July 1974: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ Attends a Party Cell Meeting

In the period between 1970 and 1975, Nguyễn Ðức Thọ made various excursions along the Trường Sơn Road (better known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) to artillery units based in Hải Phòng, 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 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).

Figure 1: Nguyễn Ðức Thọ, 15 July 1974, Ngọc Mountain, Hàm Rồng, Thanh Hóa Province. “Đại hội chi bộ C4 anh hùng; 15/7/74; Ng duc tho (Festival of heroic chi bộ (cell of party) C4; 15/7/74; Ng duc tho).” Gouache and ink on paper.

In multiple interviews from 2003 to 2018, Thọ described how he attended a party meeting in an underground tunnel (fig. 1). Contrary to his usual dedication to propaganda art, Thọ remembered that, when he saw sunlight streaming in through a cavity in the side of the bunker, he chose to paint this image purely for its colour. The painting was subsequently exhibited as “low level propaganda”, though Thọ explained that was never the intention behind its creation.

The meeting itself was an important one. Located on Ngọc Mountain in Hàm Rồng, Thanh Hóa Province, the meeting – comprised of the 4th Party Cell – aimed at discussing how best to defend Hàm Rồng (Dragon’s Jaw) Bridge against US bombing raids. Thọ described the bunker where the meeting was held as a trench half sunken into the ground near the A. A. Company heavy artillery installation. The roof was made with one metre of earth to protect it from enemy shelling.

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