Exchanging Peacetime Images

AS devastated as the country of Vietnam and its people were by the war, they have tried to put it behind them in the quest for recovery. For many Americans, however, the war is still a daily, inescapable issue. At present, there is an exhibition, "As Seen By Both Sides, American and Vietnamese Artists Look at the War," which is touring this country and in 1994 and 1995 will travel to seven museums in Vietnam. During the selection process by members of the Indochina Arts Project in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh C ity, many artists asked, "Why do you want pictures about the war? Why not about our activities and our landscape?" "Next time," was the answer.

"Next time" has come. In August of 1991, one-half of an exchange exhibition between printmakers from Vietnam and North America - not on war - opened in a new gallery in Hanoi. This half consisted of a selection of work by the Boston Printmakers whose membership includes graphic artists from the United States and Canada.

Few, if any, of the viewers in Hanoi had ever seen American art "live," or even in reproduction. They responded with curiosity and enthusiasm. The local newspapers were there in force and radio and TV stations aired reports. Since then, the exhibition has been touring the major cities of Vietnam.

Recently, Vietnamese artists took part in the second half of the exhibit, called "Exchanged Impressions," displaying their work at Emmanuel College in Boston, on what was the first stop in an American tour. The show, received with similar curiosity and enthusiasm, was another first-time experience. Of the 50 prints, many reflect the Vietnamese artists' high degree of skill in the expressive use of this medium.

As is often the case in Oriental artwork, artists are undaunted by crowd scenes. They depict well attended festivals, celebrations, and marketplaces with facility. In his woodcut, "A Vegetable Market," Do Duc reveals his ability to make order out of chaos. On a bold yellow ground are horses, trucks, many huge baskets of produce, and vendors arranging their wares. A skillful simplification of color as the forms recede establishes a sense of the space. Trees, strongly silhouetted, stabilize the composition . Irrespective of the subject, which is undeniably Vietnamese, there is a distinct Asian aesthetic at work in the flat patterns and abstractions. It is amazing how varied the subjects, styles, and techniques can be and still retain that "look."

Humor is a frequent player in Vietnamese art. In "Rain," a woodcut by Nguyen Duc Hoa, exuberant children with palm fronds and huge blossoms for umbrellas frolic in a downpour, while dour, forlorn adults cringe under sacks of rice and bundles of sticks. A delightful plastercut, "Bathing Among the Lotus," by Dang Tin Tuong is a strictly euphoric scene. With an expression of pure bliss, a female nude floats among the lotus, waterfowl, and fish. Her stylized body echoes the fish forms.

Plastercut is a popular and economical medium in Vietnam. Wood there is expensive and rare, especially in large blocks. The artist constructs a wooden frame that he fills with plaster. When it solidifies, he carves the plaster as he would wood and prints it by hand. Plastercuts are often printed on black paper to give the colors a jewel-like quality.

Hoang Khac Thung uses this approach in his plastercut "Water Puppet," a stylized, wooden character from a uniquely Vietnamese art form. In this print, as in the actual performances, a puppet afloat comes alive as he is manipulated at the end of a submerged pole by a clever human in a wetsuit hidden behind a dark screen. The whole ambience of this stylized and lovely performance art is caught in the playful patterning of water ripples and the colorfully clad, floating cast.

A more traditional print is Tran Nguyen Dau's "Peacefulness," a simplified composition in black, brown, and white of pagodas by a river. It is one of those Oriental compositions in which the artist implies air, water, and land by leaving strategic areas of blank paper.

Legends are important sources of inspiration for Vietnamese artists. The challenge of coming up with personal interpretations of oft-told tales is irresistible.

In Nguyen Van Chien's woodcut "Cuoi, the Moon Boy," the boy wears his hair tied in two ears that flop off the top of his head. This hairdo indicates that the print is based on an old folktale, in which the boy is poor and tends a water buffalo.

One day he finds a tiger cub and plays with it until he breaks its leg. As the mother tiger returns, the boy hides in a tree. She takes some leaves from the tree and heals the leg. With knowledge of this magic tree, the boy works wonders in his village - curing all ills, even raising the dead. Eventually, he and the tree ascend to the moon where their shadows are visible to this day.

As in all group shows, not all works are inspired and successful. Many influences are apparent in Vietnamese art. In a museum in Da Nang are housed many sculptures from the Cham Empire, which ruled from A.D. 192 to 1471. These works are reflected in the stylization of the figures in some of these prints. The Chinese invaded Vietnam off and on for 2,000 years, leaving lasting aesthetic ideals. The threads of Thai, Khmer, Indian, and Japanese art contributed to the fabric of Vietnamese visual expression. T hen came French domination that extended to the curriculum and taste of the art schools in the first half of this century. As the French influence recedes, Vietnamese pride reemerges in characteristic themes of daily life, celebrations, and myths.

Exposure to the contemporary, international art scene of the Western world, however, has been just about absent.

In many cases, as shown by this exhibition, being out of touch is a plus. While there are no radical, stylistic breakthroughs, no self-conscious, cerebral gropings for "the new," there are individualistic expressions of great range, skill, and sincerity.

The strength and uniqueness of contemporary Vietnamese art, as seen in "Exchanged Impressions," is its directness, honesty, and heart. These aspects set it apart from its Indochinese neighbors and give it a quality all its own - an earthiness that is insightful, gentle, and humorous. As the society opens up and the global influences enter, it will be fascinating to see what effect, if any, artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, and Anselm Keiffer have on Vietnamese art. Younger

artists especially look forward to broadening their art horizons.

In the meantime, this exhibition has attained its purpose. It has brought us Vietnam not as a war but as a country with a rich culture. The Vietnamese half of "Exchanged Impressions" is expected to tour the United States, although the schedule is still being finalized.

Information can be obtained from the Indochina Arts project (20 Webster Ct., Newton Center, MA 02159), which is cosponsoring the exhibit.

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