Picture from the front

(No.7, Vol.2, July 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Decorated Hero, Nguyen Van Dung, watercolour on paper, by Huynh Phuong Dong, in 1963, 46 cm x 78 cm.

For those with an interest in art and history, behind the iron gates of a beautiful cream-painted villa with boughs of overhanging red bougainvillea and in a quiet alleyway, there lies hidden treasure. Open to the public by appointment is a private collection of currently some twenty high-quality prints of paintings and drawings, some rarely or never seen before by the public, made by Vietnamese artists who witnessed the battles and lives of soldiers and civilians in the struggles against the French and American armies. The aptly named Front Line Gallery is in the area known to many as the Ghetto as it has a high proportion of resident foreigners. It is behind Lam Son Square, with its-top end hotels and the Municipal Opera House, at 8A/9C Thai Van Lung Street.
If you decide to investigate you will be met by the curator, Mr Richard Asinari di Marzano, himself a trained and practising artist. He is on hand to give you a guided tour and provide fascinating background and detail. He was at pains to tell me of the difficult and dangerous conditions under which these combat artists worked. They were present at famous battles such as Khe Sanh and Dien Bien Phu and worked the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They were fortunate survivors as, as with all sections of the army, the Literature and Arts division of the armed forces lost a high percentage of its members. Given the absence and impracticability of heavy camera equipment where they worked, their pictures serve as important historical documents. ‘Over here, for instance’, says Richard. ‘We can see the soldier has a rifle of Japanese manufacture and the girl in this one is brandishing arms captured from the Americans.’ One picture poignantly shows a commander surrounded by soldiers demonstrating a new tactic by drawing in the earth. ‘We know that the strategy being discussed here was afterwards successful,’ Richard said.
All of the four featured artists survive. They are Le Lam, born 1931, perhaps Vietnam’s greatest living artist, Colonel Pham Thanh Tam, one-time Director of The Military Museum, Hanoi born, 1932, Nguyen Duc Tho, born 1945, and Huynh Phuong Dong, born 1925. From this small group and a score of pictures issue a wide range of styles, themes and materials used. There is never a dull moment in Vietnam. There is such variety in its scenery, food, peoples, street scenes, and you name it. As in Vietnamese life so in Vietnamese art. There is just one overtly propaganda poster, reflecting Russian influence. Many pieces show clear influence of French impressionism. One painting seems to have Chinese characteristics while one of a young woman, ao dai-clad shooting at the enemy in the street from the back of a motor bike might have been, as Richard suggests, inspired by the female James Bond cartoon character of the period, Modesty Blaise. Many of the paintings are watercolours but there are also two pencil sketches. There are portraits of male and female soldiers in action as well as soldiers celebrating a wartime Tet. Symbolism is evident in one picture as leering GIs pass by a young Vietnamese woman in a long pure white dress. Whilst the pictures served their purpose of inspiring combatants and civilians sympathetic to the cause in their time they have universal appeal and speak to our time too. For this reason they are works of art and not just mere period pieces of propaganda.
Whilst entry and the services of Richard as guide are free, two hundred prints of each work were made. You are under no obligation to buy any of these limited edition prints but if you do they cost between 30 and 120 dollars each. The proceeds from sales go partly to the artists themselves and partly to fund The Mekong Artists Group. I should add that there are plans and space to add to the collection, so you may see more than I did. Those interested in pure Vietnamese propaganda art and in the work of Le Lam and Colonel Pham Thanh Tam will find much to view and read in an Internet based gallery linked to Front Line called the Dogma Collection.
If your interest has been aroused in the art produced during Vietnam’s years of armed struggle through visiting well known museums such as the War Remnants Museum you could do well to spend an hour of your time at Front Line. Not only does this gallery promote hitherto unseen works but it attempts to raise some well-earned income for the chroniclers themselves, now in their twilight years.
For a viewing please telephone Richard on 090 253 1648
The Front Line Gallery, 8A/9C Thai Van Lung, District 1 HCMC
For information on website gallery email info@dogmacollection.com

Communications Soldier Lieu, Dong Thap, pastel on paper, by Huynh Phuong Dong, in 1968, 48.5 cm x 31 cm.

To Liberate, watercolour and tempra on paper, by Le Lam, in 1968, 78 cm x 49.3 cm.

Binh Gia Battle Plans, watercolour on paper, by Huynh Phuong Dong,
Photos: The Front Line Gallery

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