Discussing the biographies of artists working for the People’s Army of Vietnam from 1946 to 1979
In the three Indochina Wars fought between 1946 and 1979, official and unofficial war artists were used by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) to document the conflicts and provide artistic services in aid of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). Their presence in the army was also a source for bolstering morale, providing indispensable exhibitions and teaching workshops that acted as necessary contributions to resistance activities. In some cases, artists simply went out of their way to ensure messages were delivered to families, friends and loved ones.
“Being a painter, I saw what many people could not see, including journalists.” – Bùi Quang Ánh
As part of the PAVN and the National Liberation Front (NLF), war artists contributed to a range of military outfits designed to fight a dynamic guerrilla war. Like their peers involved in successive resistance movements, they were highly mobile, dedicated and resolute in their pursuit of eventual independence. Although open to the dangers of war – even ready and willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice – they approached the field of battle largely without weapons, instead equipped only with the materials they needed to exercise their specific craft. However, while certain artists were conscripted soldiers, others acted under the various departments of the DRV government, a difference that only serves in making the stories of war artists more fascinating.
In a series of in-depth interviews conducted by Witness Collection from 2003 through 2018, former PAVN artists divulged the realities of their lives and careers during the Indochina Wars, explaining their voyages into art and the nature of their roles as artists. These rare accounts expose a largely unconsidered dynamic throughout Vietnam’s wartime history: the existence and inherent value of war artists.
War artists came from a variety of backgrounds, which suggests that they filled their roles based on a balance of commitment to the resistance cause, individual skill and a specific desire to pursue art. In some cases, artists came from surprising backgrounds. Phan Kế An (fig.1), who joined the Việt Minh in 1945, came from a family that in the West would be considered aristocratic or at least upper class . Dương Hướng Minh (fig. 2) was born in 1919 into a family of intellectuals. Bùi Quang Ánh’s maternal grandmother had made her fortune selling incense sticks along the Yangtze River in China.
Others were not so fortunate. Although the majority of wartime artists remember extremely difficult economic times due to the effects of colonialization and war, a number grew up in poverty and hardship. For first generation war artist Tô Ngọc Vân (fig. 3), while his paternal family was urban bourgeoisie, his maternal family came from poor Confucian scholars who lived off small trade. He started work at a young age. From age six onwards, Vân lived as an adopted child with his grandmother and aunt because of his parents’ poverty. He was poorly treated and only permitted to meet his parents a few times a year.
Trần Hữu Chất (fig. 4), so indentured during his childhood in rural Vietnam, grew up without accurate birth records as a result of French colonial rule and the Japanese occupation of 1940. In spite or even because of his father’s position with the imperial court when he was born in 1943, Phạm Lực was raised in poverty by his mother in Hà Tĩnh, his family shunned due to his father’s position in Huế.
And yet, it is clear their backgrounds largely determined their inclination towards an artistic career. Thái Hà (fig. 5), born in the famous lacquer commune Tân Hồng, was surrounded by the artistic medium from a young age, taking the opportunity as a boy to visit lacquer artisans and learn their techniques. As further evidence of the strong influence such an environment had on him – any child for that matter – Hà’s elder brother, Nguyễn Như Aùi, also became an artist later in life.
Some artists undoubtedly took their inspiration for pursuing art directly from their parents. According to Bùi Quang Ánh, his father drew over 2,000 paintings of Vietnamese customs, a body of work that would likely have made a great impression on Ánh. Without any formal art education, Lê Huy Toàn (fig. 6) undeniably learnt some of his artistic skills from his father, who was a portrait painter. It is also safe to assume that Toàn’s participation in various other creative disciplines including singing, dancing, playing music and drama were encouraged by his father, allowing him to expand his creativity in ways others may not have been able. PhạmLực, who fostered an early artistic talent and drive, took the subject matter that would dominate his paintings later in life from his mother, who used to sit as his model when he painted as a young seven years old.
Perhaps parental encouragement was of the greatest value in permitting young Vietnamese to practice and pursue art. Having moved home twice before settling in Hanoi by 1952 at 12 years’ old, Nguyễn Ðức Thọ (fig. 7) was allowed to take extra-curricular art classes after displaying an interest in drawing as a young boy. Without realising it at the time, his classmates included others that would come to be revered artists from that period, most notably the fine artist and prolific teacher of art, Phạm Viết Song.
In the same way that family stood as an important motivating factor for pursuing art, more often than not family also instilled in future war artists a sense of revolutionary passion. Particularly for those artists who grew up with young parents during the 1940s and early 1950s, life regularly involved resistance activities. Examples of families helping the Việt Minh, the NLF and the PAVN are common: offering houses as hiding places for troops and loot, donating materials and supplies to troops, living in resistance zones and working for the resistance in various capacities.
This direct exposure to resistance life invariably led to a number of war artists taking part in resistance activities at a young age. Stories abound, but none as extraordinary as Nguyễn Thanh Minh’s (fig 8) accounts of his time as a messenger for the Việt Minh when he was just 13 years old. In 1947, Minh was sent to stay with his uncle Nguyễn Văn Cam, bí thư (secretary of the party) of the commune at the Vĩnh Lợi revolutionary base in Bình Dương Province. He was tasked by his uncle with delivering documents and mail. As a messenger, Minh crossed French roadblocks at night, often moving with others his age between villages and using fireflies kept in glass jars tied to their backs as torchlights. This was dangerous work. If found out by French forces, children participating in these missions faced certain interrogation and potentially execution. It required young teenagers with gall.
Trịnh Kim Vinh (fig 9), also at the tender age of 13 years old, joined the August Revolution in 1945 where she held many positions of responsibility including Youth Union leader and Commune Woman’s Commissar. She was charged with eradicating illiteracy; potentially a daunting prospect for someone so young during wartime. Trần Hữu Chất (fig 10), once again only 13 years old, was assigned to Kỳ Anh Commune’s Information and Propaganda Office in 1946, where he wrote propaganda slogans that were printed by the Hà Tĩnh Province Information Department. Phạm Thanh Tâm, slightly older at 16 years old, was assigned a post in the Culture and Information Office in Hưng Yên Province. His work there consisted of producing wall paintings praising the resistance movement as well as subterfuge propaganda aimed at intimidating French units stationed nearby.
Once of eligible age, most artists enrolled into art college (the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine or the equivalent, depending on the era), first graduating an intermediary course before taking a diploma in fine art.
Certain artists had the advantage of further foreign education. Lê Lam (fig.11) initiated the DRV government policy of sending Vietnamese art students to the Soviet Union as the first artist to study propaganda art techniques at the National University of Fine Arts in Kiev between 1958 and 1964. He was only surpassed by Thái Hà, who travelled there in 1955 to study art design at famous cinema schools such as Maxim Gorki,
Phạm Đỗ Đồng (fig. 12), on his return to Hanoi in 1964 from the National University of Fine Arts in Kiev, was fast-tracked onto the diploma course at the Vietnam Fine Arts College without taking the intermediary course. Along with Trần Hữu Chất, Đồng also benefitted from studying in China. Although government-sponsored programmes, students sometimes enrolled by the military itself, selection for
It is during and after their diploma course education that we notice a definitive split between those who became artists under
Phạm Thanh Tâm (fig. 13) encapsulates an artist that worked for the PAVN and its sub-divisions. Tâm joined the Việt Minh in 1950, before he enrolled in the Vietnam Fine Arts College, and was posted with 351 Artillery Division to work for Quyết Thắng newspaper as a journalist. With this division, Tâm was sent to China for weapons training, hiked from China through the Tây Bắc to northwestern Vietnam and fought at the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ. In his sketches (fig. 14), journal entries and propaganda art (fig. 15) from this time, it is understood that Tâm’s role, first and foremost, was that of a soldier – albeit one with a keen eye, an artistic talent and the presence of mind to document his experience of war. During his education at the Vietnam Fine Arts College, which he started in 1963, Tâm volunteered for the front in South Vietnam during a period of escalation in the Second Indochina War. He was given permission to write and paint from the Khe Sanh battlefield under the qualification of an artist working for the National Liberation Front (NLF). Tâm retired from the army in 1989 with the rank of Colonel.
In contrast to Phạm Thanh Tâm, Bùi Quang Ánh (fig. 16) displayed a less rigid connection to the armed forces. Both artists were contemporaries who studied at the Vietnam Fine Arts College only two years apart. Ánh, an art student the product of numerous instances of private art tuition, private extra-curricular art classes and little in the way of a resistance upbringing, was dismissed from the Vietnam Fine Arts College a year before his intended graduation. Enamoured with Western artists Cezanne and Picasso, constantly experimenting with Western styles such as Cubism, he angered many of his teachers including the principal Trần Đình Thọ. In spite of this disagreement, Ánh was seen as a real talent with great promise and therefore sent by the college principal to work for the Ty Cultural Department (Ty Văn Hoá) in Lạng Sơn Province – an assignment that Ánh maintains was a plot to expel him from Hanoi, permanently.
However, after making a name for himself in Lạng Sơn Province, Ánh went on to cover the Second Indochina War with considerable artistic freedom facilitated by good credentials. He worked for the political arm of the General Department of Logistics, making numerous trips along the Ho Chi Minh Trail between 1968 and 1975. The body of work he produced during the Second Indochina War offers some of the best insights of the conflict spilling into Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. At one of Ánh’s exhibitions in
While quite a number of other artists took the non-military route into becoming war artists contributing to the DRV cause, a deeper interest arises in the select few who became well-regarded artists in spite of a certain outspokenness against the DRV government. In the case of the legendary Tô Ngọc Vân, heated arguments with the Party General Secretary Trường Chinh resulted in his referral to a re-education camp (figs. 17 and 18). Their argument at the 1948 NationalConvention on Art and Literature focused 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.
Similarly, Nguyễn Sỹ Ngọc (fig. 19) was sent to a re-education camp (figs. 20, 21, 22 and 23) from 1956 to 1959 for his participation in the journal Nhân Văn. In it, Ngọc was seen as acting against the Communist Party’s policy to limit freedom of speech. However, despite his political leaning, Ngọc won the 1951 and 1954 National Fine Arts Exhibition.
Regardless of their artistic affiliations, one common denominator among all artists was their exposure to the real dangers of war. Malaria was of particular concern, especially during the Second Indochina War when most artists made multiple trips back and forth along the jungle-infested Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many artists succumbed to the disease leaving them too weak to carry their packs, to infirm to walk and forcing regular hospital visits for recuperation.
The threat of death was always close by. Artists regularly infiltrated behind enemy lines on assignments and captured images and subject matter that would have been considered highly classified at the time. If caught, they would have suffered the same fate as their soldier compatriots. In the early stages of the First Indochina War, Phan Kế An’s sketches and stories of North Vietnam’s indefatigable leader Hồ Chí Minh in good health and humour while leading the resistance in the Việt Bắc would have been vital intelligence to French forces. The photographer Lê Minh Trường (fig. 24), during the Second Indochina War, not only followed soldiers behind enemy lines (fig. 25) and into front line
Not only valuable documentarians, their roles as war artists often led to positions of considerable responsibility. On numerous occasions, artists were seen as invaluable teachers, charged with creating art classes in resistance zones. In his highly productive life as a war artist, Tô Ngọc Vân taught scores of young artists including Văn Đa, Lê Lam and Thái Hà. As verification of this type of work, Thái Hà went on to establish three art classes in southern liberation zones Bến Tre, the Mekong Delta and Cà Mau during the Second Indochina War (fig. 26). With one exception, it is remarkable that so many artists survived all three Indochina Wars.
Their survival, however, came from the value attributed to them by the PAVN and the DRV government rather than just good fortune. If not posted on assignment under the protection of a particular division, or part of the division itself, artists were allocated a soldier for protection. Nguyễn Ðức Thọ called them “bodyguards,” indispensable for an artist like Thọ who never carried his own weapon (fig. 27). Often soldiers with years of active experience, they also proved invaluable in negotiating areas littered with landmines and unexploded cluster bombs, particularly prevalent during the Second Indochina War after hundreds of American bombing campaigns. In the case of Trần Hữu Chất, artists, professors, intellectuals and specialised professionals were recalled from the South due to the number of deaths suffered after the Tết Offensive of 1968. This order was given solely to protect those involved in the arts and sciences.
Artists distinguished themselves from the soldiers they relied on based on the equipment they carried (fig. 28). Except for on occasion being issued a pistol, artists were weaponless, which in turn meant they did not carry ammunition or military equipment. This did not mean, however, that they carried lighter loads. In fact, artists often quoted carrying packs ranging from 30 to 50 kilograms in weight. Bùi Quang Ánh even noted that sometimes he had so much art equipment that he needed a tricycle to transport it. Phạm Đỗ Đồng was also lucky in obtaining art supplies, using his contacts in the NLF, the Central Committee Propaganda Department for the South and the Logistics Regiment for procuring oils and other materials. Although, these were rare occurrences due to the general scarcity of art supplies.
Instead of a run on ammunition, artists frequently scrounged for and improvised art materials, relying heavily on goods imported from the Soviet Union, China and the German Democratic Republic. During the First Indochina War, Trần Hữu Chất painted on banana leaves coated in lime or charcoal for public propaganda posters due to the scarcity of paper and ink.
In 1965, while studying at the Vietnam Fine Arts College during the heightened American bombing campaign over Hanoi, materials were so scarce that Nguyễn Thanh Minh used Cuban sugar sacks as canvases for oil painting. When the college was evacuated to Hiệp Hòa-Bắc Giang (near Đành Market), paints were made by the college itself.
Various substitutes for different colours in the field proved remarkable and somewhat ingenious. While on assignment, Nguyễn Ðức Thọ used iodine (thước đo) to make the colour red and ground quinine pills (thuốc ký
Ingenuity in sketching and painting, however, paled in difficulty compared to developing photographs in the field. Lê Minh Trường made a name for himself for developing his photographs on location. By carrying chemicals and china plates in his backpack, Minh used the jungle’s natural gloom as his darkroom, washing his prints in nearby streams. Vietnamese photographers did not have access to telephoto lenses, which Minh overcame with bravery instead of ingenuity – by being as close to the action as possible (fig. 30).
A final thought: many
In conclusion, war artists were a valuable asset to the PAVN and DRV government. Whether affiliated with the military or not, their roles and propagandists, documentarians and even ambassadors of sorts played a huge part as a binding agent for resistance forces. While not active in the sense of a conventional soldier charged with defence and attack, their assignments largely placed them in situations that were comparably strategic and dangerous. Their presence on the battlefield was treated with respect and the work they produced as propaganda, exhibited art or documentary evidence even more so.
REFERENCES AND FOOTNOTES:
 The First Indochina War fought in resistance to French colonialism; the Second Indochina War waged against the Republic of Vietnam and US alliance; the short but bloody Third Indochina War fought on the border with China.
 Witness Collection divides these artists into First, Second and Third Generation artists. First Generation artists were influenced by the ÉcoleSupérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine and were the generation to cover the First Indochina War against French colonial rule. Second Generation artists were taught at what was then called the VietnamFine Arts College and began their careers as war artists during the second Indochina War against the Republic of Vietnam and the United States. Third Generation artists
 Photographer Lê Minh Trường often sent photos of his subjects home to their families for support.
 Predominantly those considered foreign to the DRV: the French Far East Expeditionary Forces, the US Military and the People’s Liberation Army of China.
 A sample of targeted questions: Did your family background encourage you into the field of art? What were your earliest memories of
 Phan Kế An’s father, Phan Kế Toại (1892-1973), was the personal envoy to Tonkin of the last Emperor of Vietnam, Bảo Đại, the Minister of Home Affairs (1945-1955), andDeputy Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) from 1955-73.
 Interviewed at his home on Thợ Nhuộm Street, Hanoi, on 31 August 2006 by Witness Collection
 Many signed interviews with Bùi Quang Ánh from 2003-2018 at his home in Ho Chi Minh City by Witness Collection.
 Several informal interviews from 2003-2005 at the artist’s home in Ho Chi Minh City by Witness Collection. One formal interview at his home on 29 May 2004 by Witness Collection.
 Bùi Huy Triều (1911-2004) a native of Gia Lộc District, Hải Dương Province. He worked as a secretary for the French tax base in Vietnam from 1940 to 1945 and later a member of the Communist Party of Vietnam. At the out break of the First Indochina War, he became chairman of the administrative
 Lê Huy Toàn was a skilled toymaker. He exhibited his toys in an exhibition in 1977, concentrating on submarines, trains, tanks and planes. Jessica Harrison-Hall, Vietnam Behind the Lines, Images from the War: 1965-1975, 2002, Art Media Resources Ltd, Chicago.
 Phạm Lực’s experience of living along the Lam River in Hà Tĩnh, nurtured his artistic love of capturing women and working people. His paintings would come to be defined as often honouring women by levitating them beyond their natural position in Vietnamese society below men. It is widely regarded that his respect for women stemmed from the love he had for his mother.
 Multiple interviews from 2003-2016 conducted by Witness Collection. Extensive hand-written notes about
 Phan Kế An’s father hid loot taken from Việt Minh skirmishes at his residence. Many of these skirmishes involved Phan Kế An himself.
 Nguyễn Ðức Thọ’s mother donated bundles of fabric to Việt Minh forces in preparation for the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ. His family also donated three bicycles to the Việt Minh, important and valuable commodities for the army as a basic means of transporting goods and equipment. (Interview conducted with Nguyễn Ðức Thọ by Witness Collection on 30th July 2018 at his home in Ho Chi Minh City).
 Nguyễn Thanh Châu, at just 16 years old, joined the resistance following his father who was an official in the war against the French. Phạm Đỗ Đồng’s parents worked for the DRV Construction Department in Hanoi, a lead architect who directed building on the South-North railway network. His mother, originally a midwife, worked for the medical department of Đại Từ District, Thái Nguyên Province. Đồng spent the majority of his childhood living in a resistance camp in an unnamed forest in Đại Từ District, Thái Nguyên Province, where he studied basic subjects like how to read and write. Nguyễn Thanh Minh’s grandfather was village head (Hương Cả). His mother cooked for resistance soldiers, forming an association of support called“Mothers of the Soldiers.” His mother was later awarded the title of “Vietnamese Heroic Mother” (Bà mẹ Việt Nam
 Known as the Vietnam Fine Arts College after 1954 and the Vietnam Fine Arts University after liberation in 1975.
 Other artists sent to the Soviet Union to study art included Phan Kế An (1960-1962), Nguyễn Thanh Châu (1960-1964) and Phạm Đỗ Đồng (1960-1964).
 Phạm Thanh Tâm’s harrowing journal of his experience during the final months of the First Indochina War is published in book form: Phạm Thanh Tâm, edited by Sherry Buchanan,
 Other war artists followed careers similar to Phạm Thanh Tâm. Nguyễn Ðức Thọ served as a scout for a PAVN 122mm cannon artillery regiment, went to the
 Bùi Quang Ánh’s first paintings collected by the Vietnam Fine Arts Association were from an exhibition he held in a cave in Lạng Sơn Province.
 On the recommendation of his brother-in-law.
 Nora Taylor, Establishment of Indochina Fine Arts College and painting policy in colonial Vietnam, 1925-1945
 National Geographic: Vietnam’s Unseen War, 2009, National Geographic.
 Just under 50 kilometers from Saigon.
 Tô Ngọc Vân died on 17 June 1954 at the 14th kilometre of Bà Khẽ beyond the Lũng Lô pass in the Tây Bắc region while on a live sketch assignment. He was made into a national hero.
 Lê Lam noted that he carried a pistol for protection.
 Bùi Quang Ánh’s work for the Cultural Department and the Political Department of the General Department of Logistics sponsored him well, allowing him to accumulate a good amount of art supplies.
 Informally known as East Germany.
 Povidone-iodine, an antiseptic used for skin disinfection.
 A medication used to treat malaria and babesiosis.
 Interview conducted by Witness Collection with Nguyễn Ðức Thọ at his home in Ho Chi Minh on 30 July 2018.