5 Minutes with Specialist on Second-Generation Vietnamese Artists Lived Through Turbulent Times

The modern and contemporary art market is booming, as is evidenced by record-setting masterpieces by artists like Zao Wou-Ki, Sanyu and Wu Guanzhong that sold for whopping prices. What will be the next rising force in the Asian art market?

Bonhams believes that we should be paying close attention to Vietnamese artists. We have invited Wang Zineng, Bonhams’ Head of Modern and Contemporary Art, Asia, to take us into a world of the second-generation Vietnamese artists.

Wang Zineng, Bonhams’ Head of Modern and Contemporary Art, Asia

Nguyen Sang’s Young Girl by Lotus. Eggshell and lacquer on wood panel. Signed and dated 1978

Nguyen Phuoc’s Three Noble Ladies.Oil on canvas. Signed and dated 1981

Wang: The title of this exhibition is The Next Wave because we want to bring people’s attention to the second generation of the Vietnamese artists, who can be a rising force in the art market.

What do we mean by ‘second generation’? Here it refers particularly to Vietnamese artists born in the late 1920s to the 1940s. They lived through the turbulent times of Vietnam and spent most of their lives there, different from the first generation who could travel to Europe or America. This generation of artists lived through a time that didn’t allow them to be a full-time artist. Some of them were painting while they were soldiering. Perhaps that’s why their art focuses a lot on people.

Hoang Tich Chu’s Capture of a US Prisoner of War. Eggshell and lacquer on wood panel, quadriptych. Signed and dated 1969

A closer look at the painting

A closer look at the painting

A closer look at the painting

This 1969 painting here, Capture of a US Prisoner of War by Hoang Tich Chu, one of the earliest born artists of the second generation. It depicts a scene of war where the Vietnamese forces of the North captured a US soldier. You can see everyone is very happy and you can see their smiley faces. And the soldier on the left carries a lamp, guiding people to the unifying direction. It is a painting which would have been relevant to its audience at the time. The white colour pigment is made by eggshells, which shows an interesting contrast in colours and texture. 

Nguyen Thanh Binh’s Landscape. Lacquer on wood panel, triptych

A closer look at the painting

A closer look at the painting

Most of the artists at the time went to the famous art academy called The École des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine in Hanoi, which was built by the French. The school trained the first generation of Vietnamese artists and the earliest batch of graduates went to study in France while the second-generation artists mostly stayed in Vietnam. Due to the situation at that time, they didn’t get the chance to paint in a studio.

Lacquer painting is a very special type of Vietnamese art, which is not painted on canvas like most artworks that we see. It is very durable and characterised by the colour red. This piece created by Nguyen Thanh Binh captures the autumn scenery and the natural beauty of Vietnam. It was very typical for Vietnamese artists at the time to live in the rural landscape and paint while on the move.

Bui Xuan Phai’s Countryside. Oil on canvas laid down on board. c.1960

Bui Xuan Phai’s Happy New Year Chúc mừng năm mới. Watercolour on paper. Signed and dated 1984

Vietnam was liberated following the end of the Vietnam War and the reunification of the North and South Vietnam. You can feel the optimism of these artists on the economy opening up, as well as the country opening up to the world. Artworks created during this period are in a different spectrum. Their earlier works are more about the social situation. But you can see the changes in this period where artists could express their sentiments and thoughts.

For example, the famous artist Bui Xuan Phai led a very poor life and he painted on all sorts of things he could find, like newspaper and newsprint etc. This 1984 painting, Happy New Year Chúc mừng năm mới, featured a man in a suit in the centre surrounded by two rats. You can feel the joy and hope conveyed in this painting which celebrates the year of the Rat. Even though the artist was living a tough life, he still had hope for the future. The 1980s was a time where a newly-liberalised and open economy brought forth a joyous spirit and artists started to have more freedom on their art creation.

Nguyen Trung’s Fisherman Family. Oil on canvas. Signed and dated 1980

This kind of spirit is also reflected in this work by Nguyen Trung, one of Vietnam's foremost abstract painters. When he painted this figurative work, he didn’t just paint a fisherman family. He actually painted with a certain message. You can see in the painting that the child holds a peach on her right hand while the mother is carrying a basket full of fish. It conveys the auspicious message and hope of bringing prosperity in society.

Nguyen Trung’s Ochre Gate. Mixed media on canvas. Signed and dated 1997

Nguyen Trung’s Lady. Oil on canvas. Signed and dated 1980

Besides the 1980 painting Fisherman Family, we also present Ochre Gate, a 1997 abstract painting by Nguyen Trung. By looking at these two works, you can see a shift from figurative to abstract style that the artist went through. To Nguyen Trung, abstract painting is some kind of representation of reality – the reality of the mind. Paiinting is not about the colours or composition. To most second-generation Vietnamese abstract painter, their paintings reflect their spiritual beliefs. 

Nguyen Sang’s Family. Ink and gouache on silk. Signed and dated 1957

Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm’s Ancient Dance. Lacquer on wood panel. Signed and dated 1994

The paintings that we present this time are owned by private collectors from Hong Kong, Singapore, Switzerland and Australia. Many of these works were acquired in the early 1990s when more people lived and worked in Vietnam, or to do business there. They got a chance to know more about these second-generation artists and appreciate their works.

We believe these second-generation Vietnamese artists have what it takes to be the next rising force in the art market in Asia. We hope to bring people’s attention to these talents and their great pieces through this exhibition at Bonhams. 

The Next Wave | Modern Vietnamese Art

Period: Now until 24 January 2020
Venue: Bonhams Hong Kong gallery
Address: Suite 2001, One Pacific Place, 88 Queensway, Admiralty
Opening hours:
Mondays to Fridays|10am - 6pm