Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America
Bùi Quang Ánh was born on 4 November 1940 on Trần Hưng Đạo Street, Hơn Kiến District, Hanoi. His grandmother was from a wealthy family, making a fortune selling incense sticks along the Yangtze Rive in China. His maternal grandfather, although an intelligent man, died in 1950 (approximately 50 years old) early in Ánh’s life from tuberculosis. Due to the generosity and kindness shown to him by his grandmother, Ánh developed a warm character that showed in his future relationships and artwork.
Ánh was born into art, as well as war. His father, Bùi Huy Triều (1911-2004, a native of Gia Lộc District, Hải Dương Province, and later a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam), drew over two thousand paintings of Vietnamese customs. Triều worked as a secretary for a French tax base in Vietnam from 1940 to 1945. At the outbreak of the First Indochina War, Triều became chairman of the resistance administrative committee for Gia Lộc District.
Ánh’s earliest memory dates back to 1945, when he was just five years old, at the beginning of the Anti-Colonial War. As the killing of what would total over two million people began in Vietnam’s northern delta provinces, Ánh remembers dead bodies heaped together and sprinkled with lime powder to prevent the spread of disease. Despite witnessing these horrors at such a young age – or maybe because of it – his work emphasises beauty, no less the need to fight for it.
Also as a result of the First Indochina War, Ánh and his family moved out of Hanoi and into the countryside on three separate occasions between 1946 and 1950. Ánh recalls, however, as a young boy, these were some of his happiest times, where he rode buffalos and flew kites – rare activities for a boy from the city. On one such occasion between 1948 and 1949, Ánh’s family moved to Phù Kế village in Thanh Miện District, Hải Dương Province, where he attended primary school. Here he met “Brother Teacher (Anh Giáo)”, who recognised Ánh’s talent for art and grew to adore him, taking Ánh into his home three kilometres from Phù Kế village to Phương Khê village for a short time. He taught Ánh the flute, the piano and drawing. Ánh’s mother sent them rice so that they could both eat as a form of payment for the teacher’s dedicated tuition. While being taught by “Brother Teacher” at the age of nine, he drew portraits of resistance fighters in ink and later studied drawing from the age of fourteen at middle school. Ánh was the only member of the family to take up painting and art.
Bùi Quang Ánh, Ho Chi Minh Trail- Hồ Chí Minh Campaign-Military Logistic, Exhibition Catalogue, Self-published
When he and his family moved back to Hanoi for the last time in 1950, Ánh enrolled in two different private art classes at Khai Trí Tiến Đức School on Hàng Quạt Street in Hanoi. From 1954 to 1956, Ánh studied oil painting for two years under Nguyễn Tiến Chung, a friend of legendary Vietnamese artist Tạ Tỵ, where Ánh learnt different artistic styles. Then, from 1956 until 1958, Ánh moved to study under Lương Xuân Nhị, where he learnt more about basic fine art knowledge and practised realism. In 1956, Ánh continued his studies, heavily influenced by the style, and under the mentorship of, Lương Xuân Nhị. These classes were provided without charge and did not hold any official qualifications. However, Ánh continued to bring his artworks to the classes for independent appraisals and advice. Nguyễn Tiến Chung taught in the morning and Lương Xuân Nhị taught in the afternoon.
By 1958, while attending Chu Văn An High School, he had produced oil paintings with national recognition. At age of 16, his still life work Dahlia Flowers (Hoa Thược Dược) was displayed in the 1958 National Fine Art Exhibition. In the same year, he held an exhibition of twelve oil paintings of which one was given to the first President of Indonesia, Sukarno, on his visit to Vietnam in 1959. Also, during his high school years, Ánh worked with the Aluminum and Bronze Production Company Ngũ Xá (Cơ sở đồng nhôm Ngũ Xá) that made awards for the school. As a result of this collaboration, he designed embossed portraits of Hồ Chí Minh and Lenin.
After Ánh graduated high school in 1959, Ánh wanted to enrol in the Vietnam Fine Arts College. However, what he described as his “capitalist family” refused his request and got him a job with the Vietnam Film Studio in Hanoi through his uncle, who worked for the Ministry of Culture (Bộ văn hoá). The studio predominantly made films for the peasantry, who did not like fast moving films but slow imagery, which they could understand better. This was perfect for Ánh’s discipline as a painter. Until 1963, in his role as a painter for the studio, Ánh travelled extensively in regions dominated by ethnic minorities, field trips that he made by bike endorsed by local governments. Interestingly, he also worked alongside Tô Ngọc Vân’s widow at the Vietnam Film Studio, who worked in the studio’s dark room.
In 1963, he was admitted to the Vietnam Fine Arts College, which resulted in a turbulent three years. Seen as a promising talent and top of his class in his first year, Ánh began to explore artists such as Cezanne and Picasso in his second year, angering most of his teachers and classmates, including Phạm Thanh Tâm. When he made a Cubist-inspired painting after a field trip in his second year, he was given a warning in front of the whole college as a reprimand. In his third year, after continuing to research contemporary Western artistic styles such as Rembrandt, Ánh was expelled from the college in 1966.
After his expulsion, until early 1968, both Ánh and Phạm Đỗ Đồng were sent to work for Ty Văn Hoá (the Cultural Department) in Lạng Sơn Province at the request of Trần Đình Thọ, the principal of the Vietnam Fine Arts College, and Vũ Hiền, Secretary of The Party (Bí thư đảng uỷ) of the College – an assignment which Ánh assumes was meant to get rid of him permanently. He was tasked with documenting the resistance war against America, making sketches and paintings of daily life in the region. An exhibition was held for him in a cave in Lạng Sơn Province, after which a number of his paintings were collected by the Vietnam Fine Arts Association. Despite enjoying his time in Lạng Sơn Province, using the library there extensively, Ánh wished to return home. In early-1968, Ánh faked a medical certificate relieving him of his duty and returned to Hanoi.
In 1968, the Vietnam Fine Arts College was transformed into the General Department of Logistics for the war effort during the Second Indochina War, at the same time housing some of Vietnam’s most iconic and interesting artworks. Despite being expelled from the Vietnam Fine Arts College, Ánh started work for the political arm of the General Department of Logistics on the recommendation of his brother-in-law, assigned to travel the country and document the war through painting.
Ánh started in late-1968 by travelling to Savannakhet Province in Laos along the Ho Chi Minh (Trường Sơn) Trail, painting military equipment, goods and famous locations such as the Đồng Lộc crossroads, a horrible route on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Hà Tĩnh Province. One of the paintings he made during this time, 13th Kilometre of Trường Sơn
In 1970, Ánh travelled to the East Village (Bản Đông), where all wounded soldiers from Quảng Trị Province were sent for treatment. He visited many artillery units and the cave hospital in Bản Đông. He did not witness these things in his first trip along Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Later, in April 1970, Ánh travelled with poet Phạm Tiến Duật and arrived at soldier station 5 (
In 1975, Ánh followed the Delegation of Economic Exploration of The Central Highland (Military Supplies Department) heading to South Vietnam. On his way, he met the Board of Commanders of the Ho Chi Minh Campaign, including Đinh Đức Thiện and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) General Văn Tiến Dũng. He also visited the troop’s station of the commander’s board in Bù Đốp.
Ánh spent many of these excursions with film-maker Nguyễn Trung Tự, who even supported him financially when he was ill with malaria. In addition, Nguyễn Trung Tự took Ánh’s paintings back to Hanoi for the first exhibition of artworks sent from South Vietnam at the Unification Club (Thống nhất), near Sword Lake (Hoàn kiếm) in Hanoi. At this exhibition, the widely travelled but notorious art critic Tố Hữu complimented Ánh’s paintings. Together with Nguyễn Trung Tự, Ánh travelled to Nha Trang city, the Battle of Núi Bà Đen in Tây Ninh and finally to Saigon for liberation.
Due to the scope of his travels throughout Vietnam during the war, Ánh offered a sincerely unique perspective. “Being a painter, I saw what many people could not see, including journalists,” he said when speaking of his experiences. “So I tried to paint righteously, to convey bold visions of the present and the future. War cannot be painted like still life reality. You have to go somewhere deep and dark to express the fierceness and the despair of human actions.”
Despite his pursuit of abstract expressionism in his student days, Ánh painted in a more realistic style during the war years to aid in the process of documenting events. When painting portraiture, he often borrowed a model to compose a painting. According to him, he only used models that displayed noble qualities and reflected the strength of the Vietnamese military resistance. When asked about his wartime artwork, Ánh said, “At the beginning, I was aware that a lot of people would not have had a chance to witness such things, even journalists, so I knew that I had to paint exactly as much as I could according to the popular vision of today and the future. Moreover, what I had to paint should have been over normal realism; it had to express violence and the grandness of human nature, like Siqueroz, Hokusai, Picasso, etc.”
During the Second Indochina War, like most artists in Vietnam at the time, Ánh used materials from Germany, the Soviet Union and China. Ánh was fortunate, however, in that he rarely had to scrounge. In his early days as an assigned painter in Lặn Xuống, part of his responsibilities was to distribute art materials among the locals on behalf of the Cultural Department. Then, when he was working for the Political Department of the General Department of Logistics, all he needed was a check and a form to buy materials from the Ministry of Culture Bureau to buy good quality paper and oils. Sometimes he bought so much that he needed a tricycle to transport the materials.
From October 1977 he taught at the Hanoi Industrial Fine Arts University until 1981, where he taught art anatomy classes. Ánh’s notable colleges at the University included Lê Thị Kim Bạch, who taught socialist painting, and Nguyễn Trọng Kiệm who was an avid follower of Tô Ngọc Vân.
In 1981, Ánh moved to Ho Chi Minh City where he was granted a small apartment in Trần Hưng Đạo Street. His decision was based on the intense political air in Hanoi after the war and the more liberal arts scene that emerged in Ho Chi Minh City when the country opened up. He first started working for the Bình Tây Water Supply Company (Công ty cấp nước Bình Tây). Although to offset his meagre salary, he held a number of other jobs: making portraits, overseeing cultural decorations, painting for the Agricultural Ministry and drawing comic books for Kim Đồng Publishing House. Also, the Industrial Fine Arts University had a campus in Ho Chi Minh City, so he once again taught anatomy art classes at the university.
In April 1984, he held his solo exhibition Ho Chi Minh Trail, Ho Chi Minh Campaign, once again delving into his love of abstract expressionism, as well as writing numerous articles on the paintings he had created over the course of several years. It was well received by renowned painters in Saigon. In response to his abstract paintings, Ánh said: “Abstract art is the big achievement of the 20th century. I used it because through it I can say what is deep inside me. According to an artists’ mood, they can paint in different ways at times by using the same language. This had never happened before abstract expressionism.”
This period of his life, from 1981 to 1986, is an interesting one. His subject focus shifted to the materialistic nature of life in Vietnam as the country finally started to reap the economic benefits afforded by peacetime and economic reform (đổi mới). Using his love of abstract expressionism, Ánh looked to tackle the subject with his own sense of worry over what modernity and materialism truly meant to a population largely unaccustomed to either.
Ánh retired from the Industrial Fine Arts University in Ho Chi Minh City in 1987 but continued to work as an independent artist. During this time, Ánh painted and produced a number of works. Until 2004, he once again turned his attention to
Bùi Quang Ánh lives in Ho Chi Minh City.
Bùi Quang Ánh, Ho Chi Minh Trail-Hồ Chí Minh Campaign-Military Logistic, 1984, Self-published, 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
International private collections
1968 – International Graphic Exhibition, Kraków, Poland
1970 – International Graphic Exhibition, Berlin, Germany
1971 – Exhibition of paintings from the Ho Chi Minh City Trail, Hanoi
1971 – Group exhibition of sketches drawn in South Vietnam
1972 – International Graphic Exhibition, Berlin, Germany
1974 – Exhibited in Berlin, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, Moscow and Beijing
1976 – Exhibition Against Facsists, Vietnam National Exhibition, Hanoi
1984 – Solo exhibition Ho Chi Minh Trail, Ho Chi Minh Campaign at Gallery 237, Đồng Khởi, Ho Chi Minh City
1989 – Solo exhibition Recent Works at the Military Fine Art Museum, Ho Chi Minh City
1990 – Group exhibition with Đào Trọng Lưu at Gallery 40th Võ Văn Tần, Ho Chi Minh City
1991 – Exhibited in Paris
1992-1995 – Annual group exhibition of professors from the Hồ Chí Minh Fine Art University at Saigon Tourist and Press Club.
1996 – Solo exhibition of oil paintings at Tudo Gallery, Ho Chi Minh City
1998 – Solo exhibition of oil paintings at Tudo Gallery, Ho Chi Minh City
2001 – Solo exhibition of oil paintings at Tudo Gallery, Ho Chi Minh City
2002 – Vietnam Behind the Lines: Images from the War 1965-1975, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Hong Kong
2004 – Vietnam Behind the Lines: Images from the War 1965-1975, British Museum, UK
2015-2016 – Between Declarations and Dreams, National Gallery, Singapore
1963 – Attended the Oil Department at Vietnam Fine Arts College
1968 – Artist and painter for the General Department of Logistics
1972-1974 – Painted for the Military Weapon Corp, Military Ordinance Corp, Military Medical Corp and Military Supply Corp
1975 – Travelled with the Command Centre for the Ho Chi Minh Campaign
1977-1981 – Professor at Department of the Industrial Fine Arts University in Hanoi
1987-1990 – Taught art at Ho Chi Minh City Industrial Fine Arts University
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
 Bùi Quang Ánh, Ho Chi Minh Trail- Hồ Chí Minh Campaign-Military Logistic, Exhibition Catalogue, Self-published.
 Nguyễn Kim Loan, Bùi Quang Ánh – Artist of reality and dream – Mỹ thuật No.88.
 Bùi Quang Ánh, Ho Chi Minh Trail- Hồ Chí Minh Campaign-Military Logistic, Exhibition Catalogue, Self-published.