The autonomous zones of the Việt Bắc and the Tây Bắc were crucial areas of control for the Việt Minh in their resistance against French colonial occupation. In the north, the Việt Bắc reached as far as the Chinese border, which allowed for aid in the form of equipment, supplies and troop movement across the border with China. In the northwest, the Tây Bắc bordered Laos, which would provide Việt Minh forces with much-needed shelter when the time arose.
Of great importance was Route Coloniale 4, a highway which connected a string of French forts along the northern border at Cao Bằng, Dong Khé, Thất Khê and Lạng Sơn: remote, hilltop towns surrounded by rugged mountain terrain connected by poor roads snaking through a blanket of jagged mountains. The isolated forts proved difficult bases to defend, the French relying largely on standing armies encamped within the forts as well as the superior build quality and defensive capabilities of the structures themselves.
After working for the Information Office in Hanoi, Huỳnh Văn Thuận joined the National Salvation Youth Union (renamed from the Hồ Chí Minh Communist Youth Union at the time) in the Việt Bắc until 1951. During this time, Thuận contributed to and organised exhibitions, sometimes collaborating with his contemporaries.
Thuận’s First Indochina War series of cartoon illustrations were all made in late-1950 for exhibitions in the countryside to members of the Việt Minh.
Many of Thuận’s paintings in this series point to a decidedly revolutionary intent of riding North Vietnam of French control (figs. 1 and 2).
Other artworks document the importance put on heavy artillery by the Việt Minh (fig. 3), with Thuận repeatedly using the image of an elephant to represent the heavy and powerful heavy artillery guns. Not only a symbolic animal in Vietnamese culture often associated with royal households, elephants also played a large part in Vietnam’s history of war, most famously carrying the two warrior sisters, Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị, into battle against the Chinese in 40AD.
Remarkably, while again using the image of an elephant, Thuận foresaw how the Viet Minh would have to haul heavy artillery cannons over the mountains of northwest Vietnam to battle the French military (fig. 4).
The unexpected transportation and use of heavy artillery by the Việt Minh at the battle of Điện Biên Phủ was one of the ways in which the French underestimated the fighting strength of the Vietnamese forces. It was a key factor in the Việt Minh victory at Điện Biên Phủ and the end of French colonial power in Indochina.
As well as using strong imagery to convey the success and ultimate victory of Việt Minh resistance, Thuận also imbued these paintings with poetic lines of inspiration to better illustrate the images. As well as a sense of camaraderie, these inscriptions also alluded to the “love” the Việt Minh had for their artillery, further reiterating the equipment’s importance (fig. 5).
Thuận went on to work at the Fine Arts Department of enemy operations in Thái Bình until 1954. Again at the centre of the action in Thái Bình, Thuận’s work would directly contribute to General Võ Nguyên Giáp’s Red River Delta Offensive.