Nguyen Van Phuong and the Eternal Spring

by Long Nghi

Source: "Young Talents" magazine, No. 66 – Jan.25, 1999

Phương's art world is a splendid parade of Vietnamese culture, rendered in a distinctive style featuring selective traditional techniques and his inspiration from life in the old days, which sets him apart from other contemporary Vietnamese artists. The spirit of his paintings can be traced back to his childhood and adolescent years, with the tumultuous historical background of Northern Vietnam during the first half of the 20th century.

The country was thrown into great confusion when the French colonists arrived, especially after the Patrenôtre Treaty in 1884, which officially defined the whole country as a French protectorate. An era of French cultural importation began. In the North, waves of profound changes took place in the beginning of the 20th century, culminating during the 1930's, in every aspects of life: education, literature, fine art, life styles, etc. In literature, a movement of French-style romantic prose was developed at the same time with a so-called neo-poetry movement that promoted free-style poems, liberal ideas and individualism. In painting, a generation of artists from Indochinese Fine Arts College, established by the French in 1925, developed new styles and new materials, laying the foundation of modern Vietnamese fine art. Several French schools were set up, producing generations of people with new mindsets, new thoughts, new sentiments, new ideals and ambitions. Some people, particularly younger ones, tried to emulate the French in their ways of greeting, speaking, dressing and so forth. At that time, men with Western-style short hair in European suits were readily seen among those with traditional buns in traditional tunic clothing (áo dài). Some women gave up traditional hair styles (hair was usually wound around the head with a cloth string) for new fashions such as letting hair down freely, hair perming, etc. Some people stopped dying their teeth black, although this new practice was considered to be shameful for white teeth looked "as horrific as those of pigs,” as more conservative people mocked. Conflicts escalated between the old and the new, the foreign and the traditional, the old and the young, the urban and the rural.

Over time, social changes became more sophisticated, evolving from creative modification of traditional values blending with Western trends. One example was the reform of women's traditional dresses in Hanoi in 1930s. Gradually, young Hanoian women replaced their conventional skirts with wide-leg pants. In 1935, an artist named Lê Cát Tường from Indochinese Fine Arts College created new styles of áo dài (traditional dresses) called áo dài tân thời (modern áo dài). Most details of áo dài tân thời were borrowed from contemporary European dresses, only the traditional front and back flaps remained. However, in 1939, áo dài tân thời rejected some borrowed details and revived some conventional features. Now they looked perfect and almost similar to the áo dài Vietnamese people wear today. Nevertheless, they were much criticized at that time. Ladies wearing áo dài tân thời were considered to be of easy virtue.

Growing up in that transitional Hanoi, Nguyễn Văn Phương witnessed the day-to-day changes and turbulence that have ever since haunted his life and painting career. In his world of art, he vividly revives Hanoian life in the 1930s and 1940s. Conflicts of the changing society can be recognized in such paintings as Spring Flowers. On the right of the painting are two city girls wearing áo dài tân thời and fashionable European hair styles, buying flowers in an open-air market. On the left is a rural flower-selling girl in traditional outfit, winding her hair with a cloth string (the red one around her head) while forming a small lock of hair in a traditional style called chicken's tail, which looks similar to a short ponytail arranged on one side of the head (depicted above the red cloth string in the painting). Seller and buyers give disapproving glances at each other, all with their faces up and their bodies moving away from each other in presumptuous manners. In older times, rural villages were the centre of Vietnamese life. However, during this period of time, city life began emerging as a new ideal.

For this eccentric artist who lives in dreams more than in reality, time has stood still since the early 20th century. Whether in real life or in paintings, Phương's preoccupation remains stubbornly faithful to those old days. A member of a generation graduating from one of the early French schools in the colony, he now still wears old-fashioned suits everyday even in the hottest weather, puffing a tortoise-shell pipe. No one is supposed to know where he lives, but he visits friends any time without advance notices, always bringing flowers. And in his paintings, he gathers a large collection of Vietnamese cultural traditions, from festivals to old customs and habits, old-time people and old ways of living. Sometimes, he paints streets and buildings, all of which are either images from his memory or now designated as cultural heritage sites. He paints recurring subjects – Lunar New Year Festival (Tết), Village Festivals, Green Tea Shops, Flower Markets, Rice-Field Farmers, Flowering City Streets, etc. – with a bright, colorful palette dominated by reds and yellows, exuding the expected splendor of his old golden age. Even pieces portraying working-class people, like Green Tea Shop, Draining Water and Carrying Rice, are beautified with a cozy village background in radiant sunshine, upon which people are carrying about their daily routines in a leisurely manner, holding a relaxed conversation.

Phương maintains a consistent style true to the spirit of his time – a refined and distinctive combination of Western and Eastern techniques. Although he never went through formal art training in schools, he started studying drawing and painting techniques academically when he was a little child. Therefore, he possesses advanced and precise drawing skills. In general, he follows Western standards of constructing human figures and other objects and paying attention to the difference between background and foreground. Yet, he is willing to disregard certain Western principles in favor of traditional ones wherever he feels appropriate. When depicting peasants, like in Carrying Rice, he draws hands and feet that are unproportionally big compared to the torsos, revealing the coarse and awkward nature of these people. This approach fits the traditional art principle of depicting whatever more important bigger in size. Another noteworthy characteristic of his paintings is his use of black contours to define every subjects, from human and animals to houses, trees, furniture, reminding us of traditional Vietnamese Đông Hồ-Style paintings. More remarkably, he uses the same raw, uniform palette for every painting. He is quite obsessed with the so-called five colours (white, green, black, red, yellow), a notion closely related to the Eastern philosophy of the five basic elements called wu xing (metal, wood, water, fire, earth). Wu xing is in an ever-changing state, with each element constantly transforming into the other, representing the circle of creation and termination – the nature of this universe. "When you comprehend this philosophy, you understand my world of colors," Phương said. "In some cases, the West and the East do not concur on how to create harmony." He boldly juxtaposes contrasting colors and uses a strikingly raw palette. "Every color, like every object, can transform." Just like the five basic elements can define the whole world, he reduces his palette to only raw, yet important, colors – those selected by women of old days to dye their outfits, as worn by human figures in his paintings – to make his subjects look "natural and lifelike," as he put. Looking at Phương's paintings, some people think he was influenced by Mattisse and Fauvism. But he retorts, "Why don't we think to the contrary that Matisse was influenced by the East?"

His bright colorful world of art appropriately portrays the vibrant life of the old time without evoking nostalgic feeling, making it real and timeless. In old days, although most Vietnamese people were poor and had to work hard in rice fields to earn their living, they held frequent festivals starting in Spring and throughout the year. Yet, whether depicting traditional festivals or normal everyday life, his paintings are overwhelmed by the same happy and festive atmosphere. Blooming flowers are always present, from Tết Market to Still Life to Green Tea Shop, as if spring never ends in his art world. And from festival-goers to street vendors and rice field workers, the same smiling faces and cheerful, easy-going manners are rendered. In Tết Flower Market, not only the leisure buyers but also the flower-selling country girl, in the right corner, looks fully engaged in festive activities. The bright yellow of her blouse – the royal color – gives her the dignified air of a blessed lady as she looks straight at an approaching man. In Green Tea Shop, we encounter the same country girl again, in a more mundane setting of a sidewalk tea booth. Yet, she appears as celebrating as in the other painting, with the same regally yellow shirt and relaxed confidence. Her male customer reveals a similar feeling of festivity, dressing in red from head to toes. A few casual brushstrokes on the characters' clothing, as well as a uniformly patterned background, bring more focus on the main subjects. The even spread of light in these paintings spare no space for anything other than joy. From one painting to another, springtime and its happiness prolong, just like the artist's golden age may last forever.

A talented artist, Phương showcases a rich cultural legacy in his world of art. As time goes by, many traditions have been left behind, yet dexterously resurrected in his paintings for generations to learn about the soul and spirit of an unforgettable historical period of time that may still have implications today.