Compare to other Asian countries, it is not so long since Vietnamese art in general as well as contemporary Vietnamese art in particular, emerged from unrecognized one to the world's art picture. It is safe to say that what has enabled Vietnamese art to survive through an aggregate thousand-odd years of foreign domination is its way to digest foreign influences and incorporate their quintessence into her own culture. In these days, when speaking about an identity crisis in Asian art; Vietnamese art has become a center of attraction.
Vietnamese art has a long and rich history, the earliest examples dated back at the Stone Age, around 8,000 BCE. With the millennium of Chinese domination starting from the 2nd century BC, Vietnamese art undoubtedly absorbed many Chinese influences, which would continue even following independence from China in the 10th century AD. However, it has always retained many distinctively Vietnamese characteristics.
Throughout the ages…
Pottery made from clay has been found in Bac Son, Vietnam at the Stone Age (approximately 8,000 BCE). Moving into the Neolithic era, however, Vietnamese pottery and ceramics started to develop rapidly, showing signs of decor.
The highly developed Dong Son culture that flourished in North Vietnam (from about 1,000 BC to the 4th century BC) was the civilization responsible for the world-famous Dong Son drums - the product of their advanced bronze-casting skills. They were elaborately decorated with geometric patterns and most importantly depicted scenes of everyday life such as farming, warriors donning feather headdresses, construction of ships, musicians, etc.
During the ten centuries of being ruled by the Chinese, Vietnamese began to apply newly learned Chinese techniques to art and specifically ceramics, however, this was in conjunction with the continued production of art based on native methods.
From the Ngo to Tran Dynasty, the ceramics were thought to have been largely influenced by both ancient native styles and the Tang and later Song dynasty's art, including the "three colors" concept. Furthermore, Chinese - influenced philosophies adopted by the Vietnamese such as Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism, had a lasting impression on Vietnamese art.
The Ly dynasty in the 11th century is viewed specifically as the golden age of Vietnamese art. The Ly dynasty began the construction of many of Vietnam's landmark structures, including the Temple of Literature, One-pillar pagoda, and Quynh Lam pagoda.
The fourth Chinese domination of Vietnam was quite short-lived, lasting only about 2 decades, yet, it was also seen as the harshest domination. A majority of classical Vietnamese books was burnt, thus, much documentation is lost. Consequently, much of the art in this period was heavily influenced by the Ming dynasty's art.
The Nguyen dynasty, the last ruling dynasty of Vietnam, has a renewed interest in ceramics and porcelain art. Yet, despite the high development of the performing arts such as imperial court music and dance, some other fields of arts as beginning to decline during the latter part of the Nguyen dynasty.
Beginning in the 19th century, French artistic influences significantly Vietnamese art. By the early 20th century, many French art institutions such as the Fine Arts College of Indochine were erected in Vietnam which taught European methods. Modern Vietnamese artists began to utilize French techniques with many traditional mediums such as silk, lacquer, etc., thus creating a unique blend of eastern and western elements.
It is believed that in prehistoric times, Vietnamese people lived in stilt-houses, as depicted on the bronze Dong Son drums. When Chinese influence permeated Vietnam, its architecture had a large influence on the basic structure of many types of Vietnamese buildings, mostly pagodas and temples, communal houses, houses of scholar-bureaucrats, aristocracy and imperial palaces and quarters. Nevertheless, these structures combined both Chinese influences and native style: more sombre and muted with different colors and materials.
One of the most notable architectural structures is the Temple of Literature . The Temple is a series of courtyards, buildings and pavilions with the stone steles. These steles are placed on top of stone turtles and inscribed the names of successful candidates at the Imperial examination.
Beside the Temple of Literature, the One Pillar pagoda is one of the most ancient structures of Hanoi. The story goes that Ly Thai To Emperor had longed for a son. One day, he dreamed a Goddess of Mercy was sitting on a lotus flower offering him a son. In gratitude and reverence of that dream, he ordered construction of a small pagoda in the form of a lotus, overlooking a pond. The pagoda has been rebuilt many times due to it being destroyed and burnt in wars by opponents.
During the reign of Nguyen dynasty, a new imperial citadel in Hue was built, largely based on the Chinese Forbidden city in Beijing. Some portions of the complex that used French architectural elements as well were built later such as the tomb of King Khai Dinh. However, the most beautiful structure in the entire citadel is the tomb of King Minh Mang which situated near a vast lotus pond.
The citadel formerly sprawled a vast estate, however, due to subsequent wars and conflicts, much of it has been destroyed and later turned into rice paddies. The remaining areas that you may see are currently being restored by UNESCO.
With French colonization of Vietnam in the 19th century, many French-styled buildings were constructed, including villas, government buildings, opera houses, etc. Many of them are one of the clearest remnants of the French colonial legacy.
In term of the visual arts, painting is the most significant one. Historically speaking, Vietnamese painting is still very young. However, the cultural origins of painting, in fact, went back much further.
Vietnamese people have created art as long as they have existed. When the first classes in line drawing, anatomy and landscape painting were offered in the early decades of the twentieth century, art students drew on their rich religious and cultural background to execute their works. As a result, you can see in these paintings, the combination of the views of their home villages, portraits of farmers in the countryside and techniques of lacquer and silk which had been used for centuries in temple decorations.
Like other artists in the world, Vietnamese painters are affected by their environment but they have still found a particularly sensitive way to convey their identities, histories and beliefs through color and poetic imagery. Vietnamese artists have now become more exploratory and go-ahead, tried to attune themselves to international trends. A powerful upsurge of new art forms and revitalized traditions are moving Vietnamese art forward. Young artists are seeking their hallmarks based on their own experience and personal vision, increasingly the showing of self-confidence and audacity in their work.
Western style in technique and the use of color was what the first student generation trained in their school. The techniques, however, were employed by the graduate artists to depict the aesthetic essence of Vietnam, especially the freedom and generosity of an Asian soul. Such fundamental beginning had laid the foundation for the younger generations to follow and again, lead to their success.
In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the first modern artist generation joined in the international field of art and was highly evaluated in Vietnam as well as overseas. From then on, many of them gained good reputation and were honored as the masters of Vietnam's modern art such as To Ngoc Van, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Nguyen Gia Tri, Bui Xuan Phai, Le Pho, Tran Van Can, Nguyen Do Cung, Nguyen 'I'ien Chung, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Duong Bich Lien and so on.
The wars against colonialists and the U.S. imperialists unintentionally divided Vietnamese modern art into various styles, each of which has its own way to proceed toward perfection. This could most clearly be seen in the works of artists from the North to the South where the fierce struggles as well as realism-criticism, romanticism, and escapism into the dream of peace are described.
Traditional Vietnamese music is extremely diverse, consisting of many different styles varying from region to region. The widely known is Imperial Court music that was performed in the Vietnamese Court during feudalistic times from Tran Dynasty to Nguyen Dynasty. It features an array of instruments, featuring musicians and dancers adorned in elaborate garb. Besides, Quan ho has a long tradition in Vietnam while ca tru has been considered to recognize as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
As regard traditional theater, Cai luong remains very popular in modern Vietnam in comparison to other folk styles. Cheo singing is the most mainstream of theater form in the past and enjoyed widely by the public. Tuong singing, on the other hand, was transitioned from being entertainment for the royal court to traveling troupes.
Vietnam has 54 ethnic minority groups; each one has their own traditional dance. There are several traditional dances performed widely at festivals and other special occasions, such as the lion dance.
When watching a water puppet show, do you know that it originated in the 12th century? In a show, the puppets standing in water are obscured by a split-bamboo screen and manipulated by long poles hidden beneath the water. Epic stories are sung with many different characters, often depicting traditional scenes of Vietnamese life.
Vietnamese literature, both oral and written, is created largely by Vietnamese-speaking people. However, due to the long domination of Chinese, a lot of written works were in classical Chinese. Chu nom, created around the 10th century, allowed writers to compose in Vietnamese and use modified Chinese characters. By the mid-20th century, virtually, all works were composed in chu quoc ngu. Some defining works of literature include The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du, Luc Van Tien by Nguyen Dinh Chieu…
Speaking about the poetry, legendary poetess Ho Xuan Huong composed much of her poetry in chu nom, which later has been translated into quoc ngu for modern Vietnamese.
As developments flourish, Vietnamese art continues expanding over the world. They do not content themselves with following up traditions. They are fashioning a new vision that keeps drawing substance from national roots and creating a new tradition - the tradition of the New!
For half a day tour of art experience in Hanoi with the Art Museum, the Old Quarter, the delicious specialty Cha Ca La Vong and the art show of Ca Tru (traditional vocal music of Northern Vietnam), take a look at this Art Experience tour in Hanoi from Vietnamtravellife.net