Third Generation Artist: Vietnam’s Post-War Socialist Realism
Phạm Lực was born as Phạm Văn Lực in 1943 in Huế, where his father worked for the imperial court. His mother was from Hà Tĩnh Province and great-granddaughter of the world-famous poet Nguyễn Du. Two years after Lực was born, the August Revolution broke out. His mother took her three children to Hà Tĩnh, while his father remained in Huế. Lực grew up in poverty, his family shunned due to his father’s position.1
“[Phạm Lực] is inclined to the themes of land and the people of Vietnam… his paintings reflect the spirit and quintessence of the Vietnamese people.”
Donald Berger, a Canadian art collector with an extensive collection of Phạm Lực’s paintings
Early Life and Career
Lực fostered early artistic talent and drive. Encouraged by his mother, she would pose as a model for his paintings when he was seven years old. His experience of living along the Làm River nurtured his talent. He drew women and working people, often honouring women by levitating them beyond their natural position in Vietnamese society. It is widely regarded that his respect for women stemmed from the love he had for his mother.
Lực spent thirty-five years in the army reaching the rank of Major. He fought in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This included hot-spots like Thanh Hóa Bridge, Vĩnh Linh District in Quảng Trị Province, the Central Highlands and southern Laos. Lực always carried an artist’s kit in his rucksack to sketch and record his experiences.
From 1959 to early 1966, Lực was based in the Trường Sơn mountains. He then travelled from Military Zone 4 to Quảng Trị on a teaching and fact-finding tour. As a young soldier in the army, Lực painted on jute bags due to the lack of art materials in the country at the time; the same jute bags that carried rice, sugar, dried fish and salt to soldiers and civilians all over Vietnam. He often used pastel colours to paint as well as wall whitening powder and toothpaste for white highlights. When he could find it, Lực also made use of Chinese ink. His greatest motive was to capture the realism of what was around him instead of the heroic idealisation of soldiers. Lực continued to paint on jute bags using improvised materials until as late as 1975 and the liberation of Vietnam.
On occasion, the Department of Propaganda summoned artists who worked on the battlefields for propaganda assignments. After being summoned, Lực drew Uncle Hồ with the Central Highlands.2 In 1973, Lực went to Saigon to improve the cultural knowledge of soldiers there, opening a painting class.
Phạm Lực After Graduation
Lực graduated from the Vietnam Fine Arts College in 1977, where he solidified his painting techniques under masters like Bùi Xuân Phái. It was here that Lực began using a variety of materials including oil, lacquer and gold leaf in his paintings. Some as a matter of convenience and others as a matter of style. Either way, a concentrated education and open economy finally allowed him to expand the range of his artistic expression.
After retiring from the army in 1993, he worked as a prolific, full-time artist in his studio in Hanoi. After separating from his first wife, he married a French woman whom he had met in the early-90s. Lực quickly attracted a loyal following who admired his intensely accurate portrayal of Vietnamese culture, folklore and identity. At an exhibition in October 1999, the poet Vũ Mão remarked, “His painting leaves something very light in the viewer’s mind and this makes them continue to mediate.”
Anh Ben Wilkinson, a member of the Harvard Kennedy School Vietnam Program, said: “I think Phạm Lực is a real talent, with a very unique and deep understanding of Vietnamese culture.”
Artist Bảng Làm said: “Phạm Lực can draw anywhere and at any time, whenever he feels like painting. He does not follow any concrete painting technique. He only devotes himself to creating the best in his art.”
Possibly because of his own impoverished childhood, Lực began dedicating his time, effort and money as an artist to the poor, particularly children, even giving away some of his assets to charitable institutions. Lực also started free art training courses for war invalids, the disabled, the poor and foreigners in Hanoi.
From 1994, he coordinated with a non-profit organisation in eastern France to aid the poor in Vietnam through art. They sold his paintings in Parisian art galleries to raise money, which was then sent back to Vietnam. In 2005, he donated two paintings worth $14,000 to support poor Vietnamese children. He also donates to Doctors Without Borders, Operation Smile, World Vision and disabled children.
On 31 August 2010, Phạm Lực was invited by UNICEF to hold an exhibition Women and Children in Vietnam for their Report on the Situation of Children in Vietnam. Half of the funds raised went to the UNICEF cause.
On 20 October 2004, Lực officially established the Phạm Lực Painting Club. On a poignant note, it was the same day as Vietnamese Women Day – reflecting his dedication to women and mothers in his paintings.3
Exhibitions and Collaborations
Lực is a celebrated artist in Vietnam. From 24 May to 30 June 2010, he and Đinh Công Khải collaborated for the exhibition A Time to Remember in Hanoi. It was featured as a highlight event on the VTV4 Arts and Entertainment channel.
In 2013, a solo exhibition of his work was held at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum to mark his 70th birthday.
Phạm Lực lives in Hanoi.
PHẠM LỰC GALLERY
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
2017 – Interviewed in Ken Burns’s epic series for PBS, The Vietnam War
Vietnam Fine Art Museum, Hanoi
Private international collections
2010 – collaborated with Định Kong Khai for the exhibition A Time to Remember
2013 – Solo exhibition of his work at the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum
2016 – Four Paintings form the War Years, ARTINFO, Martin Browne Contemporary, Sydney
2011 – One Time and Forever Exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, HCMC
2015-16 – Vietnam 1954-1975, National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore
2016-17 – Who Wants to Remember a War and Lines, National University of Singapore Museum, Singapore
1990 – Prize for Literature and Arts of Vietnam People’s Army by The Ministry of Defense
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- Interview with Phạm Lực at his home in Hanoi, 28 May 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.
- The story of painter Phạm Lực, Phạm Lực website.
- Hạ Đình Nguyên, Phạm Lực – the painter has a strange fate, Culture & Youth, Thanh Niên Newspaper, 27 October 2011.
- “Pham Luc (Vietnamese, 1943),” MutualArt.