Chinh, Marxism and Vietnamese cultural issues, 1974, Sự thật, Hanoi, p.19.
- Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc commented in an article published by the Sáng tạo newspaper in Zone 4 in 1951 that Trường Chinh’s thinking was “ignorant but daring to criticize art.” He was later sent to a re-education camp from 1956 to 1959.
- Tạ Tỵ, “The artists that I know”, The Literary Faces that have Passed My Life, 2001, Thằng Mõ, California, p.101.
- Ngã Văn, “A book for painter Tạ Tỵ,” 29 May 2019. Visited on 26 June 19.
- Lê Huỳnh Lâm, “Painter Tạ Tỵ – from stereoscopic to non-physical,” 8 September 2016, Ho Chi Minh City Literature Week No. 417. Visited on 26 June 2019.
- Thanh Vân, “Tạ Tỵ – pioneer painter in Vietnam,” 20 July 2016. Visited on 26 June 2019.