Fine Art, originating in prehistoric and early historical times, has always closely followed the nation's building and national defence process. Fine Art is one of the first art disciplines that prove the nation's cultural heritage, such as the carvings on the cliffs of Dong Noi cave over 10,000 years ago, belonging to the Hoa Binh culture and the carvings on bronze drums belonging to the Dong Son culture (especially the Ngoc Lu bronze drums) dating back 2500 -2000 years. Next is the architecture: wooden statues and reliefs in communal houses, pagodas, temples in Vietnamese villages, mausoleums in ancient capitals, tomb house statues in Tay Nguyen, and stone statues and reliefs in Cham architecture. There are also Dong Ho and Hang Trong folk paintings and colourful ceramic mosaics in Hue. Those ancient visual arts are a great source of spiritual nourishment and creativity for future generations of Vietnamese artists.

I wondered how artists preserved and developed that nation's precious ancient capital to bring a new look to contemporary Vietnamese fine arts. Let's return to the French colonial period, which dominated Vietnam's Economy, Politics, Culture and Society. The French influence is found in many places, especially the big cities like Hanoi and Saigon. However, traditional art retains its identity in the villages and has developed along the old path. A new step forward in fine arts started with fine arts training. France recognised the "golden hands" of Vietnamese artisans, so they immediately organised exhibitions called "dau xao", such as the Hanoi Exhibition (1887), International Exhibition (1888 – 1889), and Paris Exhibition (1990). From the results achieved through these exhibitions, the colonial government opened several vocational schools to practice handicrafts for students and native craftsmen, such as schools for sculpting and making wooden furniture in Thu Dau Mot (1901); pottery and bronze casting vocational school in Bien Hoa (1903); and Gia Dinh drawing school (1913), but the need for an art school following the "European" model became increasingly urgent. Vietnamese Contemporary Art was recognised when the Indochina School of Fine Arts was established in 1925. From this school, a generation of painters, architects, and sculptors was born who absorbed Western techniques and visual materials and created many valuable works that are both nationalistic and modern, opening a new era for Vietnamese fine arts. Entering the modern era in the first half of the twentieth century, Vietnam had comprehensive and profound changes in politics, economics, and socio-culture. Vietnamese culture gradually changed to conform to Western civilisation, which aligned with the cultural exchange between Vietnam and France. However, traditional and cultural values were preserved during the transition to modern Vietnamese Art to protect the nation's identity. In the early 20th century, oil paintings by artist Le Huy Mien and then artist Thang Tran Phenh appeared, but it was not until 1925 that the Indochina College of Fine Arts was born, where art forms using Western methods emerged. New artistic methods were broadly introduced, from design and drawing layout to oil painting materials, utterly different from traditional methods. This period was a significant turning point in the history of Vietnamese fine arts, an important milestone marking the change in style. Traditionally, art forms were created by anonymous artisan collectives to decorate palaces and temples, but newly recognised forms of art were starting to be composed by individuals and famous artists. From this time forward, the emphasis moved to individual artistic endeavours, allowing artists to express their outlook on the world.Hanoi Museum preserves nearly twenty artefacts in the Indochina fine arts style. These precious bronze works of art, including artefacts made at the once-famous Hoang Xuan Lan foundry, such as the bust of a Vietnamese girl, are still being reproduced and sold in the French market today.

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Bronze bust of a Vietnamese girl.

The collection of artefacts represents themes about nature, the country, and the people of Vietnam, proving a strong national character and expressing the closeness of the people. These artistic features are represented through the images of the buffalo and the plough, shepherds herding buffaloes: older men with bare feet, wearing conical hats, and holding baskets in many different positions. In particular, the image of Vietnamese women has always been an endless source of inspiration for Vietnamese visual artists in general and artists of the Indochina Fine Arts period in particular, shown in many compositions: the image of a seaweed woman devoted to farm work, pictures of village girls carrying water and finding crabs; Women with their heads wrapped in crow's beak scarves, dressed in four-piece dresses, or portraits of women. In addition to real life, we can also see images of monks sitting in meditation positions, expressing their spiritual life and spirit that ancient artists skillfully included in their works.

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Bronze statue of a monk meditating.

All of their faces exude the austerity of everyday life. Their facial features and overall appearance are balanced and depicted, demonstrating sophisticated sculpting techniques that have reached their peak through the hands and creativity of artisans, portraying Vietnamese society realistically.

A Frenchman, Governor-General of Indochina, Paul Doumer, in his memoir "The Land of Indochina", also commented on the craftsmen of Tonkin: "The craftsmen of Tonkin are hardworking and skilled. They succeed admirably in jobs that require meticulousness and sophistication. They have good taste, and some of them are real artisans. Bronze smiths, goldsmiths, enamellers, embroiderers, sculptors, and mosaicists have earned a well-deserved reputation. They were not craftsmen imitating foreign art; the craftsmen created An Nam art, with their patterns and decorations".

Indeed, the ancients have a saying, "You can't make bricks without straw". Vietnamese artisans said that no matter how we absorb or transform it, we can only leave an impression if we don't have a solid root. During the Indochina Fine Arts period, they skillfully applied the theory of Western Art combined with their creativity and skilful hands to create "spiritual children" that will last forever. They have created vivid images and artefacts that linger in the memory. When recreated in the work, they become streamlined, profound, and flexible images in the overall structure. Looking at the Indochina Fine Arts works, we can see that the techniques of the artisans of this period were very skilful because we had a foundation of ancient, brilliantly developed sculptural art, especially during the Dong Son Cultural period.

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Statues of Indochina fine arts at the Hanoi Museum.

Through many changes and integration with the world's fine arts, Vietnamese artists have succeeded in absorbing, applying and transforming the quintessence of human culture to enrich the nation's culture. The 12 works still maintain their actual value when displayed at Hanoi Museum and introduce the nation's citizens and international friends to a golden age of national fine arts. I want to borrow the words of art researcher Thai Ba Van to replace the conclusion: "Art does not have one thing that erases the other like people can erase a missing tape to overwrite the sounds on it. On the contrary, the shaping of memories always seems to linger, lingering on the face of a work's shape, lines, and colours".


 Kiều Phương - Ngọc Hòa