Immersion V, an oil painting on canvas by Tran Van Thao
Abstract painter Tran Van Thao talks sparingly about his art. He says, in fact, no one should try to interpret abstract works for others. He has 10 paintings on show at an exhibition called “Bong chim” or “Immersion”, which will open October 25 in Ho Chi Minh City, but none of them even have names – they only have numbers in serial order.
“It comes down to every person’s individual way of looking at abstract art and interpreting it in their own unique way,” the 52-year-old Saigon native says.
Any interpretation of abstract works in an exhibition or art publication limits the imagination of beholders, he says, citing a recent example.
Galerie Quynh, where his exhibition is on, is also organizing an exhibition of his works titled “Rain in the Sunlights” at the city’s Sofitel Hotel Plaza to mark the 15th year of his career.
In a press release issued by the gallery, Thao said about his exhibits: “When we close our eyes, we see shadows of the infinite, disorientation, profound depth… not just the literal meaning of shadows.
“And when we open our eyes, we see many things: sun and wind, air, objects, people… This ‘eye-opening’ moment can occur at any time, in any mood, can ‘catch’ any subject, can recall any atmosphere.”
But a newspaper report about the exhibition labeled blue and yellow, two of the main colors used in his works, as metaphors for rain and sun in tropical Ho Chi Minh City.
“Rain and sunlight are not the only inspirations for my paintings,” Thao says.
“There are many things that happen in a day causing various emotions in us, and so to say that the paintings reflect only rain and sunlight is inadequate.”
Immersion reflects his repressed emotions and his happy relationship with his silk painter wife Mai Xa and two beautiful children, he allows reluctantly. It features oil and acrylic works on canvas, and will run until November 22 at Galerie Quynh Downtown, 151/3 Dong Khoi Street, District 1.
Thao’s works have found their way into many private and public collections, most notably the Post Vi Dai Art Collection (Switzerland), the Vietnam National Art Museum in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum, and the Singapore National Art Museum.
Regarded as one of Vietnam's most accomplished artists and a pioneer of the abstract movement in Vietnam, he belongs to an influential group of painters who rose to prominence in the 1990s following the introduction of doi moi (Vietnam's open door economic policy) in 1986.
He graduated from the city’s University of Fine Arts in 1986 and for a dozen years was a conventional artist.
Initially his mother supported him thinking that painting would be an “easy job [for] my health condition” but in reality it turned out to be a difficult one “due to my passion, especially with the introduction of new, heavy materials.” The reference to health condition related to his polio-withered left leg.
Thao was drawn to the American abstract art movement, and in 2002, with a Starr Foundation Fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council, he worked and lived for four months as an artist-in-residence in New York the same year.
He had not intended to become an abstract painter.
“I was not taught the art, and from what I know, it is still not taught in Vietnam,” he says.
“Art students only learn ‘traditional’ art with figurative and recognizable representations.”
After several years of doing realistic works, one day he discovered that they were no longer able to express his emotions and ideas.
“A painting is similar to a question or a problem that I need to find the answer for. So, when the traditional, old method no longer works, we painters should look for others.”
Thao says he does not create deliberately but paints whatever takes his fancy. “I did not categorize them as abstract paintings until people told me that they were.”
He has traveled extensively in Asia, Europe, and the US in the past 15 years and taken part in many exhibitions around the world, including at the Tropical Museum in the Netherlands, Fujita Vente Art Museum in Tokyo, the Metropolitan Museum in Manila, the Philippines, Meridian International Center in the US capital Washington, Wallonie Brussels Center in Belgium, Pusan Metropolitan Art Museum in South Korea, and the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
HISTORY OF ABSTRACT ART
According to bluepage.org, abstract art is typically in two styles: forms that have been ‘abstracted’ and inspired from nature but depicted in such a manner that they no longer reveal a predictable reality, and subjective, or ‘pure’ abstract art forms, which have no reference to reality to begin with.
Much of the art of earlier cultures – signs and marks on pottery, textiles, and inscriptions and paintings on rock – were simple, geometric, and linear forms which might have had a symbolic or decorative purpose. It is at this level of visual meaning that abstract art communicates. One can enjoy the beauty of Chinese calligraphy or Islamic calligraphy without being able to read it.
Although abstraction has always been an essential process in the creation of art, it was not until 100 years ago that the term “abstract art” was born.
At the turn of the 20th century, French artist Paul Cézanne (1839 – 1906) had come to the conclusion that reality is in the eye of the beholder and different for everyone.
“With this seemingly simple theory he opened up a whole new approach for artists: works of art ought to reveal the artist’s personal vision, his/her interpretation of nature or ideas, which can be very different from established conventions and traditions.
Cézanne broke with the established theories of perspective, tilted his plates and tables, mixed foreground with background, and in his last works, he almost dissolved his subjects into patches of vivid color.”
Inspired by Cézanne, Russian artist Vassily Vassilyevich Kandinsky (1866-1944) declared in 1910 that the real nature of painting was dynamic brushstrokes of expressive colors on a flat surface, and did the first fully abstract painting. He published books about how colors can change our mood: the effect of forceful reds, uplifting yellows or soothing cool blues, and compared their influence on our soul with the effect of music.
In Vietnam, painter and poet Ta Ty (1922-2004) is credited with painting the first abstract works and holding the first abstract painting exhibition in the country in 1961 in Saigon. The Hanoi-born artist was originally influenced by cubism before he turned to abstract art in the 1960s.