In popular memory, the brilliant graduates of the famous colonial fine arts college in Hanoi and “masters” of modern Vietnamese painting are men.
They include the great quartets “Tri-Van-Lan-Can” (Nguyen Gia Tri, To Ngoc Van, Nguyen Tuong Lan, Tran Van Can) and “Sang-Lien-Nghiem-Phai” (Nguyen Sang, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Bui Xuan Phai).
There have been rare woman exceptions, such as Le Thi Luu, who migrated to France and, along with three talented male compatriots - Le Pho, Vu Cao Dam, and Mai Trung Thu - made up the center of the Vietnamese-French school in Paris.
Today female artists remain far fewer in number, and Suzanne Lecht, art director of Art Vietnam Gallery in Hanoi, blamed it on social expectations and roles.
Women are already too busy as wives, mothers, and caretakers of the extended family in addition to working to have time for individual art practice, she said.
Dinh Thi Tham Poong, whose works are being exhibited at Art Vietnam Gallery, said out of 25 students in her graduating class at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts only six were women, and not all of them remained in the art field after graduation.
Poong said she did the best that she could, painted with care and was able to make a living out of her paintings.
“People often label this or that exhibition a woman painter’s exhibition, but I don’t care to be identified as such,” said Poong, whose exhibition titled “The Destination of An Oblique Line” will run until this 26th.
Poong said though viewers might see women in her works, they were not her preoccupation.
What she is interested in are nature and love and misery and every other human emotion in between.
“Before we talk about our being male or female, we have to talk about our being human,” the 46 year-old ethnic artist from Lai Chau Province said.
Poong’s themes at the exhibition are indeed diverse, though the image of women recurs beautifully.
There are paintings about natural scenes and Sword Lake, experiments with geometrical lines and shapes, and ceramic and embroidery works.
For what it’s worth, however, Poong’s handling of the female image is both tender and tough, showing women who look fragile yet strong, concrete yet abstract, reflecting the Chinese philosophy of Yin-Yang in which there is masculinity in feminity and vice versa.
Floating Courtyard, for instance, is a beautiful work in which ethnic women with strong, round, full figures perform their familiar daily chores like carrying babies, spinning, bathing or are simply sitting.
In white and blue and surrounded by yellow leaves and flowers, these women and their domestic world take on an abstract, transcendental quality that is often the preserve of men in patriarchal cultures and is nicely contrasted by the darker orange brown of the earth under their feet.
Poong’s women seem to be able to find the middle ground between the hard, gritty world of domestic or otherwise earthy tasks conditioned by natural necessities, and the transcendental, which she often represents with the motif of a slightly cloudy blue sky contained within the contours of a male body (women, in contrast, appear in their more solid, earthier, more colored clothes).
I Think As You Do is another intelligent work. It shows a man sitting chin in hand in the familiar position of the male thinker with his blue-sky shadow by his side. The woman stands up, which makes her more physically active, but she too has a blue-sky shadow of her own. In this portrayal, she is clearly his intellectual equal.
And it is in the direction of the woman’s eyes that I Think As You Do changes from human figures to lines, from oil paint to embroidery, from one plane of expression and representation to another. Whatever this other plane, or “destination”, is, the woman is positioned in such a way that we feel it is she who mediates between different worlds and leads.
This is a far cry from the image of the woman as a sexual object, stripped of mind and identity, raped, murdered, disembodied or otherwise distorted, a site of projected male fantasy and experiment that can be observed in the works of the surrealist master Rene Magritte, who Poong said was a major source of inspiration for her.
Magritte saw with his mind’s eye, representing not the apparent, visible, or real but the evolutive, not what is being but what will be, she said.
Unlike Magritte and the male-dominated Western art tradition which often achieves male ideals at the expense of women, Poong, living in a different time and place, gives women their due: a wholesome image in terms of both mind and body.
Le Kim My’s ongoing “Everyday Stories” painting exhibition at L’Espace features not the female image but various subject matters gleaned from daily life. Yet the woman artist herself makes a compelling portrait.
As she gave a short speech at the opening of her first ever solo exhibition, the 70-year-old painter, who used to teach at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts for 30 years, was too moved to speak.
The soft-spoken daughter of the late master of lacquer painting, Le Quoc Loc, was deeply thankful to her teachers and to the fact that she is still healthy to make things happen.
Created since 2010, the many skillful lacquer and silk paintings of various sizes showcased at the exhibition reveal rigorous effort.
Le Kim My, a long-time painting teacher who at 70, is having her first solo exhibition. Photo provided by Le Kim My
My said her joy in painting and daily life is endless: She can be inspired by anything from a bottle and a vase to scenes she encounters everyday around her while on the way to work or to a street market.
Her birthplace Hanoi, both old and new, with its innumerable motorbikes and cars today, is also an endless source of inspiration.
Hanoi’s streets indeed are a major theme of her works, though there are also natural images and pictures of rural and ethnic life.
Painted with sketch-like brushstrokes, the varied untitled works reveal an urgency to capture all the minute and seemingly unconnected inspirations that life has to offer.
The artist said she put equal effort into every detail and work. But her lacquer paintings stand out, revealing confident formal experiments with the medium.
Some lacquer works look abstract and spontaneous, the result of the artist’s attempt to play with the medium itself by letting images change or form according to the complex, arduous process of painting, rubbing and polishing that is lacquer painting.
The postmodernist tendency to de-emphasize content and extol experimentation with the medium has become a bit too self-conscious, repetitive and tiring.
But the medium of lacquer painting, which is a truly painstaking process, seems to deserve the spotlight here. After all, whatever they mean to the uninitiated, those smooth color blotches on My’s lacquer paintings require much rubbing.
Both My’s formal experimentation and the abstract, intellectual elements in Poong’s works seem to point to an effort by contemporary Vietnamese women artists to move beyond what Lecht described as “classic feminine concerns”.
They are the more intimate and emotional themes related to a female artist’s own world and to women’s tendency to nurture, give and preserve life.
Two woman artists’ exhibitions in Hanoi
1. Dinh Thi Tham Poong’s “The Destination of An Oblique Line”, Art Vietnam Gallery, 24 Ly Quoc Su Street, from February 26 to March 26
2. Le Kim My’s “Everyday Stories,” L’ Espace, 24 Trang Tien Street, from March 1- 30