Nguyễn Thanh Minh Biography

Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America

Nguyễn Thanh Minh was born on 23 November 1936 in Hòa Lợi Commune, Châu Thành District, Thủ Dầu Một Province outside of Saigon (today known as Hòa Lợi Commune, Bến Cát District, Bình Dương Province). Minh was the second youngest out of three sons and four daughters. The province was known for its French colonial-era rubber plantations and lacquer production. Hòa Lợi Commune established a revolutionary tradition, beginning with its resistance to French colonial rule and continuing against the Republic of Vietnam and the US. By day, the area was seen to be under control of the foreign powers; at night, revolutionary forces exerted their control. The area became known as the “teeth of the comb (vùng răng lược)”.

Minh’s family supported the resistance forces during the First Indochina War and the Second Indochina War. His grandfather was village head (Hương Cả) of Hòa Lợi Commune. In 1946, his mother encouraged other mothers within the village to cook for the resistance soldiers, forming an association of support called Mothers of the Soldiers (Mẹ của những người lính). Minh’s family also used their land to build secret shelters within their house and underground. Two of Minh’s brothers and his youngest sister died as war heroes (liệt sỹ). His mother was later awarded the title of Vietnamese Heroic Mother (Bà mẹ Việt Nam anh hùng).

Minh started drawing at a young age, practising regularly in the sand. At primary school, Minh received high grades on drawing tests. However, his studies were interrupted by the Japanese occupation and subsequent conflict with the French during the August Revolution of 1945.

In 1947, while still 13 years old, Minh was sent to stay with his uncle Nguyễn Văn Cam, secretary of the party (bí thư) of the commune at the Vĩnh Lợi revolutionary base in Bình Dương Province. Here he was sent to join the resistance movement by his uncle, following two elder brothers who had joined previously. He was tasked with delivering documents and mail, as well as printing by hand. As a messenger, Minh remembers crossing French roadblocks at night, often moving with others his age between villages in the dark and using fireflies kept in glass jars tied to their backs as a means of following each other.

Nguyễn Thanh Minh in Thanh Hoá Province after first moving to the north, end of 1954 to early 1955. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

During this time, Minh was assigned to the 301 Thiếu sinh quân Regiment, and enrolled into a military school run by the Political Board of the commune. He studied literature and learnt basic military training. The last course he took was a three-month painting class in Bình Chánh, where he received an introduction into fine art. Soon known for his beautiful handwriting, he was assigned to transcribe official letters, directives and wall newspapers for the Political Board. When working for the Political Board, Minh studied art under the resident poet Nguyễn Ngọc Tấn, who later went on to write the book Mother of Fire (Người Mẹ Cầm Súng). During the resistance, offices rarely had typewriters or printing machines (that used stencils to make pamphlets and newspapers). Instead, documents to be printed in large qualities used powder printing (in bột). Minh worked in the Board’s powder printing department.[1]

In 1954, after the Geneva Accords were signed, Minh left the base in Vĩnh Lợi and travelled by Soviet and Polish ships north. When he arrived at Sầm Sơn, he was assigned to the School of Southern Students 14 (Trường Học sinh miền Nam số 14), class 5Đ, to join a training programme for future revolutionary cadres. The school was located in La Khê, Hà Đông Province, and moved to Hải Phòng one year after Minh joined.[2] This was in line with Hồ Chí Minh’s revolutionary directive at the time: young people who showed potential as future soldiers, artists, teachers and commissars were sent north to study, with the intention that, after training, they would be sent back to the south to lead the continued resistance.[3]

Nguyễn Thanh Minh (far right) with classmates (from left to right) Nguyễn Hoàng Hải, Trương Văn Đa, Diệp Minh Tuyền and Nguyễn Văn Sết studying fine arts in Hải Phòng, 1957. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

On summer vacations, the Department of Culture in Hải Phòng used to organize painting classes for southern students, taught by artists Tứ Lang and Trần Hoàng Sơn. Minh attended these classes along with Nguyễn Thanh Châu, Nguyễn Chí Hiếu, Lê Hiền Phú, Đặng Quang Lạc and Lê Thị Kim Bạch (a schoolgirl of School No. 6).

There were several southern student schools in Hải Phòng, but the most popular schools for fine arts and literature were Girls School No. 6 and Boys School No. 14. One of the most popular performances of School No. 6 was the dance Picking tea and catching butterflies (Chọn trà và bắt bướm). School 14 was famous for the drama General Trần Hưng Đạo Conquers Nguyên Enemy (Trần Hưng Đạo bình Nguyên). Minh took charge of the decorations for the performance, painting them with gouache mixed with sticky rice flour liquid on mùng fabric mounted on newspaper. The performance was shown many times in Hải Phòng, as well as at the Hanoi People’s Theater. Tickets were sold to raise funds for the Mai Lâm dyke restoration. Minh was also required to draw promotional posters to increase ticket sales.

Nguyễn Thanh Minh and classmate Lê Hiền Phú as students of the Southern Students School 14 in Hải Phòng, 1957. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

“They were fishermen but when they were engaged in militia duty, they were no longer. They were on duty at the battlefield shooting down US aircraft. They are all deceased now.”

Nguyễn Thanh Minh during an interview with Witness Collection on 15 September 2016 in Ho Chi Minh City

After being noticed for his decorative painting skills, Phỉ Hoành – a lecturer at the Vietnam Fine Arts College – advised Minh to take the entrance examination for the Vietnam Fine Arts College in order to develop his talents. Minh was transferred from School of Southern Students 14 to the Southern Students Unit at Nguyễn Trãi High School in Hanoi. While there, Minh attended art classes under Diệp Minh Châu, a lecturer from Vietnam Fine Arts College. To qualify to take the entrance exam to study at the college, it was necessary to first obtain a certificate of precollege fine art studies (Trung cấp mỹ thuật) and gain three years work experience. Although already qualified to take entrance exams to become a teacher, Minh followed Diệp Minh Châu’s advice and sacrificed nearly six years to prepare for what he most loved. In 1959, he enrolled in the intermediate course, graduating in 1962.

Nguyễn Thanh Minh and the 1962 graduating class from the Vietnam Fine Arts College in Hanoi. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

After graduating the intermediate course, Minh was then assigned to a drawing cadre with the Painting Division of the Cultural Department in the northwest, spending much of his time among the diverse ethnic groups of the northern mountainous region of the Tây Bắc. This government-sanctioned work took him through the provinces of Lai Châu, Nghĩa Lộ and Sơn La,[4] usually travelling by coach but sometimes walking and using pack-horses to reach areas inaccessible by road. After making preliminary sketches on the road, Minh returned to the departmental base in Nghĩa Lộ. While there, he either replicated his sketches on wooden boards using sticky paste and colours as billboards to be displayed along streets and in markets, or refined them for mass printing purposes. Often, he reused the wooden boards, washing off one painting to make way for another. Sadly, there is very little record of these early billboard paintings. Minh also made decorations for exhibitions hosted in the province’s halls. As a government assignment, this work was directed towards propaganda, but nevertheless reveals fascinating facts about life in the northwest.

Nguyễn Thanh Minh with colleague Trần Ngọc Lâm while working for the Culture and Information Department (Ty Văn Hoá Thông Tin) in Nghĩa Lộ Province, 1964. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

Minh also worked for the Youth Union, as the head of Youth Union Executive Board and a commissioner of Executive Board of Nghĩa Lộ Province’s agencies. Due to his working achievements, Minh was admitted into the People’s Workers Party (Đảng Lao Động) on 23 June 1964 at the sub-branch (chi bộ) of Nghĩa Lộ Province’s Department of Culture and Information.

Nguyễn Thanh Minh (far right) with colleagues (right to left) Trương văn Khoa and Trần Ngọc Lâm while working for the Culture and Information Department (Ty Văn Hoá Thông Tin) in Nghĩa Lộ Province, 1964. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

In 1965, Minh finally met the requirements to enrol in the Vietnam Fine Arts College, where he joined the lacquer department and was taught by Hoàng Tích Chù. Due to the cost and scarcity of materials (such as gold and silver leaf and lacquer itself), there were only a handful of students studying lacquer. Minh chose lacquer due to the long lacquer-making tradition that existed in his home province, Bình Dương. Materials were so scarce that for oil painting, students used the fabric from Cuban sugar sacks as their canvases; some were already painted on one side by other students.

Due to American military intervention escalating in 1965 with bombing operations Flaming Dart and Rolling Thunder over North Vietnam, schools in Hanoi were evacuated to outside of the city. The Vietnam Fine Arts College was moved to Hiệp Hòa-Bắc Giang District (near Đành Market). The Industrial Fine Arts College was moved to a neighbouring village (near Vát Market). The escalating conflict also created a shortage of materials used for art classes. There was very little white canvas and paints were made by the colleges themselves. In the winter, it was so cold in Hanoi that a coal fire was lit in the classrooms for nude models. Naturally, the war played a large part in the inspiration behind the work Minh produced.

During their studies at Vietnam Fine Arts College, students were divided into small groups and spent three months each year on field trips to places such as agricultural and fishery cooperatives, construction sites, factories, mines and battlefields. Students would live, work, eat and stay with labourers to learn about the workers’ lives before creating art works to be graded back at the college in Hanoi. In 1965 and 1968, Minh travelled to Thanh Hóa Province (approximately 140km south of Hanoi); the first time staying with artillery units protecting the famous Dragon’s Jaw Bridge (Cầu Hàm Rồng) and during the following trip staying at a cooperative fishery at Hoàng Trường in Hoa Lộc Commune, Thanh Hóa Province.[5]

Nguyễn Thanh Minh and classmates (from left to right) Đỗ Quang Hiển and Nguyễn văn Set on the river shore before the gate to the Southern Students School 14 in Hai Phong, 1957. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

After graduating from Vietnam Fine Art College in 1970, Minh worked at the Central Pedagogy of Physical Education, Music and Painting in Mai Lĩnh, Hà Đông City, Hà Tây Province, (now an urban district of Hanoi), a school supported by the Ministry of Culture. His roles included arranging class schedules as well as teaching in the decoration department and at the school’s art academy. Minh spent five years there and continued to paint for himself. One of the many memories of his time at the school, which he captured on canvas, was of the school flooding after a dam was destroyed by American bombers.

Nguyễn Thanh Minh with his poster celebrating the liberation of Saigon and the end of the Second Indochina War at the Central School of Music and Painting (Trường Sư Phạm Nhạc Hoạ Trung Ương) in Hanoi, May 1975. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

After Liberation in April 1975 Minh decided to move south to Saigon for work. However, his first application to teach at the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts College was rejected because of strict rules asking for teaching credentials. In 1976, after being recognised at the university by former colleague and friend Phước Sanh, Minh was eventually accepted as a teacher. From then, Minh lectured prolifically and subsequently became the university’s vice president until he left in 1988. In the period between 1976 and 1977, Minh was one of a number of artists and lecturers encouraged to paint a series of paintings to celebrate the Cuban government’s independence. They were exhibited in Cuba together as a group exhibition. Minh received a certificate for his participation but never had his painting returned.

Nguyễn Thanh Minh on his first days working for the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts University, early 1976. Courtesy of Nguyễn Thanh Minh.

Minh retired in 1997 but continued as a guest lecturer at several universities, including the University of Architecture, the University of Hồng Bàng, Văn Lang University, the Industry Technical University in Ho Chi Minh City and the Private University in Bình Dươn Province. It was only in 2007 that Minh held his first solo exhibition.

Nguyễn Thanh Minh lives in Ho Chi Minh City.

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

Nguyen Thanh Minh, Tranh & Ky Hoa: Painting & Sketches, 2016, Nhà Xuất Bản Phương Đông, Ho Chi Minh City

Collections

Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts

The Dogma Collection

Cuban Government

International private collections

Exhibitions

2007 – A Painting Exhibition of Nguyễn Thanh Minh, Fine Arts University, Hồ Chí Minh City University of Fine Arts, Ho Chi Minh City

2013 – Group exhibition at the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association, Ho Chi Minh City

2015 – Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Southern Liberation, Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University, Ho Chi Minh City

2016 – Between Declarations and Dreams, The National Gallery, Singapore

Official Roles[6]

1962-1965 – Ofiicer of Culture Painting Department of Northwest Autonomous Region

1970-1975 – Instructor of Art at Central Pedagogy Physical Education-Music-Painting School (Ministry of Culture)

1975-1988 – Worked at Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University as a lecturer, head of academic affairs and Vice President

1988-1990 – Secretary of Literature-Art Executive Committee of Sông Bé Province

1990-1997 – Specialist of Fine Arts at Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University

1997 – Retirement Personnel of the Retirement Club of Culture and Ho Chi Minh Information Department

Chairman of the Arts Council of Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association

Vice President of the Arts Council of Central Committee of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association

Lecturer at University of Architecture of Ho Chi Minh City

Lecturer at the Hong Bang Private University, Ho Chi Minh City

Lecturer at the Van Lang Private University, Ho Chi Minh City

Lecturer at the Industry Technical University in Ho Chi Minh City

Lecturer at Binh Duong People’s University, Bình Dương Province

Awards

2012 – Award for the painting Legendary ‘No Number Ships’, Central Fine Arts Association

2nd Rate Medal of resistance against French

First prize resistance war against America

Commemorative Medal for the career of Vietnamese Literature and Arts

Commemorative Medal for the career of Vietnamese fine arts

REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:

[1] Interview conducted with Nguyễn Thanh Minh in Ho Chi Minh City by Witness Collection on 27th July 2018.

[2] Nguyen Thanh Minh, Tranh & Ky Hoa: Painting & Sketches, 2016, Nhà Xuất Bản Phương Đông, Ho Chi Minh City.

[3] Interview conducted with Nguyễn Thanh Minh in Ho Chi Minh City by Witness Collection on 27th July 2018.

[4] The three provinces that made up the region of Tây Bắc.

[5] Nguyễn Thanh Minh biography compiled after many interviews conducted by Witness Collection between 2005 and 2016.

[6] Nguyen Thanh Minh, Tranh & Ky Hoa: Painting & Sketches, 2016, Nhà Xuất Bản Phương Đông, Ho Chi Minh City.

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