First Generation Artist: École des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine Influenced
Thái Hà was born as Nguyễn Như Huân on 18 December 1922 in Tân Hồng Commune, Từ Sơn District, Bắc Ninh Province.1 Bắc Ninh is a province in north Vietnam renowned for folk songs, ancient pagodas and festivals. Tân Hồng Commune, where Hà was born, is a famous lacquer village. In his childhood, Hà used to visit lacquer artisans in the village to learn about lacquer techniques. Thus, he had the chance to be involved in the arts from an early age. He also had younger brothers, one of whom, Nguyễn Như Aùi, became a cameraman working for a Vietnamese documentary film company. His older brother, Nguyễn Như Hoành, is also an artist. Hà’s father used to be a teacher during French colonial rule.
In 1940, Hà started his preparatory studies in Hanoi at the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine under the tutelage of Joseph Inguimberty and Évariste Jonchère. In December 1943, with the advent of Japanese occupying forces in World War II, Hà was evacuated, along with the college, to Sơn Tây, where Tô Ngọc Vân became his teacher. In 1944, Hà joined what was to become the last intake of the senior course, where his classmates included Phan Kế An, Dương Bích Liên and Mai Văn Hiến. He graduated from the Vietnam Fine Arts College in 1944.
In 1945, Hà worked for the new Democratic Republic of Vietnam government in Hanoi. Since he did not have any accommodation, he intended to return to his hometown. However, one of his friends advised him to join the army so as to have accommodation, which would give him the freedom to paint. Thus, in August 1945, he joined the army and was assigned to attend a two-month military course.
In October of that year, he joined the Nam Tiến army as platoon captain. Nam Tiến was a Northern army that was established with the aim of reinforcing the southern battlefield during the First Indochina War and the Second Indochina War. In the First Indochina War, Hà joined the first group that travelled south for the war effort. When the troops arrived at Tu Bông, Vạn Giã (a province north of Phú Khánh Province, which belonged to the central coastal area), his platoon entered into battles against the French coming from Nha Trang.
In 1946, his platoon withdrew into the Hải Vân Pass, an important and difficult access point that lies between Huế and Đà Nẵng. His troop’s task was to prevent the French from Đà Nẵng reaching Huế. In the Hải Vân Pass’s harsh conditions, the 100-soldier platoon suffered severe fevers and many died from fighting, with only thirty surviving. Hà also suffered a fever but luckily escaped death. Despite such difficulties, Hà constantly sketched during his free time. After that, Hà led his troops to Quảng Ngãi Province; the platoon was dissolved soon after as almost all soldiers had died. It was from this experience, however, that Hà produced one of his most famous works, The Immense Western Highlands (jointly painted by Hà and his older brother, Nguyễn Như Hoành.2
Subsequently, he was assigned to propaganda activities. In 1950, Hà was sent to Military Zone 5, which included the central southern provinces. He was involved in teaching the artist Trương Qua, and sculptor Lê Công Thành.
“I hope that everyone coming to see the picture will see his shadow or his father – his neighbours in it – to remember the arduous and proud war.”
Thái Hà speaking about his painting Ho Chi Minh Campaign 1975 – the speed of liberation of the South, Mình Tự “The Late Work of Painter Thái Hà,” Saigon Liberation Newspaper, 15 October 2005
In 1954, after the victory at Điện Biên Phủ, and the Geneva Peace Accords were signed, Hà travelled to Hanoi. Thanks to his achievements during the war, he was rewarded with a year-long trip to the Eastern European countries of Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania. After the trip, he wanted to return home to continue painting, but the Vietnamese authorities refused, instead forcing him into further training programs. At the time, the fledgeling Vietnamese cinema industry needed more talented staff, and artist Hà was suggested to study art design abroad. In 1955, Hà went to the Soviet Union to study art design at famous cinema schools such as Maxim Gorki, Musim, Leningrad. He returned to Vietnam in 1959 to teach cinema art and design.
In 1962, he went to study at the Nguyễn Ái Quốc School – a political institution teaching key communist Party members – and was commissioned to journey south along Trường Sơn Road.3 His name was changed to Thái Hà (taken from his two children) in order to maintain secrecy. Hà was in charge of managing the Liberty Arts Department that included artists Phương Đông, Trang Phượng, and Nguyễn Thanh Châu. In 1964, he set up a liberty art class in Bến Tre – a province in the Mekong Delta, close to the Cambodian border. In 1965, he established another liberty class in Cần Thơ. While there, he and his students held a short exhibition at Phụng Hiệp Commune, the aim of which was to create propaganda for the war. The exhibition lasted for only one night as the South Vietnamese authorities shut it down. In 1966, he established the third liberty class in Cà Mau.
In 1968, Hà passed through Cà Mau into Cambodia and then back into Vietnam via the Tây Ninh border. He held an exhibition in Cambodia before returning to the base in Củ Chi. He once stayed at the consulate of the South Vietnam liberty frontier, where he held an exhibition of paintings from the war. The exhibition was very successful. When seeing photos of the exhibition, President Hồ Chí Minh was so pleased he ordered to hold the exhibition again in Hanoi. The authorities constantly promoted the exhibition in the media, and it was considered a great event at the time.
In 1971 Hà was assigned to make paintings for diplomatic purposes in Hanoi. During the Second Indochina War, the Vietnamese diplomatic delegations received many gifts from sympathetic countries and were looking for adequate gifts to provide in return. Small paintings were considered a good choice for this. Hà was ordered to travel once again up Trường Sơn Road back into the North in order to create paintings for diplomatic delegations. His mission was, again, regarded as secret and important. He worked in a separate cottage together with five to six assistants. Within the space of one year, he produced about 400 small coromandel (engraved lacquer) and lacquer paintings. After completing the task, he asked the authorities to return home, but his request was once again denied.
In 1975 Hà was again working in the South. He went to Tân Sơn Nhất airport on the 29 April, and the next day the war against the Republic of Vietnam and the US ended.
From then, Hà became the Deputy Chief of the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association, as well as the head of the Arts and Crafts Association.
Hà married twice. His first wife died in the 1960s, while he was in the South. His second wife, Ms Đặng Phi Yến, was a former singer during the resistance. They married in 1979, and had a daughter in 1982, Ms Nguyễn Thị Nam Phương. Hà took part in annual exhibitions organized by the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association between 1976 and 1993. His only solo exhibition was held in the spring of 1993 at Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts, which displayed forty-five pieces of Hà’s work.
In 1999, Hà retired and began working as a free artist. He developed a reputation for working endlessly – not solely based on inspiration alone. Continuing with his preferred medium, Hà used mostly lacquer – specialising in pumice lacquer. For his canvas, Hà used to use tếch wood, a scarce wood found in Cambodia and Laos. For large paintings, he imagined his subjects before starting to sketch, adding further sketches of details and small figures on finished pieces.
Thái Hà was widely recognised as one of Vietnam’s best coromandel artists, working every morning in a small, rented room of the Ho Chi Minh Handicraft Arts Company (a state-owned lacquer company) until his death.
Hà passed away on 12 October 2005 at the age of 83.
THÁI HÀ GALLERY
Hội Mỹ Thuật Việt Nam, Nghệ sĩ tạo hình Việt Nam hiện đại (Ký Hệu Hội Viên), 2009, Nhà Xuất Bản Mỹ Thuật, Hà Nội
International private collections
1953 – Phạm Văn Đồng Prize, Military Art Exhibition in Zone V
1960 – Awarded at the National Fine Arts Exhibition
1980 – Awarded at the National Fine Arts Exhibition
1993 – Solo exhibition at Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts
1951-1954 – Head of the Painting in Military Zone V
1957 – Member of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association
1960-1962 – Head of Art Design Department, Vietnam Feature Film Studio
1963-1974 – Director General of Fine Arts Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam
1957-1983 (supplemented in 1980) – Member of the Executive Board of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association
Order of Resistance
First Class Anti-American Resistance Medal
Medal for the Cause of Vietnamese Arts
Badge of 50 years old Party
2001 – State Prize for Literature and Art
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- “Thái Hà (1922-2005),” Witness Collection.
- Le Thanh Tru, Thái Hà’s Exhibition of Carved Laquers, 24 March 1994, Saigon Times, Hồ Chí Minh City.
- Better known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.