Vu Duy Nghia has become one of the notable Vietnamese artists who blends local art with movements from the Soviet era.
Since the end of the Cold War, while art historians around the world have been reassessing the legacy of Socialist Realism in Eastern Bloc countries, the contributions of Vietnamese artists who spent time in the Soviet Union from the 1960s to the 1980s have been somewhat overlooked.
Within Vietnam, historical texts recognise the great influence that the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine has had on the first generation of Vietnamese modern painters, but there is little discussion of the impact of a Soviet education on a group of Vietnamese painters during the period following independence and reunification.
This tribute to Vu Duy Nghia is an eye-opener for anyone who might think that the so-called Soviet era did not produce great art. Beginning with his paper cuts, through to his lacquer paintings and works on paper, Nghia was a prolific artist whose work cannot be reduced to one style or movement.
Traces of Soviet and European realism can be found in his prints of factory workers and farmers, but mostly his oeuvre is poetic, expressive, beautiful, and complex. His work is also deeply patriotic and direct.
Professor Nora A. Taylor from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago said, "It is rare to find artists with his skills in paper cutting. This art form requires the ability to envision in both an abstract and a realistic manner, to see both light and dark simultaneously, and outline and content together."
"Through this medium, he created some dramatic landscapes with large black shapes that accentuate the darkness of the sky, for example, the sharp thorns of a cactus, or the wrinkles of an elder’s face. He translated some of these same images into colourful prints, gouaches, and lacquers, but with colour, the theatricality turned to poetry. The same boats became light floating vessels, and the cactus turned into a flower," he added.
His talent for line emerges, especially in the prints that he made during the war. The bodies of soldiers and labourers appear strong and tenacious. In the post-Doi Moi era, art historians have been understandably focused on the future of Vietnamese contemporary art and the new generation of artists. But, it is important to recognise the talent and contributions of Nghia’s generation to the development of modern and contemporary art history. Nghia, and others who studied in Socialist bloc countries, did so out of necessity, patriotism, and a desire to learn.
During the Cold War, there were few opportunities for artists in Vietnam to travel outside the Soviet Bloc. These stays infused Vietnamese art with a cosmopolitan flavour that strengthened the artists' ongoing commitment to modernism.
"Nghia is an example of how looking outward towards international art movements enhanced Vietnamese art rather than diminished it. The vivid, expressive faces on the figures in Nghia’s portraits might remind one of Soviet portraits, but under Nghia’s touch, they are undeniably Vietnamese," Taylor noted.
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