The year 1949 was pivotal in the history of North Vietnam in the struggle against French colonial rule. In that year, Bảo Đại signed the Elysee Agreement with French President Vincent Auriol, making Vietnam an “associated state” of France. France retained defence and financial control of the country, while Bảo Đại kept his designation as Head of State. At the same time, Mao Zedong formed the People’s Rebuplic of China, initiating a mass exodus of Chinese refugees from the country, many travelling overland and along the coast into North Vietnam.
This period changed the situation of many Vietnamese war artists. In 1946, Nguyễn Văn Tỵ had joined the teaching staff of the Fine Art School but, soon after, became involved in the anti-colonial resistance effort. During the uprising against the French, Tỵ’s roles included writing for newspapers, making propaganda posters and, like other artists such as Văn Giáo, teaching art students in the Việt Bắc.
However, like many artists, Tỵ spent a great deal of time travelling around the country documenting the lives of villagers and farmers – inspirational people in the mindsets of those who followed and supported Hồ Chí Minh’s communist struggle. As a whole, the rural population represented the purest form of Vietnamese society and heritage, free from bourgeoisie corruption and dedicated to the country through toil and hard work.
Tỵ’s travels took him to what is believed to be Sầm Sơn, a beach town in Thanh Hóa Province, north-central Vietnam. Not just inland farmers, Tỵ’s image (fig. 1) suggests that fishing communities were of equal interest to Hồ Chí Minh’s cause – not unbelievable considering the large fish diet in Vietnamese cuisine.
Again, simple and poor people, fishing communities reflected a hardiness that was seen as an inspirational boost to Việt Minh soldiers. Dressed in threadbare clothes, sitting on straw mats and wearing the iconic Vietnamese conical leaf hat (nón lá) (fig. 2) represented material sacrifice as well as virtuous outside work.
It is no surprise that he also chose to sketch Việt Minh guerrillas during his travels (fig. 3).
Tỵ also made art works at the front, including documenting experiences at Điện Biên Phủ. On his return to Hanoi after the First Indochina War, he taught at the Vietnam Fine Arts College, a post that he held until 1969.