Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America
Nguyễn Thanh Châu was born in Tịnh Thới village, Cao Lãnh (what is now Đồng Tháp) Province on 4 January 1939 in a part of the western Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. In 1953, at just 16 years old, Châu joined the resistance, following his father who was an official in the war against the French. After the defeat of the French in 1954, he moved north with his family to Hanoi, where he studied an oil painting intermediary course at the Vietnam Fine Arts College under director Trần Văn Cẩn from 1956 to 1959.
Châu studied at the All-Ukrainian Art Institute in Kiev from 1960 to 1964, specialising in watercolours. Subsequently, on his return to Hanoi, he studied a diploma course at the Vietnam Fine Arts College, graduating in 1966. Upon graduation, Châu joined the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN).
After a nine-month journey south along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through Laos and Cambodia, he joined combat troops where he was assigned to battlefields in the east and southwest, as well as in the provinces of An Giang, Mỹ Tho, and Đồng Tháp. He was also part of a unit fighting along the Mekong River; Unit O20 fought against boats in Zones 8 and 9. He spent most of the remaining years of the war in Tây Ninh Province of the Mekong Delta’s Plain of Reeds (Đồng Tháp Mười) near his original home, alongside artists Thái Hà, Huỳnh Phương Đông and Lê Lâm. He witnessed battles in places such as the Tiền River, the Black Virgin Mountain Range (Núi Bà Đen) and near the tunnels of Củ Chi before his advance with the army on its final assault on Saigon in April 1975 and its liberation.
Nguyễn Thanh Châu in interviews with Witness Collection from 2008-2009
Châu made many drawings during his time with the National Liberation Front (NLF). Usually, he would make a quick pencil sketch directly on the battlefield on crôky paper (sketching paper), which he then painted with watercolours at a later stage. Art materials were supplied by the Soviet Union and redistributed by the North Vietnamese government to resistance artists working in the south. Every month or two, he would take his sketches to the central military base in Tây Ninh, where he could safely complete the drawings. Occasionally, he would use a camera from Czechoslovakia to take pictures of his surroundings for additional documentation in order to help him complete his pencil sketches. However, this was limited due to the fear that photographs could reveal secret locations.
The subjects and themes of his drawings were based on his own choice. He drew directly on the battlefield and while characters in his paintings were aware of being drawn. Due to the conditions of war, Châu had to be familiar with speed drawing. It was rare that he was asked to follow the instructions of superiors.
Once completed, the paintings were sent to the Vietnam Fine Arts Association in North Vietnam for preservation. Many of his paintings were lost after being exhibited for soldiers along the Trường Sơn Road.1 Châu believed many of them were taken and kept by US soldiers after they were left behind in sudden retreats. After 1975, many paintings were sent back to the artist. After reunification, newspapers such as Unification (Đoàn Kết), People (Nhân Dân) and Fatherland’s Front (Mặt Trận Tổ Quốc) used his paintings to illustrate their articles.
After the war, Châu developed some of his sketches and watercolours into oil paintings. He won first prize at the National Fine Arts Exhibition in 1976 and 1980. He won second prize at the National Fine Arts Exhibition in 1990, as well as first prize at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Exhibition of the same year.
Châu held positions as deputy secretary general of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association and secretary general of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association before retiring to a quiet riverside village suburb in Ho Chi Minh City.
Nguyễn Thanh Châu passed away on 20 April 2012.2
Sherry Buchanan-Spurgin, Mekong Diaries: Drawings and Diaries from the American-Vietnam War 1964-1975, 2008, Asia Link, London
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
International private collections
1976 – First prize at the National Fine Arts Exhibition
1980 – First prize at the National Fine Arts Exhibition
1990 – Second prize at the National Fine Arts Exhibition
Executive Committee Member of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association
Deputy Secretary General of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association
1995-2005 – Secretary General of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association
2005-2010 – Vice President of Association of Arts and Letters of Ho Chi Minh City
1976 – 1st prize National Fine Arts Exhibition
1980 – 1st prize National Fine Arts Exhibition
1980 – 2nd Prize National Fine Arts Exhibition
1990 – Silver Medal National Fine Arts Exhibition
1990 – 1st Prize Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Exhibition
Medal for Fine Arts Career
1st rank Labour Medal
The State’s Prize (batch 1)
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- Commonly referred to as the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
- Information on Nguyễn Thanh Châu taken from numerous interviews conducted by Witness Collection between 2008 and 2011.