December 1950: Phan Kế An paints “Remembering the Northwest”

By the end of 1950, North Vietnam had politically and militarily stated their absolute intent to rid the country of French colonial rule. Hồ Chí Minh declared the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) as the only legal government in Vietnam. Aided by their communist allies in China, the Việt Minh were increasingly armed with modern weapons as well as supplied with rations and equipment. More than that, the border with China in autonomous Việt Minh areas like the Việt Bắc and the Tây Bắc allowed for DRV soldiers to receive military training in order to build a more organized army to fight French forces.

Phan Kế An, along with other artists like Huỳnh Văn Thuận and Tô Ngọc Vân, had spent years in the Việt Minh-controlled northern regions, and drew great inspiration from his time there. In this realist painting created when he went to war as a special envoy for the Việt Minh, An depicts the northern territories with startling accuracy.

Figure 1: Phan Ke An, “Remembering the Northwest”, courtesy of Báo Thanh Niên.

The painting “Remembering the Northwest” (Nhớ Một Chiều Tây Bắc) (fig. 1) was immortalised by poet Đoàn Việt Bắc in his poem of the same name. Later, the poem was accompanied by music from the famous composer Vũ Thành. These honorifics, coupled with the painting’s peaceful impression – a troop of presumably Việt Minh soldiers hiking confidently through the mountainous countryside under the warm light of a setting sun – would have reflected the growing optimism of the time. The French fort at Lào Cai had fallen the previous month, the last in a string of strongholds that signified French dominance along the northern border. As experienced by Tô Ngọc Vân, the liberation of Lào Cai, and the northern French fortifications, in general, was a great boon to the Việt Minh cause.

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