Phan Kế An Biography

First Generation Artist: École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine French Influenced

Phan Kế An was born as Phan Kích on 20 March 1923 in Mông Phụ Village, Đường Lâm District, in Hà Tĩnh Province on the northern central coast of Vietnam. His father, Phan Kế Toại (1892-1973), was the personal envoy to Tonkin of the last Emperor of Vietnam, Bảo Đại, the Minister of Home Affairs (1945-1955) and Deputy Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) from 1955 to 1973. Various looted items acquired from Việt Minh armed robbery skirmishes of Japanese convoys, some of which involved An, were hidden in his father’s residence.

An studied at Bưởi School under famous teachers such as Lê Thị Lựu, Tô Ngọc Vân and Nguyễn Tường Lân.[1] He enrolled in the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in 1944, but then joined the Việt Minh guerrilla resistance force before graduating before the August Revolution in 1945.

An joined the Việt Minh along with his senior artists Mai Văn Nam, Tạ Thúc Bình, Vinh Sơn, Mai Văn Hiến, Lê Phổ, Kim Đồng, Phan Nhat, Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Tôn Dức Lượng and Nguyễn Văn Thiện as part of the Central Cultural Association. They were tasked with drawing anti-colonial caricatures on the walls of French-occupied territory like Bắc Ninh.[2] A seemingly passive form of attack, they had such an effect on the French army that the walls were destroyed, pleasing the young and patriotic An.

“In my head, there were so many questions: When working with such an important person, will there be any constraints? Will there be enough creativity? If the drawing is enough to portray Uncle Hồ?”

Thu Hà, “Uncle Hồ, the subject I pursued throughout my life,” Saigon Liberation Newspaper, 2 September 2008

An participated in Vietnam’s first National Fine Art Exhibition in Hanoi in 1946, winning first prize for his painting Thunderstorm looms over Thanh Hoá Citadel (Trời giông trên thành Thanh Hoá). He also won first prize at subsequent exhibitions in 1951, 1956 and 1961.

An was asked by General Secretary Trường Chinh to join Sự Thật (The Truth) newspaper (the predecessor of Nhân Dân newspaper) in 1947, at just twenty-four years old. Given the title of commission editor, he was completely free to cover any topic he wanted, which was very rare at the time. He contributed by drawing political cartoons, aiming mostly at French, and later American, imperialism and also at Ngô Đình Diệm (named Prime Minister of the State of South Vietnam by Head of State Bảo Đại in 1954) before his rise to power. He continued painting throughout the Second Indochina War to criticize the American bombing of Hanoi.[3]

In November 1948, he spent three weeks in secrecy with Hồ Chí Minh and his closest advisors, producing twenty portraits of the iconic Vietnamese resistance leader, some made from the burned ends of cigarette butts. He was the first person to portray President Hồ Chí Minh in the resistance against French colonialism.[4]

It was an opportunity that he realised changed his life, but not without some worry. “I was happy to meet and draw people that I always admired, but stressed over the heavy responsibility,” he said in an interview with Saigon Liberation Newspaper in an online interview in 2008.

Despite being nervous around his idol, An remembers the time fondly, filled with small interactions that solidified their relationship. He tells of how, to keep Hồ Chí Minh from moving too much while smoking cigarettes, An took them away one by one and began distributing them to the thirty soldiers in the camp. When Hồ Chí Minh found out – wondering why he had so little cigarettes – An admitted his plan. After listening how An had up to that point taken thirteen cigarettes and distributed them to the soldiers, Hồ Chí Minh gave him another seventeen for the remaining “brothers” in the camp. An would eventually create over 200 portraits of Hồ Chí Minh during his lifetime, until the leader’s death in September 1969.

According to An, the earliest wartime works were intended by the artists to provide their patriotic support for the Việt Minh’s revolutionary activities. An noted that the Việt Minh soldier was a true patriot; although he was poor and had no boots or shoes, he was willing to fight the French for the independence of his country. An also noted that producing these types of works was extremely dangerous. If the French found these works, artists risked severe punishment, even execution.[5]

An published his portraits of Hồ Chí Minh in Sự Thật newspaper in December 1948, cementing his reputation as an artist. In the winter of 1950, when he went to war as a special envoy for the Việt Minh, another painting, Remembering the Northwest/Remember One the Northwest (Nhớ Một Chiều Tây Bắc), quickly established him as a renowned lacquer artist, immortalised by poet Đoàn Việt Bắc in his poem of the same name. It was later accompanied by music from the composer Vũ Thành.[6]

As a member of the Central Art Committee from 1951 to 1957, An was one of the first members of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association established in 1957, where he served as Deputy General Secretary from 1958 to 1978 and Member of Executive Committee from 1957 to 1983.

From 1960 to 1962, An was a trainee in fine arts at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Leningrad, in the former Soviet Union.

On 28 August 2008, An decided to give the Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts his sketches and wood engravings of Hồ Chí Minh, and the things he and his family kept as mementoes and priceless artefacts from the war.

An continued to paint throughout his life. His works are in the permanent collections of the State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow, and the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi.

An passed away at the age of 95 on 21 January 2018 in Hanoi.

GALLERY

  • Phan Kế An, 7 June 1970. Ink on machine-made paper.

Publications

Realism in Asian Art, 2010, The National Art Gallery, Singapore & The National Gallery of Contemporary Art, Korea

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

Vietnam 1954-1975: War Drawings and Posters From The Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Collection, 2015, National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore

Collections

State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow

Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts, Ho Chi Minh City

Exhibitions

1946 – First prize at National Fine Art Exhibition

1951 – First prize at National Fine Art Exhibition

1956 – First prize at National Fine Art Exhibition

1961 – First prize at National Fine Art Exhibition

2006 – Il drago e la Farfalla, Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome, Italy

2010 – Realism in Asia, National Gallery, Singapore; National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea

2015 – Vietnam 1954-1975: War Drawings and Posters From the Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Collection, National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore

Official Roles

1983-1989 – Member of the Executive Board, Member of the Professional Committee, Chairman of the Artistic Council of Graphic Design II Vietnam Fine Arts Association

1989-1994 – Member of the Examination Board III Vietnam Fine Arts Association

Awards[7]

Third Class Independence Medal

Second-Class Resistance Medal

Anti-American Resistance Medal First Class

Arts Devotion medal

Medal for the cause of Vietnamese art

Medal for the People’s cause

2001 – State Awards for Literature and Arts

REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:

[1]Lý Trực Dũng, Biếm họa Việt Nam, 2010, NXB Mỹ Thuật, Hanoi.

[2] Lý Trực Dũng, Phan Kích: blowing up the wall to break … the cartoon!, 2008, TTVH Online

[3] Ibid.

[4] Phan Kế An biography from interview conducted with artist Phan Kế An at his home on Thợ Nhuộm Street, Hanoi on 31 August 2006.

[5] Independent interview conducted with artist Phan Kế An at his home on Thợ Nhuộm Street, Hanoi on 31 August 2006.

[6] Artist Phan Kế An passes away, 2018, Life & Style, Vietnam News.

[7] Phan Kế An Biography, Vietnam Fine Art Association Online.

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