Icons, or at least the iconic image of a strong, skilled and dependable National Liberation Front (NLF) or People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) soldier, were important models for Vietnamese war artists working on behalf of the northern Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).
Nguyễn Ðức Thọ used such iconic soldiers often. Recorded as Nguyễn Văn Bế (fig. 1), an anti-aircraft platoon leader based in Quảng Trị, Thọ described how this soldier had already fought “over 1,300 battles in the 7th Battalion,” a by-product of the infamous 312 Division that originated under the Việt Minh and fought in the decisive battle at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954.
In the period between 1970 and 1975, Thọ made various excursions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to artillery units based in Hai Phong, Hạ Long and Quảng Trị Province, as well as Khan Muon Province and Savannakhet Province 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 soldiers who were well respected 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, Thọ was assigned a reliable and skilled soldier to protect him, as he did not carry weapons of his own. These bodyguards were invaluable in negotiating areas renowned for landmines and unexploded cluster bombs. Thọ was usually sponsored by the Vietnam Fine Arts Association and the General Department of Politics 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. His works were also published in the People’s Army Newspaper (Quân Đội Nhân Dân).