Introduction to The Dogma Collection of Vietnamese Propaganda Art
‘Motivating the revolutionary power of the masses’
The Dogma Collection, numbering-over a thousand original posters, is the largest accredited body of original Vietnamese propaganda art in the public domain. The majority of the posters in this unique Collection were created during the fiercest years of the prolonged struggle for national unity, 1960 through to 1974, which encompassed the period of the Vietnam - American War. The balance of the works was created in the following decade, during years which included the conflict with Pol Pot’s infamous regime in neighbouring Cambodia; a brief but furious border war with China, and, within Vietnam, a post-war period of profound turmoil, rebuilding, social experimentation, coinciding with international isolation.
These tumultuous events in the history of Vietnam, set against the backdrop of the Cold War, served to stimulate and maintain a flourishing decade of propaganda art that endured into the 1980’s. The legacy the artists left is a body of work that ranges greatly in theme and style, approach and finish. From the technically accomplished to the splendidly naïve, these images often extend beyond conveying a message, becoming art in their own right. They merit wider exposure and recognition.
The Ministry of Information established a national ‘art force’ in 1957 to serve the propaganda needs of the then Northern 'Democratic Republic of Vietnam' Government and this art force then functioned under its auspices.
Paraphrasing the well known Leninist dogma, the Minister of Information, Trung Chin, declared: 'Art is only real Art if it becomes propaganda'. Thus was born one of the singularly most successful propaganda campaigns in history in which propaganda posters, mainly intended for national purposes, played an essential part.
The Vietnamese propaganda posters often move beyond Socialist political dogma, while still serving the purpose of communicating the Government’s fundamental message to the then predominantly rural and difficult to reach population.
Even if relatively little is known of the artists and of their individual contributions, there is a growing recognition of the works’ particular freshness and spontaneous originality, especially compared to the propaganda paintings of other Socialist countries such as China and North Korea, particularly in the period covered by the collection. The only other comparable works can be found in the extraordinary earlier propaganda art of the USSR or in Cuba where creative Propaganda art flourished, in a spirit of socialist idealism perhaps a little helped by the island not being under continuous bombardment. .
Vietnamese artists created their images under the most appalling environment and conditions. They worked through the horror of the most intensive bombing campaign ever waged and the protracted, bitter land war that lasted two decades embroiling the entire population.
DETERMINED TO BE VOLUNTEER BOYS AND GIRLS - VOLUNTEERS ARE MEMBERS TOGETHER
During the earlier years, the precedence of the well-established Soviet and Chinese propaganda often influenced artists as exampled in Fig.1 in which we see influences rooted in Socialist Utopian Visions of a workers paradise, and feature idealized and stereotypical peasants, workers and students beaming with benevolent confidence often depicted in dramatic theatrical pose. This example has a distinct Chinese character in which the young flag-bearing lady cadre points the way to volunteer and join the party!
VILLAGES AND HAMLETS ARE PEACEFUL AND HAPPY
Influences were also subjective in nature and application as in Fig 2 in this poster dated 17/7/ 1962. A Northern soldier, wearing the distinctive Soviet military hat known as the Ushanka which was also used by the North Korean army, is depicted on solemn guard duty against a simply treated but painterly landscape.
At times one finds individual works which show unexpected characteristics such as in Fig 3 above, with the distinct nuance of a Nazi German era propaganda poster.
Much as external propaganda precedence influenced Vietnamese artists, so did more general illustrative and graphic art techniques already established in Vietnam which had been and were continually taught in the well considered art institutions , especially those of Hanoi and Hue from where a graduate art student travelled North and became one of the most established propaganda artists.
Even as some Vietnamese artists went to the USSR for training , many artists soon moved on from outside sources of inspiration and created their own unique, vigorous, original and direct approach to propaganda art. The pictures use a vibrant, colourful visual and textual language of socialism, nationalism and patriotism that belonged to the time and to the country. These posters are important both as historic documents and in shedding light on the Vietnamese psyche.
'THE SOUTHERN FEMALE GUERRILAS ARE TRULY GUTSY’
Many works are naïve and striking for their power and subjects such as the sharp shooting Southern female NFL fighters depicted firing from boats in the Mekong from a floating sea of lotuses and which are rich in symbolism to Vietnamese viewers,
‘FIGHTING THE ENEMY IS EVERYONE'S DUTY’
The above poster of a woman wearing an NFL arm band whilst fending of a bayoneted rifle whilst about to club her advisory is an example of various themes to be found in the collection that are unique to Vietnamese propaganda painting.
The ‘Vietnamese Voice’ is particularly evident in the choice of subject matter where woman are frequently depicted fighting in the front lines (see Figs.4 & 5), as the heart of the family, or working to maintain agricultural and industrial production while armed. (See Figs 6 & 7.)
‘A MOTHER AND HER CHILDREN FIGHT THE AMERICANS TOGETHER’
‘DETERMINED TO HOLD THE TRANSPORT ARTERIES’
The lotus flower, a symbol of purity, beauty, elegance and sublime nobleness, is a frequently incorporated motif intended to resonate in the heart and mind of the viewer. (See Fig.8.)
‘NOTHING IS MORE VALUABLE THAN FREEDOM AND INDEPENDENCE’ - UNCLE HO
Propaganda art attempts to emotionally engage the viewer in a deliberate and intentional form of purposeful persuasion; we witness courage, defiance (see Fig 9, showing an actual event), vigilance (see Fig 10), and toil (see Fig 11). Emotions are almost always depicted in an idealistic light; intended to convey the merit inherent in self-sacrifice for the cause.
‘DEVOTE ALL OUR SOUL AND STRENGTH FOR OUR SOUTHERN KIN’
'Propaganda to be effective must be believed, to be believed, it must be credible. To be credible, it must be true’.
Hubert Humphrey, Jr. 1911 – 1978 served under President Lyndon B Johnson as the 38th vice President of the United States
‘We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda, it is a form of truth'.
President John F. Kennedy: Remarks at Amherst College, October 26, 1963
‘CELEBRATE THE 3000TH FEAT OF ARMS’.
Celebratory works to mark hard won victories were intended to raise morale. Many mark and celebrate the number of ‘claimed kills’ of US aircraft (see Fig 12). Death by firing squad is equally celebrated and presented as martyrdom, much as one might find in western liturgical tradition. (See Fig13.)
‘REMEMBER MY WORDS: DOWN WITH THE US IMPERIALISTS, DOWN WITH NGUYEN KHANH,
HO CHI MINH FOREVER' - The words of Nguyen Van Troi.
Some works quote Ho Chi Minh and became revered ‘slogans’ that have entered the national psyche of the Vietnamese people. (See Fig 14.)
'THE HUNG KINGS RETAINED OUR HOMELAND - WE TOO MUST TOGETHER RETAIN OUR NATION'
Ho Chi Minh– 1890- 1969
The artists’ challenge
These posters are almost entirely painted in tempera on paper. The paper stock varies greatly in quality and nature. A fascinating aspect of many of these works is found on the back of the posters.
Due to an acute shortage of paper that reached a peak in second half of the 60’s, the Fine Arts School of Hanoi, originally established by the French as the Ecole Superieure des Beaux Arts de I’Indochine in 1925, willingly and enthusiastically donated their life drawing works so the reverse sides could be used for the cause of propaganda art.
The renowned battlefield artist, Colonel Pham Thanh Tam (see accompanying photo below), who sketched on the battlefield of Dien Bien Phu and scenes on the Trung Son or Ho Chi Minh Trail as it is known in the West, recounted that it was not unusual for a life drawing to be recycled to become a propaganda poster, in a close knit spirit of collaboration between student and artist, sometimes even within just a few days.
The shortage of paper also compelled the ever resourceful artists to recycle and use the reverse side of printed posters originating from the Eastern Bloc and North Korea. Among these propaganda works are posters of Lenin, Khrushchev, and a poster for a ceramic exhibition in Prague dated 1962, six years prior to the Prague Spring. Examples of this ‘reverse side’ art can be found in ‘On the Reverse side’ gallery in the Dogma Collection.
The war shortages and very limited printing capabilities compelled the Ministry of Information to appeal to the patriotic fervor of the great majority of teachers, artists and students to aid in the production of propaganda artworks. In many cases they were called upon to reproduce copies. In some cases original designs might also function as maquettes or paradigms to be reproduced, usually with minor differences in both detail and in, at times, but by no means always, in quality, as in the following example Fig 15 – signed by Giang Nguyen Thai, which is dated 9. 61. However, Fig. 16, a close copy, is signed by Pham Khang, and is dated 68.
Some works may be unsigned or clearly identifiable by a group signature such as in the case of Nhom Hoc Hai, Fig 17, which translates as Group Hoc Hai. Others may be signed by a well-known artist such as Pham Hoc Hai himself, as in Fig 18.
The curator’s challenge
Posters provided one of the few effective means for the Government to communicate directly with the predominantly rural population of the country. Many of the art works moved from village to village for brief, impromptu exhibitions. A consequence of which is that most original posters are characterized by some degree of minor to moderate edge damage, and display creases. They often proudly bear pin holes, a testimony of multiple hangings in the roaming temporary exhibitions that were characteristic of the times. Many viewers find that this adds an additional authentic dimension to the rich and fascinating story of these original art works with a mission.
Following the final end of hostilities, economic and social conditions only marginally improved – consequently the works often suffered from poor storage and unskilled handling including the use of adhesive tape on tears, and other home-grown solutions all exacerbated by the humidity of a tropical climate that combines, in some instances, to further contribute to the brittleness and instability of the paper.
In post 1980’s Vietnam, an understandable war fatigue, coupled with a natural eagerness for modernity, led to a passive indifference towards an art form that was also a painful reminder of the decades of struggle. This careless attitude has begun to change in recent times, and there is a growing recognition of the important place the propaganda posters, and the artists who created them, hold within the patrimony and history of modern Vietnam. The renewed interest is of significance, as it has led to research studies being undertaken at the time of creating the Dogma Collection on the part of several museums in Vietnam. These aim to record first hand the personal experiences of the ever dwindling numbers of surviving ‘artist veterans’ of the various wars. This new awareness is a welcome recent development.
It is our intention that the creation of The Dogma Collection on-line virtual gallery will help to stimulate and create permanent international public and institutional awareness of the significance of Vietnamese propaganda art and the decisive and vital role it played domestically and internationally during the decades of war this body of work represents. It is time to recognise Vietnamese propaganda art’s place in one of the most protracted and culturally divisive conflicts of modern times.
Battlefield artist, Colonel Pham Thanh Tam (right), and
Richard di San Marzano, the Curator of the Dogma Collection.