Propaganda now, redux

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Old propaganda posters still move viewers with their tales of woe and uplift during the war years


A poster of Uncle Ho at an exhibition of propaganda posters in Hanoi

In a small house on Cua Nam Street, Hanoi artist Tran Mai has been diligently painting propaganda posters for more than 40 years.

Though he never went to art school, his passion for painting and patriotism made him one of the country's go-to guys during the most difficult years of the Vietnam War.

For Mai, it was the American's attempt to destroy northern Vietnam that enabled him to hear his calling.

Since just a few families had a radio at that time, people got their war news from loudspeakers and propaganda posters, which provided information about recent battles to local communities nationwide.

Mai says he worked as a journalist, with the canvas as his articles.

When American aircraft were shot down during the day, Mai would have his posters ready by night and the news would have spread all over town by morning.

No easy chore

Short on supplies, Mai and other painters often lacked colors and paper, but they stopped at nothing to get the word out.

Tran Mai says propaganda posters inspired patriotism and the determination to fight the foreign invaders. He says the art form was one of the factors that enabled the victory for the Vietnamese independence struggle.

"Painting propaganda posters is easy, but it's also very difficult because the art is used for political propaganda, mainly mobilizing people to implement a certain policy of the government. So propaganda artists must be able to generalize, use bright colors, strong, refined, precise words, and their work must containing strong political opinion that is able to leave a strong, convincing impression on the viewers.

He said the content must be clear and pinpoint the big issues.

But the fact that the posters use specific themes and irreplaceable symbols a hammer, a grain of wheat or the flag partially restrain artists' creativity.

New era

During the war years, artists who painted propaganda posters were usually volunteers and their works were certainly not for sale.

And presently, there's far less demand for such works.

"Few people are willing to buy posters to hang in their house, so the only real remuneration artists get are in the form of awards or funding from organizations that commission the work, Mai says.

But that hasn't stopped a younger generation of art lovers from falling for the old propaganda posters.

Some have set up shops in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City to buy, sell and trade the posters, mainly to feed their own personal collections.

Born in 1978, Pham Manh, the owner of Hanoi-based gallery at 25A Ly Quoc Su, has studied the background and history of Vietnamese propaganda posters, and now has a giant collection of the old paintings.

The small, 15 square-meter space, houses 800 paintings including famous originals and reprints such as Mien Nam hoan toan giai phong (The south is completely liberated) and 3,000 may bay My da roi (3,000 American planes crashed).

"Business is not the main purpose of my shop, says Manh.

"As an old-propaganda- poster collector, I opened the store to collect lost, rare paintings and to help people with the same hobby meet and share their passion for these posters.

Manh says that thanks to the shop, he no longer has to go out looking for posters; they come to him, as he often receives visitors looking to sell old posters.

Reliving the past

Manh inherited his passion from his grandfather and father, who brought home all kinds of propaganda posters when he was a child.

"The value of such paintings lies in the time when they were created. The older and more original it is, the more expensive it will be, between about US$200-400.

"Though people have different tastes when it comes to which propaganda subjects they like on the posters, the three main kinds are anti-war messages, everyday life themes and paintings of President Ho Chi Minh.

"Paintings of Ho Chi Minh are the most difficult to paint. Not every artist is able to capture Uncle Ho's spirit.

Manh's most precious collection is his batch of original old posters, including 10 sets with over 100 different paintings. Standing out from the collection is the poster named Tu thu chong Phap bao ve Ha Noi (Standing Fast to Fight Against French for Hanoi), which was painted in 1946.

Foreign friends

Kay Silabetzschky is a German student at the Department of Chemistry at Hanoi National University. But his true passion is old Vietnamese propaganda posters.

"Propaganda posters have great spiritual significance in socialist countries. Vietnamese posters have a different style from posters in other countries.

Kay said that when he visited China, he even sold his bicycle in order to buy an expensive portrait poster of President Mao Zedong painted in 1960.

Unlike many foreigners who look to buy old posters of Vietnam as a souvenir, Kay likes them because he wants to learn about history.

"Through the old posters, I can see Vietnam in the past, and I'm introduced to all the good things behind the war message. Without even studying history books, looking at these paintings I understand what the people did thanks to what's been recorded by the propaganda posters, Kay said.

Kay, who owns 20 old Vietnamese posters, says that life depicted in the art is humble and meaningful. He said the anti-war atmosphere was somewhat cheerful, taking joy from laboring for a cause and daily life.

David Cornish, 28, from the US, who has worked in Vietnam for four months, bought four propaganda posters from the Vietnam War as a gift to his father.

"These are the gifts he wants the most. He was an American veteran during war in Vietnam, but he vehemently opposed the unjustified war caused by the U.S. So, he will be moved to see such posters against the American troops or President Nixon.

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