First Generation Artist: École des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine Influenced
Nguyễn Quang Phòng was born on 4 March 19251 in Hưng Nhân Province (now Thái Bình Province) into a traditional Confucian family long-settled in Hanoi.2 In this academic family environment, Phòng had a strong literary education as a child. At an early age, Phòng attended school with a full scholarship, studying alongside the writer Vũ Cận.
Phòng obtained a certificate to be become a secretary, teacher or writer. He was introduced to Thạch Lam and Vũ Bằng, writers for the Today newspaper (Ngày Nay báo), who also introduced him to the writer Khải Hưng the Tân Dân Publishing House (Nhà Xuất Bản Tân Dân). It was then that he met Tô Ngọc Vân, who told Phòng, “Your drawings are not bad. If you want to study drawing, apply for Fine Arts school.” It was an encounter that changed Phòng’s life forever.3
In 1940, at the age of fifteen, Phòng began concentrating less on literature and developed his skills as a painter – a mature and measured decision for his age, largely based on the influence of having met Tô Ngọc Vân.4 In 1941, he took the preparatory art class at the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, with Tô Ngọc Vân as his teacher, joining other future artists Mai Văn Hiến, Phan Kế An, Thân Trọng Sự, Nguyễn Văn Thiện, and Lê Thanh Đức. In 1942, although concerned about the college fees, Phòng was accepted into the 16th course of the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, although failed to finish the course due to the dissolution of the college under Japanese occupation. Like many Vietnamese at the time, Phòng joined the Việt Minh resistance soon after.
Tô Ngọc Vân to Nguyễn Quang Phòng while his teacher during the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine preparatory art course
Phòng joined the Việt Minh with a number of classmates such as Nguyễn Thọ, Huỳnh Văn Thuận, Mai Văn Hiến and Dương Bích Liên, who also went on to be celebrated artists in Vietnam. Tasked with activities geared towards resisting French and Japanese occupation, Phòng regularly dispensed propaganda leaflets throughout the districts of Hanoi. While not an active combat role, the work was risky and collaborators were severely punished if caught.5
Phòng progressed to work as an artist and stage decorator for the Việt Minh. In 1944, he decorated the stage for Diên Hồng (Political Struggle), a play written by the director and musician Huỳnh Văn Tiểng, performed at the Student Festival of Colleges and Universities at the end of the year.
In 1945, Phòng worked on propaganda assignments ahead of the August Revolution, joining the attack to occupy Đại Lý Hoàn Long on the day of the general uprising.
In 1946, he exhibited at the Hanoi Information Room (Phòng Thông Tin Hà Nội) on the subject of erasing illiteracy in rural areas (Bình Dân Học Vụ Và Thôn Quê Cũ), credited as the first solo exhibition of any artist under the newly established Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). In the same year, he also participated in exhibitions organized by Tô Ngọc Vân, Nam Sơn and Nguyễn Tiến Chung, an integral aspect of the resistance movement, winning the National Assembly prize at the National Fine Arts Exhibition in August.
A memory of the wall poster, The Capital is Prepared, from artist Phạm Văn Đôn6
At the end of the year, Phòng collaborated with artist Dương Bích Liên to compose The Capital is Prepared, a large wall poster describing the Vietnamese Youth Delegation, in Vietnamese and French, with a two-metre-tall portrait of Hồ Chí Minh. They completed the poster in the hamlet of Thái Hà in Đống Đa and pasted it onto a wall at the Bờ Hồ Tram Station in Hanoi (Bến Xe Điện Bờ Hồ Hanoi). The mural was revealed on 14 December 1946, five days before the outbreak of full-scale guerrilla conflicts and the start of the First Indochina War.
Nguyễn Quang Phòng
At the start of the First Indochina War, Phòng was attached to the Liberation Drama Troupe (Đoàn Kịch Giải Phóng), a propaganda office of the Vietnam Youth Federation (Liên đoàn thanh niên Việt Nam). Phòng then moved to the Propaganda Theatre Company (Công ty Nhà hát Tuyên truyền). With both groups, Phòng painted, exhibited and even performed in the provinces of Sơn Tây, Phúc Yên, Vĩnh Yên and the Việt Bắc in general.
Then, in 1947, Phòng held another solo exhibition in Bắc Cạn Province in commemoration of Injured Soldiers Day, before joining the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), put in charge of drawing stationed in Định Hoá with musicians Nguyễn Đức Toàn and Đỗ Nhuận. While a member of the PAVN, Phòng also enrolled in the Resistance Fine Arts School (Trường Mỹ Thuật Kháng Chiến) when it was moved to the Việt Bắc Resistance Base (Chiến khu Việt Bắc) under the direction of painter Tô Ngọc Vân.
After his graduation alongside artist Phan Thông, in 1951, Phòng was assigned to the Information and Propaganda Department of Yên Bái Province. His final examination was conducted in charcoal and gouache due to the scarcity of materials. His posting to Yên Bái Province was considered as a priority for exemplary graduate students.
From 1952 until the end of the First Indochina War in 1954, Phòng worked in the fine art department of Military Zone 4 at the request of the artist in charge of the fine art department, Nguyễn Đức Nùng, for more cadres.
After First Indochina War, Phòng became a lecturer at the Vietnam Fine Arts College, while also establishing the Vietnam Fine Art Association as a founding member. In 1956, poet Cù Huy Cận, also Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Culture, recommended Phòng to further his studies in the Soviet Union. Although with full support from his colleagues and the ministry, Phòng declined the opportunity for personal reasons.
Phòng retired from the Vietnam Fine Arts College in 1962 to work as the fine art editor at the Cultural Publishing House (Nhà Xuất Bản Văn Hóa). He worked here until his retirement in 1987.
Although, with the increasing hostilities of the Second Indochina War, his civilian life did not last. In June 1965, as part of the PAVN, Phòng was once again assigned to the fine art department of Military Zone 4. In his role as a war artist, Phòng was deployed to fierce battlefronts in the provinces of Nghệ An and Thanh Hoá, using an array of materials. In Nghệ An, Phòng travelled alone to the districts of Thanh Chương and Nam Đàn where he lived through days and nights of heavy American bombing. In these locations, he made a name for himself as an artist through his alluring watercolour paintings. Phòng’s subjects ranged from portraits and landscapes to political posters and artillery battle scenes painted on location.
One night crossing the Cấm bridge in Nghệ An, Phòng lost his way and stumbled into a restricted artillery area. He was picked up by PAVN soldiers and sent to headquarters. Luckily, the commander recognized Phòng from his time as a war artist attached to the Capital Regiment and allowed Phòng to stay and paint at the artillery base. Hiding in pineapple bushes, Phòng documented repeated American bombing raids and the effective anti-aircraft defences there. During the day, soldiers used branches to camouflage him and give him shade. The artwork Cấm Bridge Artillery Battle (Trận địa pháo cầu Cấm) was selected for publication.
From 1966 to 1968, Phòng and artist Phạm Viết Song taught many arts classes at the Hanoi Public Arts School (Trường nghệ thuật quần chúng Hà Nội) and the City Centre Culture House (Nhà Văn Hoá Trung Tâm Thành Phố). Several of their students continued to develop their skills at professional fine arts schools and many became exhibitied artists.
On 10 September 1969, Phòng completed his second painting of Hồ Chí Minh to commemorate the leader’s death on 2 September. The painting, Forever grateful to Uncle Hồ (Đời Đời nhớ ơn bác Hồ), was included in the exhibition Remembering Uncle Hồ held on Hàng Đào Street and was awarded first prize. It was soon added to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum private collection.
Nguyễn Quang Phòng while working on his second painting of Hồ Chí Minh
Much later, the painting was selected by the Cultural Publishing House to use in the book Painting a statue of President Hồ (1974-1975). However, for the publication, Phòng was ordered to create an almost identical image in which the child in the painting looked saddened by the absence of Hồ Chí Minh, rather than smiling.
Artist Lê Vương comforting Nguyễn Quang Phòng over the stress of reproducing the painting Forever Grateful to Uncle Hồ for print
Interestingly, Phòng’s passion for art also extended into researching and documenting various forms of Vietnamese art. Phòng published four volumes of books on the artists of the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, the history of modern fine art in Vietnam and Vietnamese wood carving published by the Fine Arts Publishing House (Nhà Xuất Bản Mỹ Thuật).
In 1970, Phòng was assigned by the Fine Arts Publishing House to print a book on Đông Hồ wood-engraved folk paintings to preserve this style of traditional folk painting. Facing the reality of a lack of original pieces, Phòng was required to use his memory and research to faithfully reproduce images for the book.7 In the same year, the book, (Ancient Wood Engraved Paintings of Vietnam (Tranh khắc gỗ dân gian cổ Việt Nam)), won first prize at the International Beautiful Books Competition in Moscow on the 100th anniversary of Vladimir Lenin’s birth. The event was oragnised by the Soviet Ministry of Culture who invited 12 socialist countries to take part.
Phòng’s fascination with ancient Vietnamese wood carvings can be traced back, in his own words, to his education at the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine. Under the tutor Nam Sơn, Phòng was taken to the museum at the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (Viễn Đông Bác Cổ) in his first year. There Phòng met Louis Bezacier, a scholar, the head of archaeology at the École Française d’Extrême-Orient and a lecturer on the world history of fine arts at the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine. After seeing the collection of 30 antique Đông Hồ wood-engraved folk paintings, Phòng found his love for the medium. Later, after the Second Indochina War ended, Phòng was outspoken against France keeping the collection at the Guimet Museum, having taken them when the French left Indochina in 1954.
Nguyễn Quang Phòng
In 1971, Phòng’s book on Đông Hồ wood-carvings also won gold medal at the Moska International Book Fair in Leipzig.
In 1976, Phòng started his third and final painting of Hồ Chí Minh, Uncle Hồ with Farmers. Due to the scarcity of materials at the time, Phòng sent his son to Huỳnh Văn Gấm at the Vietnam Fine Arts Association to ask for more tubes of white paint – necessary to capture Hồ Chí Minh’s iconic ivory-coloured clothes. The two tubes given to Phòng were not enough to finish the painting to his standard. It was not exhibited until it was bought by an agency in Đà Nẵng.
In 1979, Phòng and his family moved to Saigon. Nguyễn Quang Phòng passed away in 2013.
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
Painting a statue of President Hồ, 1974-1975, Nhà Xuất Bản Văn Hóa, Hanoi
Artists of the Indochina Art College, Nhà Xuất Bản Mỹ Thuật
Modern Vietnamese Art, Nhà Xuất Bản Mỹ Thuật
Nguyễn Quang Phòng, Ancient Wood Engraved Paintings of Vietnam, 1970, Nhà Xuất Bản Mỹ Thuật, Hanoi
Fine Arts Hanoi Capital in the 20th century, Nhà Xuất Bản Mỹ Thuật
Military History Museum of Vietnam
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum
1946 – Solo exhibition, Movement for Erasing Past Illiteracy in the Countryside,” Tràng Tiền Information House, Hanoi
1947 – Solo exhibition in Bắc Cạn Province
1951 – Artist for the Information and Propaganda Department, Yên Bái Province
1952-1954 – Artist for the Fine Art Department of Military Zone 4
1954-1962 – Lecturer at the Vietnam Fine Arts College
1962-1987 – Fine art editor of the Cultural Publishing House
August 1946 – National Assembly for the watercolour, A Blacksmith’s Family
1946 – Third prize at the National Fine Arts Exhibition
1953– Second prize at the Spring Fine Arts Exhibition, Military Zone 4
1970 – First prize at the International Beautiful Books Competition, Moscow
1971 – Gold medal at the Moska International Book Fair, Leipzig
1983 – Second prize at the Capital Fine Arts Exhibition
1984 – Second prize at the Capital Fine Arts Exhibition
1993 – Second prize from the Fine Art Critics Department of the Vietnamese Fine Art Association
1994 – Second prize from the Fine Art Critics Department of the Vietnamese Fine Art Association
1996 – Third prize from the Fine Art Critics Department of the Vietnamese Fine Art Association
1998 – Third prize from the Fine Art Critics Department of the Vietnamese Fine Art Association
2001 – Third prize from the Fine Art Critics Department of the Vietnamese Fine Art Association
2004 – Award at the Fine Art Exhibition of major paintings collected by the Vietnamese Fine Art Association, Hanoi
2006 – Third prize at the Fine Art Exhibition of major paintings collected by the Vietnamese Fine Art Association, Hanoi
1st Rank Medal of The Resistance against the American
Medal for Vietnam’s fine art career
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- 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.
- “Quang Phòng: 1925,” Fine Arts Magazine.
- Nguyễn Văn Chiến. “Artist Quang Phòng,” No. IV.485, Vol. January-April 2003, Monthly Fine Arts Magazine, Vietnam Fine Arts Association.
- Tài Minh, “Artist Quang Phòng,” No.3, 1986, Vietnam Pictorial, Vietnam News Agency.
- Phạm Thanh Hà, “Artist Quang Phòng and the Early Days of Revolutionary Art,” 17 September 2010, Nhân Dân. Visited on 20 June 2019).
- QV, “Three paintings of Uncle Ho by Quang Phong,” 28 January 2019, Vietnam Fine Arts Magazine. Visited on 20 June 2019.
- Nguyễn Quang Phòng, “Vietnamese folk woodcarving on the international arena,” No. IV.882, Volume 16, October 1997, Today Fine Arts Magazine.