Phạm Thanh Tâm Biography

Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America

Phạm Thanh Tâm was born in the northern part of Hải Phòng on 15 May 1932, into a traditionally revolutionary family.1 His father worked in a cement plant before joining the resistance against French colonialism as a propaganda agent, and then joined the staff of the Vietnam People’s Newspaper (Báo Nhân Dân Việt Nam), which published a number of his poems. Tâm’s mother was a housewife and died in 1954. He is the eldest of five children and was also the only one to pursue painting. His two brothers became civil servants; the youngest two sisters became housewives.

Being a teenager during the August Revolution against the French, Tâm participated in the Pioneer Teenagers (Tiên phong trẻ) and the Boy Scouts (Hướng đạo sinh); revolutionary movements organized by schools in line with the national resistance movement.

“I was too young to know what death really meant.”

Phạm Thanh Tâm in Sherry Buchanan-Spurgin’s Mekong Diaries: Drawings and Diaries from the American-Vietnam War 1964-1975, 2008, Asia Link, London

Late in 1946, the French colonial army threatened Hanoi and occupied Hải Phòng, causing Tâm’s family to move to the suburbs (his father was then a Communist cadre of the Việt Minh) and live on an army base in Military Zone 3. Tâm became a liaison agent between Military Zone 3 and other areas. There was also a propaganda painting division there, an opportunity for him to learn first through observation, then through actual training. He participated in the propaganda team, which staged propaganda shows throughout Military Zone 3.2

Phạm Thanh Tâm
Portrait of Phạm Thanh Tâm in uniform, c. 1953. Courtesy of Witness Collection.

In 1948, Tâm attended a painting training course organized in the jungle by the Art Division of Military Zone 3 for a period of six months.3 His teachers were artists involved in the resistance, such as Lương Xuân Nhị, Mai Văn Nam and Bùi Xuân Phái. After completing the course, Tâm was assigned a post in the Culture and Information Office in Hưng Yên Province. His work there consisted of producing wall paintings praising the resistance movement as well as subterfuge propaganda aimed at intimidating French units stationed nearby.

In 1950, Tâm joined the resistance army, using his artistic talent and journalistic skills. He first served in the Tất Thắng Regiment tasked with helping the population of Nam Định town to build their own militia and fight against French imperialism in Vietnam. Tâm then transferred to Division 351 (Đại đoàn công pháo F351) to work for the Quyết Thắng newspaper. In 1952, Tâm was sent to China for artillery training. In late 1953, he returned to Vietnam as an official reporter, journalist and artist, and resumed his service in Division 351, working once again for its newspaper, Quyết Thắng. In the beginning of 1954, Tâm walked from the northern border with China to participate in the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ, where he lived on the front line, writing reports and making sketches of the front’s realities. Having survived Điện Biên Phủ, his experience of the fighting, the hardships and the daily life of soldiers and civilians inspired his Điện Biên Phủ painting series that earned him the thrid prize at the National Art Exhibition in 1954.4

Between 1954 and 1963, Tâm worked for three newspapers concurrently: the Military Art Newspaper (Văn Nghệ Quân Đội), the People’s Army Newspaper (Quân Đội Nhân Dân) and the Army Image Newspaper (Hình Ảnh Quân Đội). During this time, he conducted regular assignments in North Vietnam. For one such excursion, in 1955, he travelled with photographer Ngọc Thông back to Điện Biên Phủ to paint and sketch the northern towns rebuilding, reopening markets and schools.

In 1963, Tâm began his art education at the Hanoi Fine Arts College. During his studies, Tâm volunteered for the front in South Vietnam where he was given permission to write and paint from the battlefields in Khe Sanh and Quảng Trị. It was at this time that he first used his writing nom de plume Huỳnh Biếc to protect his identity as a North Vietnamese in South Vietnam.5 He continued to use this name later in life.

Other assignments during his college education depicted the caves and shelters along the Hồ Chí Minh Trail and the mountainous regions of the north between Hạ Long Bay and Hanoi. At the same time, Tâm also studied for a diploma degree (tại chức) in literature at the Vietnam People’s Newspaper (Báo Nhân Dân Việt Nam). However, he stopped this after two years because of the Second Indochina War. He graduated Hanoi Fine Arts College in 1967 as an oil painter alongside other notable future artists Trịnh Quốc Thụ, Quang Phương, Nguyễn Thanh Châu and Phạm Đỗ Đồng.

Phạm Thanh Tâm
Phạm Thanh Tâm at Điện Biên Phủ, 2007. Courtesy of Witness Collection.

After he graduated, Tâm was given the responsibility of opening art classes in North and South Vietnam to teach soldiers and guerrillas how to produce art works for the war effort, under the directive of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces of South Vietnam (PLAF). An important job, this directive was ordered by the northern government as part of a general movement towards spreading art and propaganda. Although Tâm did not travel south himself, he organised for paintings created in South Vietnam to be brought to North Vietnam for exhibitions. He lived in Hanoi in a floor loft (gác xép tầng) and conducted many assignments to the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Route 1 as far as Vĩnh Linh in Quảng Trị Province and the 17th Parallel.

In 1969, Tâm married Lê Thị Lân, a civil servant in the Information and Cultural Affairs Department in Hanoi, and had had three children; a son, Phạm Quang, and two daughters, Phạm Thanh Hoa and Phạm Diệu Ly.

After documenting the liberation of Saigon, Tâm collaborated with the Army’s official newspaper, the National Army Newspaper (Quân Đội Nhân Dân). As well as writing, painting and reporting, he orgainised art exhibitions to publicise art that had been made during the war. In 1978, Tâm was appointed director of the Army’s Art Workshop, directly governed by the General Department of Politics. In this position he staged many painting exhibitions, taught art courses and had many statues erected such as the Quế Sơn statue, the Sông Lô statue, the Ban Mê Thuột victory statue and the Bravery for Motherland Survival statue.

In 1989, Tâm retired from the army with the rank of Colonel and moved to Ho Chi Minh City. He devoted his time to creating images reminiscent of his life during the resistance wars from his frontline sketches, using signature materials; oils, silk, watercolour, pencil and pen.

Today, Tâm is a member of the Vietnamese Fine Art Association, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Association, a member of the Executive Committee of the Vietnamese Plastic Art Association and also participates in other organizations such as the Veteran Association and the Elderlies Association. In February 2011 he also published Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist (2005), a book he wrote after seven years at war. It came out to critical acclaim in France, offering a fresh perspective to the war other than the majority of sorrowful accounts written by French soldiers.6

Tâm lived in Hồ Chí Minh City in the same house donated to him by the army.

He passed away on 30 May 2019.




Sherry Buchanan-Spurgin, Mekong Diaries: Drawings and Diaries from the American-Vietnam War 1964-1975, 2008, Asia Ink, London

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

Phạm Thanh Tâm, Drawing Under Enemy Fire: War diary of a young Vietnamese artist, 2005, Asia Ink, London

Phạm Thanh Tâm, Tranh Kýhọa: Kháng Chiến Chống Thực Dân Pháp – Des tableaux-pochades, croquis, exquisses dans la Résistance contre le colonialist Français, 2011, Nhà Xuất Bản Văn Hóa Thông Tin, Hà Nội

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


Witness Collection

National Gallery, Singapore

British Museum

Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Ho Chi Minh City Fine Art Museum, Vietnam

Vietnam Military History Museum

War Relics Museum in Ho Chi Minh City

Museum of Military Zone 7

Logistics Museum

Military Zone 9 Museum

International private collections


1961 – N0 10 Hàng Đào street, Hanoi

1964-1965 – Nội Bài airport, Hanoi

1964 – Army Art Magazine, No 4 Lý Nam Đế street, Hanoi

1971 – N0 10 Hàng Đào street, Hanoi

1976 – Art Workshop of the Army: No 3 Văn Hồ Street, Hanoi

1994 – Ho Chi Minh Campaign Museum, No 2 Lê Duẩn street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

1994 – Youth Cultural House, Ho Chi Minh City

1995 – Ho Chi Minh Art Association, No 218A Pasteur Street, Ho Chi Minh City

2000 – Hồ Chí Minh City Journalist Association, Ho Chi Minh City

2002 – Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts, No 92 Lê Thánh Tôn Street, Ho Chi Minh City

2002 – Vietnam Behind the Lines: Images from the War 1965-1975, British Museum, London

2004 – Vietnam Behind the Lines: Images from the War 1965-1975, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong

2004 – Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts, No 92 Lê Thánh Tôn Street, Ho Chi Minh City

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

2018 – Kháng Chiến và Hội Họa (Resistance and Painting), Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts, Ho Chi Minh City

Official Roles

1957 – Founding member of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association

1957 – Founding member of the Vietnam Journalists Association

1978 – Director of the Workshop on Fine Arts of the Armed Forces


1954 – Third prize at the National Art Exhibition

First Class Resistance Order

Third Class Military Exploit Order


  1. Phạm Thanh Tâm Biography, Witness Collection.
  2. Interview with Phạm Thanh Tâm at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 2014, conducted by Witness Collection.
  3. Jessica Harrison-Hall, Vietnam Behind the Lines, Images from the War: 1965-1975, 2002, Art Media Resources Ltd, Chicago.
  4. Interview with Phạm Thanh Tâm at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 2018, conducted by Witness Collection.
  5. Bảo Linh, “People painted paintings through two wars of resistance,” 7 May 2018, Nhanh Dần
  6. French Paper Reviews Book on 1954 Battle, 18 February 2011, Life & Style, Viet Nam News.

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