Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America
Lê Lam was born as Vũ Quốc Ái in Hải Bối, Hanoi, in 1931. His parents were poor Confucius farmers with no affiliation to art. However, Lam started drawing as a young boy, reproducing Chinese playing cards (bài tam cúc). When he was five years old, Lam went to study at a teacher’s house in Đông Ngạc village1 and repeatedly drew the heroic Chinese characters Kwan Kung, Guan Ping and Liu Ping that adorned the walls of the teacher’s house.2 His teacher soon recognized Lam’s talent and advised his parents to let him practice it freely.
At the outbreak of the First Indochina War, Lam’s father moved to Thái Nguyên Province to contribute to the Việt Minh resistance. Lam and his mother stayed in Hanoi. Lam claims to have joined the Việt Minh army as early as 1937 when he was six years old. He did not attend elementary school.
In 1946, Lam started work as a typewriter’s assistant at the commander-in-chief’s office of the Military Department of the Ministry of Defence (cục dân quân bộ quốc phòng tổng tư lệnh). On 30 April 1948, when he was 18 years old, Lam joined the Communist Party of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), the youngest member ever to join at the time.
Lê Lam in Sherry Buchanan-Spurgin, Mekong Diaries: Drawings and Diaries from the American-Vietnam War 1964-1975, 2008, Asia Link, London
In 1950, Lam studied at the Resistance Fine Arts School in Phú Lộc Province in the Việt Bắc. He was taught by the famous artist and headmaster of the school Tô Ngọc Vân, who Lam described as a thin, humble, polite and simple man that ate with the other students during lunch breaks. Tô Ngọc Vân taught him that, to be a good artist, you had to go to the front and live with people. During this time, Lam also made friends with the famous poet Lê Liêm, who regarded Lam as his son. This close bond led to Lam adopting the poet’s name as his nom de plume – Lê Lam taken almost directly from Lê Liêm. Other teachers who taught Lam at the Resistance Fine Art School included Bùi Trang Trước,3 Trần Văn Cẩn and Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc. He graduated the Resistance Fine Arts School in 1953. Lam married his wife, Ngọc Lan, a famous Chèo singer, in 1957.
Between 1958 and 1964, Lam was officially selected as the first Vietnamese artist to go to Russia to study propaganda art techniques at the National University of Fine Arts in Kiev, USSR.4 As a student, he admired Delacroix, Rubens, Botticelli and Renoir, and used them greatly as inspirations behind his future body of work in Vietnam. From 1964 to 1965, after he returned to Vietnam, Lam lectured at the School of Industrial Art as head of the Graphic Arts Department. Lam also made illustrations for a photo service, a cinema, newspapers and magazines, which he exhibited at his first solo exhibition in January 1965.5
Between 1966 and 1974, he took the advice of his inspirational teacher Tô Ngọc Vân and volunteered to travel to South Vietnam (đi B) as an artist for the Southern Vietnam Liberation Arts Association (Hội Văn Nghệ giải phóng miền nam Việt nam) with other artists Thái Hà, Huỳnh Phương Đông, Trang Phượng and Phạm Đỗ Đồng, to name a few. On his journey south, Lam had to carry a heavy load full of artist supplies on top of standard equipment, usually 20 kilograms, but sometimes as much as 35 or 36 kilograms. It took him five months. After two bouts of malaria, Lam finally made it to Tây Ninh Province, albeit considerably weakened. After his arrival, Lam made documentary sketches along with other artists such as Hoàng Việt, Thái Bình, Tấn Lực and Trình Núi.
In July 1966, Lam moved to Long An Province, where fighting was exceptionally fierce. Lam remembers when he lived in the village of An Ninh, Đức Hòa District, American and collaborating troops held mopping up operations into the village for twenty-three days after the Battle of An Ninh in 1965. Naturally, Lam became versed in escape and evade tactics.
He followed the troops wherever they went, eating and drinking with them, and carrying a pistol for his own protection. He managed to buy paper and paints in Saigon or at local markets, which he kept in US ammunition boxes for their watertight seal.
From 1967 to 1968, Lam spent his time in the countryside of Bến Tre, an area that he recounts as being the most interesting artistically due to their attention to political struggles. It was there that he witnessed farmers, women and young girls protest against the war by carrying dead bodies to the district and provincial towns to confront American and collaborating soldiers. Lam was in Bến Tre for the Tet Offensive in January 1968.
However, for most of his time in Military Zone 9, in South Vietnam, Lam lived underground close to the Củ Chi tunnel network – a harrowing experience that he recalls with caution. In his estimation, the most important key to survival during that time was to learn which planes were dangerous. If they heard a B52 Bomber, it was too late. The second was to learn the American’s schedule. When they came from Guam, they were easy to predict, but when they came from Thailand, they were much more irregular. He described how in their shallow tunnel systems, a soldier’s survival rate was around 70-80% if a bomb struck “not too close.”6
Lam painted mostly watercolours in Military Zone 9 and in the Mekong
In March 1968, he joined the Central Office of Bến Tre to take charge of the task of woodcuts. After almost a year, he was put in charge of teaching students sketch board, painting, wood engraving and painting at the School of Liberation Arts in 1969.
Between 1971 and 1972, Lam lived and composed in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He travelled with a military unit to observe the reality of the war there and to protect the famed Cambodian historic site, Angkor Wat. After his tour, he returned to the Southern Vietnam Liberation Arts Association.9
After almost ten years in South Vietnam, Lam returned to Hanoi in 1974 and into the arms of his family again, except for his wife who was in Vĩnh Phú Province10 at the time. It was only four days after his return that Lam saw her again. While in Hanoi, Lam worked for the Ministry of Culture as an official in fine arts.
In 1979 he was appointed director of the National Art Workshop11 under the Ministry of Culture, a position he held until 1984. Lam oversaw painting projects, sculpture projects, produced propaganda and developed wood carvings to be used for mass-produced commercial art until his retirement in 1991. After his retirement, he continued to paint.
Lê Lam lives in Hanoi.
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
Il drago e la Farfalla, Arte Contemporanea in Vietnam, 2006, Gangemi Editore, Rome
The spirit of the Ben Tre People, 1967, published en masse in Cuba
Sherry Buchanan-Spurgin, Mekong Diaries: Drawings and Diaries from the American-Vietnam War 1964-1975, 2008, Asia Link, London
Vietnam 1954-1975: War Drawings and Posters From The Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Collection, 2015, National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore.
Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts
1965 – First solo exhibition
2006 – Il drago e la Farfalla, Complesso del Vittoriano, Rome, Italy
2015 – Vietnam 1954-1975: War Drawings and Posters From The Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Collection, National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore.
2015-2016 – Vietnam 1954-1975, National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore
2016-2017 – Who Wants to Remember a War and Lines,National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore
1964-1965 – Lectured at the Industrial Fine Arts College as head of the Department of Graphic Arts
1968 – Director at Central Office in charge of woodcuts
1969 – Taught at the School of Liberation Arts
1979 – Director of the National Art Studio for the Ministry of Culture
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- The village is now part of north Từ Liêm District, Hanoi.
- Interview with Lê Lam at his home in Hanoi, 14 March 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.
- Bùi Trang Trước specialised in stamps and, later, designed the national emblem.
- “Lê Lam,” The Dogma Collection. Visited 12 March 2018.
- “Lê Lam,” The Vietnam Fine Arts Association. Visited 12 March 2018.
- Lê Lam information taken from independent research conducted by Witness Collection.
- Interview conducted with Lê Lam, 5 September 2012, WGBH Open Vault. Visited 12 March 2018.
- Minh An, “Artist Le Lam: A heart for the South,” 22 February 2013, Saigon Giai Phong News. Visited 12 March 2018.
- “Lê Lam“, The Vietnam Fine Arts Association. Visited 12 March 2018.
- Vĩnh Phú was a province of Vietnam from 1968 to 1996 outside Hanoi. The province today consists of the two provinces Vĩnh Phúc and Phú Thọ.
- Previously called the Sculpture and Fine Art Bureau of the Ministry of Culture’ art department. It was renamed the Central Art Company in 1985 and is still active today.