November-December 1953: Tô Ngọc Vân’s Re-educational Pilgrimage

Towards the end of 1953, Tô Ngọc Vân was sent to live in a re-educational camp in Ninh Dân village in Phú Thọ Province just over 110 kilometres northwest of Hanoi. He lived with the villagers and painted pictures of their struggle against landlords. This government-imposed assignment reflected Hồ Chí Minh’s Stalinist ambitions for equal redistribution of land between the poor in rural populations. Listed as point number seven, “Carrying out Agrarian Reform”, in the Lao Động Manifesto, Hồ Chí Minh highlighted the importance of land reform to:

“improve the living conditions of the peasants and to mobilise the majority of the people, that is, the peasants, to participate actively in the armed Resistance, to increase production and ensure supplies.”

The Manifesto and Platform of the Viet-Nam Lao Dong Party, Supplement to People’s China, Vol. III, No. 9, May 1st 1951.

By 1956, 13,500 landlords and reactionaries would be murdered. At the time in 1953, for Vân the assignment would produce some of his more notable works in a series that was later exhibited to high acclaim in North Vietnam.

Figure 1: Tô Ngọc Vân, 20 Novemebr 1953, “Anh Tân (Mr Tan).” Ink on machine-made paper.

It is uncertain why Vân was sent on a re-educational pilgrimage, but there are clues. Vân was outspoken on the subject of propaganda art. At the National Convention on Art and Literature in 1948, Vân had engaged in heated debates with then Party General Secretary Trường Chinh on the topic of whether propaganda paintings could be considered works of art. These debates highlighted Vân’s lukewarm acceptance of the principles of revolutionary ideals and social realism in art. While unquestionably a patriot, it is also true that Van devoted his life as much to art as he did to his country and the opinions he expressed at the National Convention on Art and Literature aimed at defending art itself rather than his homeland. His dedication to art and artistic culture was no less apparent during his time as director of the Central Fine Arts College in Phú Thọ Province (1950-1951), having been documented as leading students on walks through the countryside and ruminating on the works of Millet, Courbet, Monet and Renoir in relation to the rural Vietnamese aesthetic. This juxtaposition as both soldier artist and artistic romantic neutralises Vân’s image as simply a revolutionary Viet Minh soldier.

At the re-education camp, Vân befriended ‘Mr Tan’ (fig. 1), presumably a member of Ninh Dân village in Phú Thọ Province. Vân’s connection to the villagers also allowed him to paint intimate reproductions of their houses. Vân painted the interiors of houses belonging to Mr Bẩm (fig. 2) and Bử Thắng (fig. 3).

Figure 2: Tô Ngọc Vân, 10 December 1953, “Nhà anh Bẩm (Mr Bam’s House).” Ink and watercolour on machine-made paper.
Figure 3: Tô Ngọc Vân, 15 December 1953, “Nhà Bử Thắng (House of Bu Thang).” Ink and watercolour on machine-made paper.

Original authentic works of Tô Ngọc Vân are extremely rare to encounter in Vietnam. Although collectors purport to come across many works by Vân in Hanoi, independent research discovered that a large number of “Tô Ngọc Vân” works were produced in the late 1990s and early 2000s, long after the artist’s death in 1954, to satisfy demand in the market. These included student drawing studies that were signed as being by the hand of Tô Ngọc Vân. The works featured here were acquired by Ambassador Teucci[1] in Hanoi in the late 1980s at a time when there were no illicit reproductions in the market.


[1] The Italian Ambassador to Vietnam.

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