There are two things that jump out at one when looking at North Vietnamese paintings of the Vietnam war. The first is how much of the narrative on the war has been shaped by the losing side, i.e. the Americans. We’ve all seen the photographs and watched the movies. However, we know next to nothing about the North Vietnamese experience. The second is that unlike the American records of the war, death and suffering are entirely unrepresented in the North Vietnamese record.
It’s possible of course that the North Vietnamese depictions were so bloodless because they were nothing more than propaganda. But the line between propaganda and art is sometimes blurry (as in the movie Casablanca). Anyway, the North Vietnamese artists were hardly apparatchiks sketching away in a dusty office far removed from the realities of war.
It’s true that by the time the Vietnam war was in full swing, North Vietnam had a sophisticated propaganda apparatus in place. The Marxist-Leninist style of propaganda had been imported into North Vietnam almost a decade earlier during the first Indo-China war against Vietnam’s French colonizers. In Ho Chi Minh’s jungle redoubt north of Hanoi, young revolutionary artists were schooled in Soviet realism, and by the end of the war, Viet Minh propaganda could reach the remotest villages.
Nonetheless, even in the newly established Democratic Republic of Vietnam, artists mostly preferred to paint in the style of poetic naturalism that they had learned under the French. Soviet realism was confined to propaganda posters, wood block prints and sculpture. These small acts of rebellion didn’t go unnoticed however, and the state slowly began to exert more control over culture. Artists were only allowed to depict themes that supported the socialist revolution. Those who sought more artistic freedom were dealt with harshly.
When the Americans started bombing North Vietnam in 1964, artists were once more enlisted in a concerted propaganda effort. While on one hand they were little more than party cadres dependent on the state, on the other hand they also considered it their responsibility to record the events happening around them.
They went to the frontlines, where they confronted the deprivations and terrors of war alongside the soldiers and the villagers. The experience gave them an uncommon empathy with their subjects, and this is what elevates so much of the work above the level of mere propaganda.
The images recorded by the artists depict “women in anti-aircraft images…soldiers and guerilla fighters in trenches…battalions climbing mountains and crossing rivers, broken buildings, desolate landscapes and craters left by American bombs, professional teams of doctors and nurses who cared for the wounded…volunteer youth.”1
They are clearly a historical document of a nation at war, but there was also a reluctance to record the more gruesome aspects.
For the artist on the frontline, the horror of the war was simply too close to home. A photographer could click an image and move on, but an artist had to sit in front of a corpse, possibly the body of a friend, for a time while recording the details. Most had no stomach for that.
Then there was the question of who the artists were drawing for: the soldiers and the villagers who were already on the frontlines and not viewers sitting in their living rooms far removed from the conflict. To this audience, the artist drawing calmly in their midst presented a refuge in a world gone mad. No one wished to see images of death. Instead, they demanded images of life. Especially popular were requests for small portraits that the soldiers could put in their pockets when they went into battle.