|An Artistic Legacy|
Words by Jonathan Jones
A wiser man than me once said, “To experience life to the fullest we sometimes have to pause and look up.” That’s a fine sentiment, but easier said than done in a city like Hanoi, when there is so much going on at street level that it can be near fatal to avert your eyes from where your next footfall will be.
Stumbling around the old quarter though, dodging mopeds and weaving among a multitude of bodies perched on row after row of miniature plastic stools, is precisely the place where we should stop and gaze around us. Time slows in step with our actions, allowing us to view the hectic panorama around us in a new light. The variety of buildings and architectural designs give clues to the city’s recent past and the years begin to fall away. We can see the unique Vietnamese character of the houses and shops, as well as the varying influences of the French and Chinese. Tiles, decals, windows and balconies all serve to tell this historic tale. They are a reminder of what has gone before and, like the enticing dust jacket of a novel, these architectural features draw us to what lurks inside, the content that each of them hold. When that building is home to an art gallery you have the opportunity to enjoy the results of an artistic legacy that stretches back 10,000 years.
The discovery of the Bac Son wares proves that pottery has been made in Vietnam since the Stone Age. During the Neolithic era manufacturing expanded into decorated ceramics, and by the Bronze Age the country saw an explosion of creative energies that produced art, textiles and musical instruments featuring geometric patterns and scenes of everyday life. With the coming of the Chinese in 111BC, new techniques from the east were fused with the original native methods. After a thousand years of this foreign rule, independence led to a further evolution in art. By then, religious influences from Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism had all made their mark on Vietnamese culture, and this was reflected in many of the new designs. Around the time of the building of the Hanoi Temple of Literature in the 11th Century, Vietnamese ceramics were already seen as the best in Asia. Within three hundred years, though, the Ming Dynasty arrived in Vietnam and within two decades had swamped the existing native culture.
It was not until 1802 and the coming of the local Nguyen dynasty that the country was truly able to forge a new artistic identity with its ceramics and porcelain. Within a relatively short space of time, further outside influences would come to bear and Vietnam’s modern art movement began to use the European techniques of Impressionism and Cubism with their own local materials, such as silk and lacquer. It was this bold use of color and openness to new ideas that was to place Vietnamese artists ahead of their counterparts in China and Japan for the next century. Fast forward to today and that vibrancy and depth of color still persists, easily accessible for all to see in the art shops of the old quarter, and art galleries and museums dotting the city. Larger concentrations of well curated galleries can be found in the areas of Trang Tien Street west of the Opera House, and around the crossroads of Hang Gai Street and To Tich Streets, near Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter. The National Museum of Fine Arts at 66 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street also has its own gift shop and art sale room. The contemporary artists featured in many of these galleries understand the connection through the disparate ages and are bringing the various strands together to reflect Vietnam today. Historical images are still popular, as are wistful portrayals of women dressed in the Vietnamese national dress the ao dai, but there is also an edgier and more innovative art scene beneath the surface.
Due to political restrictions, western collectors were slow to become aware of the burgeoning pool of talent here, but that all changed when the Singapore branch of Sotheby’s auction house began to offer paintings by Vietnamese artists in 1997. By 2006 word had spread about the investment possibilities of Asian art and a 1938 work by Le Pho (1907-2001) using ink and gouache on silk entitled Nostalgie sold at auction for $300,000. While buying for potential future profit can prove lucrative it is not recommended as the main reason for purchasing a painted canvas, as the art market is as fickle as any other and, perhaps more importantly, the industry is mainly unregulated. What that means is that it should not matter if the work you want comes with a legally meaningless but none-the-less impressive sounding ‘exclusive rights certificate’ or something similar; rather, let your desire for the artwork itself be what drives you to open your wallet and not the chance of monetary gain further down the line. That is one of the prime benefits of taking the time to pause and look up; the financial packaging that suffocates so much of what we value today fades away and we can see what something is truly worth to us.
What that something is depends, of course, on your tastes and who you are. But ultimately it is almost irrelevant whether it is an authentic Le Pho or a mass-produced graphic art poster from the 1970s, for it’s your choice and in art above all else, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
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