Trưóng Hiếu Biography

Third Generation Artist: Vietnam’s Post-War Socialist Realism

Trương Hiếu was born in Thuyền Quang village (Thống Nhất park, Hanoi) on 8 March 1939 as Trương Văn Hiếu.[1] He was born into a family that had deep artistic traditions, as well as a history of resistance. His mother sang traditional folk songs and other family members danced and played music. Before and after the First Indochina War, Hiếu’s father was a professor of organic & inorganic chemistry at Indochinese University.

From 1946, however, his father contributed to the resistance cause as chairman of the Resistance Committee of Military Zone 1. Between 1946 and 1952, Hiếu’s father also worked for military medical units in Military Zone 3 and Military Zone 4. Hiếu’s elder brother joined the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) in 1950, surviving the decisive battle at Điện Biên Phủ.

Hiếu showed great artistic talent from as early as elementary school. In 1954, at 15 years old, his father sent Hiếu to study art under the famous artist Nguyễn Tiến Chung. In these private classes, Hiếu learnt observation techniques and composition. Painting materials were scarce at the time. Therefore, Hiếu also learnt how to make his own ink from cooking oil and charcoal. He regularly made his own oils by mixing gouche with candlenut oil. He placed the mixture onto a stone and smashed the mixed powder to create oil paint.

Trưóng Hiếu
War artist at his home in Hanoi. Credit: Witness Collection.

“Trưóng Hiếu is one of the few Vietnamese combat artists actually to depict a casualty of war and a mid-battle scene. Such images appear to have been far more prevalent among the oeuvre of US war artists.”

Jessica Harrison Hall writing on the British Museum website

Early Education

In 1955, Hiếu joined the Vietnam Fine Arts College as one of the first students to enroll when it reopened. His previous teacher Nguyễn Tiến Chung recommended Hiếu as a student. The college accepted Hiếu without taking the entrance exam. During his studies, Hiếu also began a lifelong collaboration with Kim Đồng publishers, which published children’s books. Hiếu completed the Vietnam Fine Arts College course and gained his diploma in 1959.

After graduating, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government immediately transferred Hiếu to work for the Import and Export Company of Groceries (Công ty Xuất nhập khẩu tạp phẩm). Assigned to the Sample Department, Hiếu decorated sample products with paint and eggshells for export approval.

Hiếu worked for the company for six years. Until June 1965, when he joined the PAVN under the general mobilization order (lệnh tổng động viên). He joined the army shortly after he married, and assigned to Division 308, Regiment 88, which focused on military engineering. His unit had a multi-faceted role. It constructed bridges and opened roads; provided bomb disposal; buried mines; and often launched full-frontal attacks.

In December 1965, Hiếu made the journey to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, beginning his tour of duty in Military Zone 5. Constantly on the move and often in enemy territory, Hiếu had no further communication with his wife or family until after the war ended in 1975.

Trưóng Hiếu describes being recognised as an artist. Credit Witness Collection.

A Soldier, Not an Artist

Although an active soldier at this time, describing himself as a “real soldier” and not a war artist, Hiếu painted often when he had time. Even so, his unit did not notice his artistic talent until an exploding bomb wounded Hiếu while in a bunker in Gia Lai Province. After the incident, in 1967, while recuperating in a military hospital in Phước Long Province (now part of Bình Phước Province), Hiếu’s commanding officer noticed him drawing a burnt-out tank and instantly transferred him to the Staff Advisory Board (ban tham mưu tác chiến) of Regiment 88. While there, Hiếu worked as a graphic officer (quan đồ bản), tasked with drawing strategic maps.

In 1968, during the Tết Offensive, Hiếu was based in Củ Chi Province, an area to the northwest of Saigon where communist forces ran their operations from a network of underground tunnels. Here he composed one of his simplest yet most impactful art works, US Bell Iroquois UH1D “Huey” helicopters fly overhead, on a search and destroy mission for PAVN soldiers and guerrillas. Hiếu lay disguised in the long grass while he sketched a quick portrayal of the helicopters, using just a few strokes of Chinese ink on paper. He created many art works during this period, often under difficult and life-threatening conditions.

Trưóng Hiếu describes his experience of fighting and creating in the Củ Chi Tunnels. Credit: Witness Collection.

In 1969, Hiếu moved from Military Zone 5 to Military Zone 9, where he continued to paint and fight under Division 308. He then moved to Cambodia in 1970. He does not remember exactly where he was based but commented that he moved often between regions. Then, in 1972, Hiếu moved back into Vietnam, conducting operations in Military Zone 8, based in Mỹ Tho Province.

Trưóng Hiếu After Liberation

Prior to the end of the war on 30 April 1975, Hiếu was already in Saigon and some of his sketches portray those last days of the war.[2] Hiếu stayed in Saigon until December 1975 when the independent Vietnamese government merged Military Zone 8 and Miltary Zone.

Hiếu moved back to Hanoi and his family in December 1976. The army assigned him to work for the General Department of Politics (tổng cục chính trị). He rested for several months in Hà Nam Province before starting work at the Department of Culture Thought Politburo (cục văn hóa tư tưởng bộ chính trị).

From 1977 until 1986, Hiếu worked at the Military Publishing Department (cục xuất bản quân đội). His role involved publishing educational (70%) and non-fiction (30%) books for the Faculty of Military Literature (Khoa Văn học Quân đội). As editor of the publishing house, Hiếu oversaw printing techniques, made cover illustrations and managed the printing of publications. He also contributed illustrations to the military arts magazine (tạp chí Văn Nghệ Quân đội). In 1977, the government offered Hiếu the opportunity to study in Germany but refused in order to spend time with his family. He had his first child in 1979.

Life as an Artist

In 1986, Hiếu retired from the army and the Faculty of Military Literature. However, he continued to work for various publishing houses and dedicated most of his time to publishing children’s books and strip cartoons with Kim Đồng publishing house.

Hiếu decided to try a different form of art. In 1991, he began experimenting with Kamishibai. Literally translated as “paper play”, Kamishibai is a form of Japanese storytelling that makes use of painted que cards to illustrate a story told by a kamishibaiya (kamishibai narrator) in front of a small audience. In 2002, the Japanese government offered Hiếu a complimentary prize for performing one of his Kamishibai stories.

UNESCO has exhibited his works in Vietnam and he is also the subject of a TV programme about his career. He is a member of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, although claims not to have much involvement with it due to his desire for anonymity.

Trưóng Hiếu lives in Hanoi, in the same house he moved into with his family in 1957.

Trưóng Hiếu 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

Collections

British Museum

International Private collections

Exhibitions

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

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

2005 – Persistent Vestiges: Drawing from the American-Vietnam War, The Drawing Center, SoHo, New York, USA

2015 – Between Declarations and Dreams, National Gallery, Singapore

2017 – Fractured, George Town Festival, Penang, Malaysia

Awards

Central Committee Medal for the Young Generation

Medal for his career in art

First-class Resistance Medal


REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:

[1] Trưóng Hiếu biography from independent interviews conducted with Trưóng Hiếu by Witness Collection.

[2] Trưóng Hiếu biography from the British Museum website.

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