Trần Hữu Chất Biography

Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America

Trần Hữu Chất was born as Hồng Chinh Hiền on 10 July 1933 in Cháu Tiên village, Kỳ Anh Commune, Hà Tĩnh Province, a date that the artist himself declared uncertain due to poor birth and death records in rural Vietnam at the time. He grew up in poverty as a result of the Japanese occupation and colonial control of the Vichy (French) government. Throughout his life he used other aliases.

Although he only attended elementary school, he had a talent for drawing. In 1945, at the start of the First Indochina War, Chất was involved in propaganda for the Youth Movement of the Communist Party. In 1946 he was assigned to Kỳ Anh Commune’s Information and Propaganda Office that printed art for Hà Tĩnh Province Information Department.[1] Initially, he wrote and drew proclamations and slogans for the party. Because there was little paper or ink, dried banana leaves coated in lime and charcoal were used for posters, which were pasted in public places. In 1948, in recognition of his enthusiasm and hard work, he was assigned to the provincial Publicity and Information Department. In this new position, he learned the arts of painting, printing and lithography.

In 1952 Chất joined the revolutionary army, and was assigned to the newspaper of the local troops in Vinh, the captial of Nghệ An Province in Military Zone 4. In this position, he worked as a war correspondent and an illustrator for the Local Army Newspaper (Quân Địa Phương).[2] He also recompiled verses written by soldiers at the front and developed his skill as a poet, a practice he continued throughout his life.

After the end of the First Indochina War in 1954, Chất stayed in the army, dedicated to publicity aiding the reconstruction of the country. At the front, he had come to recognize his talents, and thus he joined the Vietnam Fine Arts College intermediary course when it reopened in 1956. He also studied under Lương Xuân Nhị, a teacher who strongly influenced his artistic development. He graduated from the college in 1957 along with other artists Nguyễn Thụ, Văn Ða and Quang Tho. As the first course to graduate after the college reopened in 1956, their intermediary course was named after the martyred artist, Tô Ngọc Vân.[3]

“The art of wood engraving requires patience and is painstaking, which is why the art is less popular nowadays. Young artists prefer something quicker.”

“Art exhibit features “Father and kids'”, Việt Nam News, 11 January 2005

One of the art pieces submitted for his final exam was accorded the highest qualification by the examining committee, which then selected Chất for a scholarship for further training in China. Thus, he continued his studies for the next two years at Giang Tây-Jiangxi Pottery Institute in Jingdezhen town (Cảnh Đức Trấn), where he specialized in painting ceramics. [4] This was an industry that the government of Vietnam wished to develop in line with the strategic economic plans for the nation.

During his student years, he returned to his hometown to marry Nguyễn Thị Thơ, a young woman whom his parents had selected as his future wife.

In 1960, he returned to Vietnam permanently, where he worked until 1963 at Hải Dương Ceramics as an artist and designer. During those years, he entered numerous poster competitions essentially directed at promoting government campaigns in education, agriculture and industry. In 1963 he was admitted to the Vietnam Fine Arts College, where he took his diploma course specialising in lacquer, and graduated in 1967. It was during this time that he also began illustrating children’s stories, an activity he continues to practice.

In 1964, he enlisted in the army once again, serving in what was known as Front B near Da Nang in Quảng Nam Province. At this front, his principal mission was to integrate with the village people and the troops in order to depict with his drawings the reality of Vietnam during the Second Indochina War. Among his many anecdotes, he explains how he was captured by Việt Cộng guerrillas in the village of Đặc Xảy, where he was almost shot for being mistaken as a collaborator with American troops.

During the Second Indochina War, he worked daily with ethnic groups. These people inspired many of his drawings, which demonstrated the local people’s support in the resistance against US and South Vietnamese forces. Chất is well known for his depictions of the various ethnic groups, particularly the Bà Nà tribe. During this time, he also published a collection of poems under his pseudonym.

In 1969, he was sent to work in Hanoi in the press and publicity department of the Central Committee for Unification. At that time, because of the vast number of deaths during the Tết Offensive of 1968, it was decided that many artists, professors and specialized professionals be sent to North Vietnam to protect the lives of intellectuals involved in the arts and sciences.

In 1970, he enrolled at the Institute of Traditional Art, where he learnt woodworking and lacquering techniques.

After the end of the war, he started work at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum in Hanoi as head of the Department of Artistic Collections, where he worked until his retirement in 1993. However, his dedication to war reportage once again found him on the front lines. In 1979, during the conflict with China, he returned to combat, leading a group of patriotic artists charged with capturing action at the front.

In 1985 he spent a year studying at the Clermont-Ferrand Institute in France, where he learnt oil painting restoration.

GALLERY

Publications

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

Trần Hữu Chất, Drawing in the Trenches, 2007, Fundacion Forensa, Thailand

Collections

Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Hanoi

Exhibitions

2005 – National Fine Arts Museum of Vietnam

2015-2016 – Between Declarations and Dreams, National Gallery, Singapore

2017 – The Vietnam War: 1945-1975, New York Historical Society, USA

Official Roles

1946 – Assigned to Kỳ Anh Commune’s Information and Propaganda Office and Division, Hà Tĩnh Province Information Department

1952 – War correspondent and illustrator for “Quân Địa Phương” (Local Army Newspaper), High Command Zone 4, Vinh

1969 – Worked in the press and publicity department of the Central Committee for Unification, Hanoi

1975 – Head of the Department of Artistic Collections at Vietnam Fine Art Museum, Hanoi

Association of Visual Arts of Vietnam

Association of Writers of Vietnam

Association of Poets of Vietnam

Awards

1958 – Medal of Honour Second Class

1985 – Second Class of Resistance Medal

2012 – State Prize for Art Literature

Accorded the highest qualification by the examining committee at Vietnam College of Fine Arts

Medal for the cause of Vietnamese art

REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:

[1] Trần Hữu Chất, Drawing in the Trenches, 2007, Fundacion Forensa, Thailand

[2] Tran Huu Chat biography compiled from independent research by Witness Collection.

[3] “Art exhibit features “Father and kids'”, Việt Nam News, 11 January 2005

[4] The Treatment Of Huu Chat (1933), Vietnam Fine Art Association, http://www.vietnamfineart.com.vn/. Visited on 28 March 2018.

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