Second Generation Artist: Covered the Conflict in Vietnam with America
Nguyễn Ðức Thọ was born in Hà Nam Province in the north of Vietnam on 20 September 1945. Due to the persistent threat from French forces, Thọ and his family moved twice during his childhood. From his native Hà Nam Province, Thọ first moved to Thanh Hóa Province, a central region below Hanoi in Military Zone 4. Here, his mother sold fabric at the local market and donated bundles to Việt Minh forces in preparation for the battle at Điện Biên Phủ. His family also donated three bicycles to the Việt Minh, important and valuable commodities for the army as a basic means of transporting goods and equipment.1
In 1952, Thọ and his family moved to Hanoi. As Thọ displayed an interest in drawing as a young boy, his parents allowed him to take extra-curricular classes with other artists in the city including Mạnh Quỳnh, Đinh Minh and Phạm Viết Song.
Nguyễn Ðức Thọ Joins the People’s Army of Vietnam
From 1961 until 1962, Thọ studied the intermediary course at the Vietnam Fine Arts College in Hanoi, which he graduated from with good grades. An important stepping-stone in reaching the Vietnam Fine Arts College diploma course, Thọ took great benefit in studying alongside other future artists including Lê Quang Luân, Giang Nguyên Thái, Đỗ Hiểu, Lư Như Hà and Đỗ Văn Kế. His classmates would also become members of the Vietnam Fine Arts Associations in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
On 31 May 1965, during America’s heightened bombing campaign of the Second Indochina War, Thọ joined the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) and served as a scout for a 122mm cannon artillery regiment at the age of twenty. After being recognised for his artistic talent in 1965 from his illustrations for the “wall newspaper” (bích báo) he worked for, he transferred to 368 Artillery Brigade’s propaganda department, where he created decorations and slogans on banners until 1966.2
Nguyễn Ðức Thọ in an interview with Witness Collection on 30 July 2018
Training in the Soviet Union
For the majority of 1967, Thọ studied artillery training in the Soviet Union along with half of 368 Artillery Brigade. He studied flight paths and anti-aircraft missile training, as well as continuing to make propaganda artwork for the resistance forces in Vietnam. On his return to Vietnam at the end of 1967, Thọ transferred to the Hanoi 361 Air Defence Division until 1969. Thọ claims that his unit was the first anti-aircraft artillery unit to shoot down a B-52 bomber over Hanoi.
In 1970, he transferred to the Political and Propaganda Department of the Hanoi 361 Air Defence Division as a propaganda training officer. Thọ was in charge of making banners, decorating meeting halls and drawing propaganda posters for his unit. His unit had its own newspaper but, since it did not have a printing press, it required the skills of soldiers who came from art school for their fine hand-writing and ability to create “beautiful captions”. Thọ was also responsible for teaching fresh graduates from the Vietnam Fine Arts College intermediate and diploma courses on how to make propaganda art. He explained the pragmatic manner in which he evolved into becoming an army artist, something he had not expected. The PAVN’s natural demand for art inspired Thọ. He remained in this role until 1983.
The Ho Chi Minh Trail
In the period between 1970 and 1975, Thọ made various excursions along Trường Sơn Road (better known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) to artillery units based in Hải Phòng, Hạ Long, Quảng Trị Province, and Khan Muon and Savannakhet Provinces in Laos, paid as a soldier-artist to document the events there. Primarily, Thọ painted watercolour portraits for propaganda purposes. Despite being able to choose his own subjects, he had to find good respected soldiers with numerous awards and portray them as idols for other units and divisions. These were considered the most important subjects for propaganda images. It was during this time that he also made studies for his own future studio work.
Where possible Thọ travelled to different locations by car but often had to travel on foot. On each expedition, units assigned a reliable and skillful soldier to Thọ for his protection, as he did not carry weapons of his own. These bodyguards proved invaluable in negotiating areas renowned for landmines and unexploded cluster bombs. The Vietnam Fine Arts Association and the General Department of Politics sponsored Thọ for these expeditions. Which provided him with watercolours, oils and paper – even though he commented that the paper was sub-standard. While living with various units, he would organise and contribute to art exhibitions held in divisional barracks to show his portraits. The People’s Army Newspaper (Quân Đội Nhân Dân) also
From 1971 to 1975 Thọ enrolled in and graduated with a diploma from the Vietnam Fine Arts College. The flexibility of his college course allowed him to continue with army duties during the war. In 1976, the Vietnam government donated his painting December Evening on the Red River to the Cuban government.
After April 1975 Thọ remained with 361 Air Defence Division in Hanoi, joining the Vietnam Fine Arts Association in 1980. In 1984, however, he moved to Ho Chi Minh City. In part, his decision to move was based on the warmer weather – better for his ageing parents. He became interested in the revitalised art scene in Ho Chi Minh City. The experimental artistic disciplines gelled with Thọ’s wish to concentrate on his artistic career.
Still employed by the army in 1984, he took charge of organising the new museum dedicated to 367 Anti-Aircraft Division. The division established itself by their vital role in the victory at Điện Biên Phủ. As an artist in this role, he was in charge of designing and presenting exhibitions within the museum. He retired when the museum was complete.
Thọ retired from the army as a Major in 1990. From 2000 until 2010, he worked for the checking board of the Central Fine Arts Association. From 2005 until 2015, he was a member of the checking board of the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association. His roles during this time were to assess whether organisations were following rules. He acted as a mediator between organisations that may have had certain disputes. Thọ has never held a solo exhibition.
Nguyễn Ðức Thọ lives in Ho Chi Minh City.
Jessica Harrison-Hall, Vietnam Behind the Lines, Images from the War: 1965-1975, 2002, Art Media Resources Ltd, Chicago
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
Private international collections
1980s-present – Successive National Group Exhibitions
Graduated from Hanoi Fine Art College – Specialization in Oil Painting
Member of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association
Member of the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
- Interview with Nguyễn Ðức Thọ at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 30 July 2018, conducted by Witness Collection.
- Interview with Nguyễn Ðức Thọ at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 21 May 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.
- Interview with Nguyễn Ðức Thọ at his home in Ho Chi Minh City, 18 November 2019, conducted by Witness Collection.