Lê Huy Toàn Biography

Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America 

Lê Huy Toàn was born on 10 October 1930 in Vĩnh Yên Ward, Vĩnh Phúc Province outside of Hanoi. His father was a portrait painter and it could be argued that Toàn inherited his artistic talents from his father. He took part in a range of artistic and creative pursuits including singing, dancing, playing music, drama and painting propaganda pictures. He painted even when in situations of extreme poverty and danger. He did not have any formal art training. Toàn taught himself to draw and paint, as well as becoming a skilled toy maker.[1]

“He had many sketchbooks he didn’t want to sell. He wanted to keep them. He didn’t want to sell them because it gave him all these memories of the past.”

Dato’ Parameswaran, Ambassador of Malaysia to Vietnam from June 1990 until mid-1993, Vietnam 1954-1975: War Drawings and Posters From Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Collection, 2015, National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore

Toàn participated in the August Revolution in 1945 to promote Vietnamese independence, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel. He served with the 87th Regiment from 1947 to 1950. In 1951, Toàn became an artist for the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). He then transferred to the 312 Division and fought at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954. While at Điện Biên Phủ, he kept detailed daily illustrated diaries, which he used as the basis for subsequent art works when he returned to Hanoi. His works were exhibited in military museums and published in army magazines. Some of his works from Điện Biên Phủ were issued as commemorative stamps on 7 May 1984.[2]

In 1954, after the pivotal Điện Biên Phủ campaign, Toàn transferred to the Politic General Army Department, where he remained until he retired. In 1958, Toàn was one of the first artists to work for the newly established Army Arts magazine (Văn Nghệ Quân Đội). He became the Party Secretary of the PAVN Art Division in 1973 and also worked for the military museum.

“[I made my sketches] with a dream of turning these into paintings so that the younger generation would have a real view on the sacred victory of the nation.”

Lê Huy Toàn, Vietnam Art Books – Điện Biên Phủ through Huy Toan’s paintings, 12 May 2005

Toàn saw action in all corners of Vietnam and its neighbouring countries. As well as Điện Biên Phủ, Toàn took part in the Ho Chi Minh Campaign against the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) and America. He also took part in the Sông Lô Campaign against the Chinese and the Sầm Nưa Campaign in Laos. During his military service, like most war artists, Toàn sketched and painted as a way to record the campaigns he was involved in, publishing his works in magazines and exhibiting his works in Hanoi. Naturally, this required extensive travelling that revealed many different aspects of life at war. Toàn recorded pictorial diaries daily during his time in service and kept them throughout his life, enabling him to recreate scenes in remarkable detail during his years as an artist in peacetime.[3]

“The great victory of the Vietnamese army and people is depicted in every feature of a talented and whole-hearted artist.”

Minister of Culture and Information Phạm Quang Nghị, Vietnam Art Books – Điện Biên Phủ through Huy Toan’s paintings,” 12 May 2005

Toàn became a member of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, exhibiting extensively both in Vietnam and abroad. Many museums display his works in Vietnam including but not limited to The Total Vietnamese Nation (Đại Đoàn Kết Dân Tộc) and Ho Chi Minh Campaign (Chien Dich Hồ Chí Minh).

Toàn retired from military service in 1992, but continued to create and exhibit his artwork regularly.

Lê Huy Toàn passed away on 22 September 2007.[4]

GALLERY

Publications

Jessica Harrison-Hall, Vietnam Behind the Lines, Images from the War: 1965-1975, 2002, Art Media Resources Ltd, Chicago

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

Collections

Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts

Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Vietnam Military History Museum [5]

Exhibitions

2016-2017 – Who Wants to Remember a War and Lines, National University of Singapore Museum

2015-2016 – Vietnam 1954-1975, National University of Singapore Museum

Official Roles

1954 – Transferred to the Politic General Army Department

1958 – One of the first artists to work for the newly established Army Arts magazine

1973 – Party Secretary of the People’s Army of Vietnam Art Division

REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:

[1] He exhibited his toys in an exhibition in 1977, concentrating on submarines, trains, tanks and planes. Jessica Harrison-Hall, Vietnam Behind the Lines, Images from the War: 1965-1975, 2002, Art Media Resources Ltd, Chicago

[2] Interview with the artist by Witness Collection.

[3] Jessica Harrison-Hall, Vietnam Behind the Lines, Images from the War: 1965-1975, 2002, Art Media Resources Ltd, Chicago

[4] Lê Huy Toàn biography from independent research by Witness Collection.

[5] Le Huy Toan, The Dogma Collection, http://dogmacollection.com/vietnamese-propaganda-artists-fig-12.

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