Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America
Phạm Đỗ Đồng was born as Phaïm Ñoã Ñoàng on 15 March 1940 in Hà Đông (the provincial capital of what is now known as Hà Tây Province). Hà Đông lies to the southwest of the capital Hanoi and is famous for its heritage of producing silk. So popular was Hà Đông silk in its use for making undergarments to expensive dresses, the poet Nguyeãn Sa wrote: “Under the heat of Saigon I felt this coolness – When I saw you in Hà Đông silk”.1
Both Đồng’s paternal and maternal grandparents worked for the French government. However, due to his parents’ generation love for the country and a deep yearning for independence, they became active members of the Vietnamese revolution against the French. His father was a lead architect who directed building on the South-North railway network. His mother was a midwife originally trained by the French government before she served the Việt Minh in the August Revolution. As well as their specific trades, his parents worked for the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) government in general: his mother worked for the medical department of Đại Từ District, Thái Nguyên Province. His father worked for the Construction Department in Hanoi.2
One of four children, Đồng was the second sibling, and the only one to pursue fine art. His elder sister worked in a government company, his younger sister became a musician and his youngest sister studied geology. In all, Đồng was surrounded by art from a young age and enjoyed drawing early on, a practice he was inspired by and encouraged by his father.
Early in Đồng’s life, his family fled from their hometown due to the First Indochina War against the French. Đồng spent the majority of his childhood living in a resistance camp in an unnamed forest in Đại Từ District, Thái Nguyên Province in North Vietnam, where he studied basic subjects like how to read and write. However, in 1953, when he was 13 years old, Đồng was sent to China to study at Quế Lâm Học Tài Dục Viện (Guilin Linguistics Institute) in Guangxi (Quảng Tây) Province as part of a government-sponsored programme to send children away from the war and receive an overseas education. Here he received a good education and studied maths, history and geography, as well as his first formal education in art. Due to the good facilities at the school and the peaceful life, Đồng enjoyed his time at the school immensely.3
Phạm Đỗ Đồng in an interview with Witness Collection on 11 September 2004 in Ho Chi Minh City
Đồng returned to Vietnam in 1958 and continued with his secondary school education. Despite moving schools a couple of times for the purpose of convenience, Đồng spent most of his secondary education at Trường Phổ Thông Cấp 3, a German-sponsored Senior High School in Hanoi. It was then that he first met Ta Diệu Hiền, daughter of the famous artist Tạ Thúc Bình, and his future wife.
In 1960, he was selected to study at the All-Ukrainian Art Institute in Kiev, USSR, an ongoing part of the government programme for the young in North Vietnam to receive an overseas education, without taking any entrance exams. In Kiev, Đồng did not start his art education immediately. As a freshman, he studied Literature Criticism while attending a fine arts correspondence course for one year. After the academy noticed his aptitude for drawing, they transferred him to the painting faculty. He studied art history, anatomy, composition and colours as part of the art course, as well as the history of the USSR. It was then that he met and studied with one of his art contemporaries, Nguyễn Thanh Châu, who he would meet again on the battlefields in southern Vietnam and with whom he would develop an intimate friendship.4
In 1964, the relationship between Vietnam and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union had soured. The new General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev, had employed a détente foreign policy with America after coming to power. As a result, Đồng and other Vietnamese students were recalled from their studies in Kiev for fear that Brezhnev’s new policies would dilute their dedication to the communist cause in Vietnam.
When Đồng returned to Vietnam in 1964, he was fast-tracked into the Vietnam Fine Arts College without taking the intermediate entrance exams. While there, Đồng met more of his contemporaries including Bùi Quang Ánh, and Phạm Thanh Tâm. He studied under notable professors Lương Xuân Nhị and Nguyen Nước Nương, as well as Cao Thông, a teacher famous for shooting down the first French plane in the First Indochina War.
In 1967, Đồng got married to Taï Dieäu Hieàn, developing a fine art family tradition that was maintained by their children and grandchildren. Their grandson, Phaïm Hoaøi Nam, became a fashion photographer. Their granddaughter, Phaïm Huyeàn Trang, graduated from Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts University oil painting department and later became a fashion designer.
Đồng left the Vietnam Fine Arts College two years before his graduation in 1968. However, as he stated that he wanted to join the war effort against the Republic of Vietnam and America, the college gave him his graduating certificate without taking the final exam. In Đồng’s case, this may have been aided by the fact that his mother-in-law worked for the Vietnam Fine Arts College. Although, Đồng maintains that this was a policy extended to many other students at the college.
Immediately after leaving the Vietnam Fine Arts College, Đồng was sent to the 105 training camp in Hòa Bình Province, where he learnt basic military training for six months. In November 1968, under heavy fire, he travelled to South Vietnam (đi B) to fight on the Trường Sơn Trail on the way to Saigon. Normally, the trip from North to South Vietnam took three months of walking. However, Đồng completed the journey in six months due to a serious bout of malaria, at times so bad that someone had to carry his backpack. His feet and knees were so swollen that he could only walk with the aid of crutches. However, out of a sense of
Đồng stayed in the south from 1969 until 1975, mainly based in Tây Ninh Province, without returning to his home in Hanoi. Working for the Trường Sơn Fine Arts Department in the Central Committee Propaganda Department for the South (The Liberational Fine Arts Department of South Vietnam of the National Liberation Front), Đồng saw violent action while documenting the lives of the Divisions 5, 7 and 9 based in Tây Ninh Province as a journalist and war artist. A harrowing and confusing time, Đồng remembers his time most clearly while attached to Division 5.
At approximately the end of 1971 or beginning of 1972, for a period of roughly four months, Đồng lived with the local militia in Thủ Thừa District, Long An Province, in the Mekong Delta. During his time in the Mekong Delta, it was here that Đồng, along with a fellow soldier, was almost captured by South Vietnamese soldiers when they were nearly caught unawares while arguing about a bet on the side of the Hậu River in Hậu Giang Province.
Later in 1972, when following Division 5 to paint in a forest in Tây Ninh Province, they came under heavy American bombing. In the process of taking shelter in foxholes, for some reason Đồng left the group he was with to hide in another foxhole roughly ten metres away. In this instance, he survived the bombing, whereas the group he left were killed. Intensely concerned with documenting reality at the time, he still employed an artist’s eye searching for beauty. For example, his forest paintings are not beautiful but leafless, devastated by raining bombs and toxic chemicals. Nevertheless, he made use of what he considered good light in the forest.
In other examples, Đồng spent three or four months in An Giang Province with the amateur performing group Literary Delegation (Đoàn văn công), in South Vietnam in 1972. At the end of 1972 until the beginning of 1973, Đồng shared his experience of documenting ship battles on the Tieàn River. His painting The first battle on Tiền River (Trận đánh đầu trên sông Tiền) documented an important supply route used by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), which was regularly attacked by People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN).
Đồng was relatively lucky with his ability to access good materials during his time in the south from 1968 to 1975. He often had contacts in the Southern Liberation Army who would make trips to markets in liberated zones that sold a huge array of imported artist materials – for example, the Lò Gò Market in Tây Ninh Province. Also, as he worked for the Central Committee Propaganda Department for the South, he was usually given funds to buy materials, which offset his meagre earnings as a war artist. Another advantage lay in a friend he met while studying in China who worked for a Logistics Regiment in charge of procuring goods in the southern zone. His friend delivered certain oils and materials when Đồng asked.
After Vietnam was liberated April 1975, Đồng initially returned to North Vietnam and was assigned by his unit to work for the Vietnam Fine Arts Association in Hanoi. However, when the Vietnam Fine Arts Association established a branch in Saigon, Đồng and his family moved to the southern city, preferring the liberal, straight-minded characteristics of southern people. He also took comfort in the fact that many of his artist friends moved to Saigon when the war ended. In his role working for the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, Đồng prepared exhibitions, presented awards and
In 1983, he was made director of Fine Arts Appliance Enterprise of Vietnam Fine Arts Association until 1994, when the enterprise was dissolved due to their inability to compete with goods imported from China into Vietnam – into Ho Chi Minh City in particular. He also taught drawing at the Ho Chi Minh City Architecture University around 2008. Đồng worked for the Ho Chi Minh branch of the Fine Arts Association until 2002, only to have his first solo exhibition in 2003.
Đồng took part in many overseas group exhibitions: in Toulouse, France, in 1975, and in 1992 with artist Ñao Minh Tri; in Germany, Bulgaria, Hungry, Iraq, Czechoslovakia, as well as many group exhibitions inside Vietnam. For his first solo exhibition in May 2003, he displayed sixty paintings at Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum.
However, his work as an artist remains his identity. Using a range of oil paints from Taiwan, France, England, and watercolours from Russia, France, Germany – even experimenting with graffiti products – Đồng is best known for his abstract realism.
Discarding any notions of highbrow art based on skilful techniques in preference for normal materials and emotion, he confers to one of his favourite Buddhist theories in practising art: “I don’t want to be inferior; people will look down me,” he said. “I don’t want to be superior; people will fawn upon me. I only want to be a common person among people”.
Phạm Đỗ Đồng lives in Ho Chi Minh City.
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
Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts
1975-1992 – Included in many overseas group exhibitions in France, Germany, Bulgaria, Hungry, Iraq and Czechoslovakia
May 2003 – First solo exhibition, Ho Chi Minh Museum of Fine Arts
1968-1975 – Worked for the Trường Sơn Fine Arts Department in the Central Committee Propaganda Department for the South
1975-2002 – Worked at the Southern branch of the Fine Arts Association
1975 – Office chief of the Representative Bureau of Vietnam Fine Arts Association
1983-1994 – Director of Fine Arts Appliance Enterprise of Vietnam Fine Arts Association
Member of Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association
Member of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association
Vice-chairman of the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association
Member of The Art Council of Vietnam Fine Arts Association.
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- Interview with Phạm Đỗ Đồng at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 11 September 2004, conducted by Witness Collection.
- Interview with Phạm Đỗ Đồng at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 31 July 2018, conducted by Witness Collection.
- Interview with Phạm Đỗ Đồng at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 22 May 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.
- Interview with Phạm Đỗ Đồng at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 19 November 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.