I’m laptopping you from a shady spot beside a placid lake on the Royal Palace grounds in Hue, Vietnam. King Tu Duc (1829-1883), whose tomb lies behind a nearby wall, retreated here for most of the 36 years he was on the throne. It was a tough time for Vietnamese royalty. Vietnam was then French Indochina, and the colonizers were building Western-style railroads, opera houses and government buildings.
The king, a poet, playwright and author, kept 115 concubines, who inspired him daily and kept him busy in rotation every night. While closely monitored by the palace eunuchs, the king couldn’t produce any kids.
Attracted to French ways, Tu Duc saw that some high-ranking Confucian scholars were sent to Europe to learn Western painting. It’s been my observation that scholars, Confucian or otherwise, don’t always make it in painting, but painters sometimes make it as scholars. In any case, not much art came from those wise Confucians.
Later, the French instituted an art school in Hanoi. Instigated by the French painter Victor Tardieu, 128 Vietnamese students graduated from the opulent facility from 1925 to 1945. Those years produced some stylish woodblock prints, hybrid watercolour silk paintings, lots of Chagal/Miro/Monet-influenced canvases, and not a few Neo-Impressionists.
Tardieu’s school set the groundwork for the gentle humanism of today’s Vietnamese art. In Vietnam there are no widely-based amateur groups. Art school graduates dominate the scene, both here and internationally. Individualist painters provide a unique blend of Buddhist sensitivity and Western capability, with strong tendencies toward story, intellectual understanding and personal point of view. Often spacious, moody and delicate of colour, Vietnamese art today has little of the anger and bitterness one might expect from a nation so frequently torn apart by war.
Sitting here watching the occasional carp break the surface of the lake, in a place where Tu Duc sometimes cast his line, I’m thinking art can be a certain sanctuary in a time of absurdity and injustice. Art can be quietude in a place of noise. Art can inform and show other possibilities.
PS: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” (Confucius)
Esoterica: Last night we dined in the home of Phan Thuan An, who just happens to be married to one of the remaining Vietnamese Royals. Well-travelled, well-read and well-published, he has the sweetness and refinement that lie within the hearts of the Vietnamese. Overrun successively by the Chinese, French, Japanese and Americans, and now officially Communist to the world, Vietnam, like China, is witnessing growth and prosperity. “Vietnam has great gentleness to offer the world,” says Phan. “A wonder, really.”
Exporting Vietnam gentleness
by Jeanne Rhea, Raleigh, NC, USA
The work of woman artist Huong from Vietnam is even more interesting after reading your letter. Although Huong now lives in Kodiak in the United States, her work has focused on war and peace for the past 25 years. After painting the War series, she felt she had more to offer with the Peace series. The quote by Phan in your letter that Vietnam has a great gentleness to offer the world and it is a wonder is so descriptive of Huong. One could not expect a more perfect example.
Vietnamese not angry
by Emily Rushin, Fort Lauderdale, FL, USA
I was in Hue a few years back and visited the Royal Palace grounds. Friends commented before I left that surely the Vietnamese would be unfriendly towards Americans because of the war we fought there. I found Vietnamese to be very friendly, open, welcoming, and voiced the comment that we might have expected a different reception. A wise Vietnamese man said “The Americans were here for 10 years, the French for 100 and the Chinese for 1,000. We aren’t angry with anyone.”
Art from the road
by Laurel Deery
I had the opportunity to travel in Vietnam with my family for two weeks in January 2008. Reading your letters from there brings it vividly back to me. We all loved the country, especially the people who we found to be kind, generous and very spiritual. We started in Hanoi and traveled south, stopping in Hue and Hoi An on our way to Saigon. My husband and I always look for local art when we travel, both to remind us of the trip and to support local artists. Our sons have also picked up this habit and each bought a few paintings.
The genesis of talent
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
If Mozart had been born to an Austrian peasant he would have been at most a good player for local dances. If Picasso had been born to a Spanish cheese maker, who knows what he would have been. This goes back to a previous letter about the magic 10,000 hours a young talent needs to hone his or her gift. One does not do it in a family where dad says, “Get you nose out of a book. No one ever learned anything from a book!” “Stop drawing or you will grow up queer.” One can escape this influence but one is warped by it and one does not get the practice and constructive feedback to fully develop. How many thousands of kids are mentally beaten down before they can even bud, much less bloom?
I teach kids from beaten down societies that include Kahziks, Uzbeks, Sudanese, White Russians, Turks, Lithuanians, Czechs, Macedonians etc. It is amazing how much personal fire they can maintain, especially when one realizes that they are studying at the university level, in English, normally a third language. The human spirit is magnificent and people (some of them) are incredibly stubborn. Maybe Mozart would have made it, like Dvorak, son of a palace brew master, made it.
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Delight in Vietnam
by Sarah Hollier, Australia
The people of Vietnam are indeed a wise and gentle people. I was there with my partner last year. He is a veteran and I expected some hostility but found none in the eyes of these wonderful people. I hope to return there with one or both of my daughters next year. If you go to the post office in Saigon on Sunday you can speak English with students trying to learn and practice the language. They will also teach you their words. I found them a delight.
For the children
by Gary Holland, Boise, ID, USA
I’m working on a series of Vietnam children, but need more photos to work from. Would anyone be willing and interested in sharing any? If you have any that you think would fit the “vision” of being artistic celebrations of children, notably their spirits, reminding us all of the kinder/gentler part of our own spirits. I typically have a child in the painting connecting with the viewer, pulling us into his/her soul, saying “I’m here, I’m not a number or a possession…”
I’m also looking for submissions of stories, prose, for the Children of Vietnam and other series. Rather than write my own as I did in my book The Children of Haiti, I’m asking people who live in or are enamored with the host country to submit their short stories/prose for possible inclusion in the book that goes with each series. Ultimately the series of paintings and books, prints, etc. will go on tour in the host country. I’ve a standing offer in VN from a fellow who owns most of the TV and newspaper media, to have a show when I finish the series. I donate 100% of my paintings to the For the Children, Inc. charity, and nobody gets a paycheck.
by Patricia Peterson, New York, NY, USA
As a child I was exposed to violence and abuse from my disturbed mother; a secret from my father — threats kept me mum. I am grateful to have escaped death more than once. Before the age of five I understood I had to do all I could to survive and part of what allowed me that wisdom was a deep and abiding awareness of my inner self, which could not risk being expressed. Art and creative expression over and again keeps me sane and brings balance. Finding peace within has always been a sanctuary. It is true that I have tolerance levels others do not when it comes to hurtful behaviors because I know well how to be there and yet hide the treasures, which is a blessing and a curse. I don’t mean to be eccentric but events shape us against our design. So in my art, it is most important to express the sense of sanctuary we all have inside and to connect with others in that way, where emotion can manifest without barriers. It is possible all of that war, destruction and death has tempered the entire Vietnamese society to appreciate depth of beauty, peace, goodness and the uniqueness of individuality. Ugliness and brutality we can find well enough in the world.
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‘Laptopping’ from Hawaii
by Aliye Cullu, Gainesville, FL, USA
I enjoy the way you say “I’m laptopping you from…” wherever you are in this amazing world. You are such an inspiration to me and millions of others. I will soon be ‘laptopping’ from Maui. A high school classmate and her husband have commissioned me to paint a view they enjoy from a window in their home. I’ve never been to the Hawai’ian islands, and have wanted to since I was a child. How fun to anticipate a dream come true, combined with traveling to paint!
(RG note) Thanks, Aliye. One of our editors, the highly-respected Judi Birnberg of Sherman Oaks, CA, consistently points out to us that ‘laptopping’ is not a word. Others write from time to time to object as well. Every time the devil makes me write ‘laptopping’ we are forced to discuss the problem. We sometimes reconsider my flagrant incorrectness and conclude that ‘laptopping’ conjures the image of a latter-day Confucius cross-legged under a shady tree in some distant land conveying his version of wisdom to a universal cyber-audience. It does seem that ‘laptopping’ is catching on and other people are doing something like it, (e.g. blogging — whoever heard of that) and I for one am mighty pleased you are going to practice it.
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Changes in Vietnam
Vietnam, in spite of the apparent gentleness and goodwill you find on the surface, still has plenty of greed, corruption and outright thievery. It is affecting all areas of life, including the arts. While apparently a beehive of creativity and what appears to be a full-blown market economy, there is still the rough husk of a rigid Communist state- one of the few remaining in the world. As you mentioned in your first letter from Vietnam, most people are still desperately stooping for pennies. Most Vietnamese people are angry and now feel that the top-heavy government needs to democratize and eventually disappear. It might not happen in our lifetime, but miracles can and do happen. It was only a few decades ago that the thousands of “boat-people” were escaping from the desperate south and the hard hand of Communist ‘re-education.’ As it turned out, no one could beat Communism by fighting it, but once in power Communism has the tendency to beat itself.
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous, and others who wrote with political opinions and insights. While watching some street dancers in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) I had my pocket nicely picked. Inconvenienced and deprived of my credit card, driver’s license and cash, I’m not angry — just disappointed. One reader wrote to say that picking pockets in Vietnam has become an art form.
Praise for The Painter’s Keys
by Jeff Grinspan
I am a recent ‘subscriber’ and have discovered, in a very short period, that I’ve been missing out. You are a great writer — articulate, concise, descriptive, and fascinating. Oddly, I first became aware years ago of ‘you’ when, while Googling my own name, I stumbled upon a quote from an artist I licensed during my tenure as VP of Licensing and Design at Sakura — a US based ceramic manufacturer. This young lady made reference to the inspiration of your book (and gave me a promotion at the same time). She wrote:
“The Universe was more than kind to me on the day I read The Painter’s Keys. Just so you know I never forget that –whether I am at an opening of a show or getting a cheque or happy painting in my studio.
“When I was recently in New York, I met with Jeff Grinspan, president of Sakura Inc. I went to their office and showroom which is located 41 Madison Ave — an impressive location only to be outdone by the products and staff — I was in awe — felt a bit like I was a country hick in the presence of greatness — my low self esteem — (I call it my inferiority complex) was kicking in big time — That whole “I am not worthy” thing — Then out of the blue the president asks, to what do I owe my success — I was completely caught off guard — I had to ask myself was he talking to me and does he think I am successful — He was talking to me — and I blurted out The Painter’s Keys by Robert Genn — Your book has become my best friend — and motivation. My ‘how to’ manual and advisor. It has been for me a good read when fear was approaching. It kicks the reality demons away.”
That was back in 2003… Jennifer Garant, the young lady in question continues her licensing success and I have moved on in the world of art licensing as a consultant and as the Director of Licensing for Wild Apple Graphics. But I remain, to this day, somewhat frustrated that I never had the courage to make my own way in the world as an artist — and it wasn’t until age 50 that I finally realized that when my mother looked at a piece of art I created and, hesitantly, said “interesting”, what she really meant was “I don’t like it but would never say anything disparaging to my son” and, on an even deeper level “it’s not good enough to go out into the world and make a living doing that.” Yes, art has been for me both an avocation, source of comfort and a way to prove to the world that I am indeed worthy.
(RG note) Thanks, Jeff. The Painter’s Keys is a modest little handbook but many artists have launched significant careers by applying some of the ideas in it. With 160 pages and no pictures it’s a transcript of a two-day seminar I gave to 39 participants in 1997. Jennifer Garrant was one of the first people to read the book and her career has become legendary. Now in its fourth printing, the book is available on Amazon here.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Adria Klausner who wrote, “One of my early painting teachers in Morocco, North Africa, was Mme. Marie Antoinette Boullard-Deve, who had lived in what was then French Indochina and painted murals in one of the royal palaces. What I remember best about her lessons was her scoffing: “C’est du chic (Translated: Artsy, phony.) Some lessons one never forgets.”
And also Dan Gray of BC, Canada who wrote, “It’s hard for me to think of Viet Nam and art as positive. I do still have some sketches I did there while a conscript in the US army in 1970. Viet Nam still influences my work and my life, but Im still a peacenik.”
And also Grace Nguyen of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “How interesting you’re visiting my birth country and writing eloquently about its history. One word of caution: Don’t believe all you see and hear in Vietnam.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Where does it come from?…
I purchased my first painting from a sidewalk vendor in Saigon (as it was known then) in 1969. It was an elegant semi-abstraction of two girls dressed in the ao dai walking through a sparely indicated grove. The image has suffered over the years from the substandard materials from which it was made, but it has nonetheless been hanging nearby where ever I’ve lived for almost forty years. I suspect the image will be finished with this life about the same time I am. Despite the madness of the time, I have a lot of good memories remaining from my 2-1/2 years in Viet Nam, which this painting refresh each time I see it.
From your last post, it seems you are in Vietnam. I’m a Canadian living and working in Saigon. I’m also an art enthusiast and am working on a project to help Vietnamese artists. If you are in the country, please let me know. Perhaps we could meet. Tuan Anh *Marc* firstname.lastname@example.org
Your comments about art as a place of repose and sanity resonated with me. I was a civil rights lawyer for many years, and I didn’t get interested in painting until I was around 40 years old.
While litigation is not comparable to war, and indeed is a good substitute for it, it still involves a high state of aggression, defensiveness, suspicion, and sometimes hostility. Also on the deficit side of lawering is that it involves almost exclusively verbal skills and what we call left brain thinking, and the fight you are fighting is not always your own. All of this to me appears to be the opposite of making or viewing art. The first time I realised that with a few materials and a little bit of time and space, an artist can make something beautiful, interesting, sharable, and very much his or her own I felt a huge sense of escape and relief. While I still sometimes have dreams about the struggles of lawyering, almost every day I find time to be grateful that now I can be a full time artist. It has changed the way I look at the universe and the world, but that is another subject for another time.
To answer the question> where does it come from?
I would say> From the heart. When we follow our heart the road does not end.
I too have found peace, during trying times, through art. Being used as both a get away and at times inspiration.
You would think that there would be more artists from that region of the world, with all that they have been through. But you would also have to think of all that has been destroyed over the years as well. Possibly feeling that there is no point in creating if it’s just going to be wiped out. Sometimes I look to the future and wonder if there is going to be anyone or anything here to appreciate what we are doing today.
The Vietnamese artists’ Buddhist beliefs are most likely the reason their art reflects gentleness, rather than anger and bitterness. Anger and bitterness have no place in Buddhist society. Buddhists practice finding the good within everything, with the desire to live happily, not harming others, while working toward their ultimate goal of enlightenment. This should be a valuable lesson for all of us, artists and non-artists alike.
What a beautiful letter from an incredible country. I was fortunate to spend almost 3 weeks in Vietnam about 3 years ago… and you are there during Tet. It’s a real test of courage to walk across the streets in traffic in Hanoi but you must remember DON’T STOP…JUST KEEP ON WALKING and they won’t hit you. That’s a metaphor for what we must do in this economy… we must “keep on keepin’ on” and we will get to where we want to be.
My great aunt, Marie Antoinette Boullard Devé, lived in Indochina around 1920 for almost 10 years. She was a very good painter. I wonder if you have seen any of her work in Vietnam.
115 concubines and couldn’t produce children. That’s natures was of culling those who shouldn’t pass on their genes. At least he died happy in his attempts. How did he find time to write poetry and plays?
Speaking empirically –
The Asian culture is so alien to the French. I find it odd they would embrace the French style. Probably being a French colony it had to rub off but deep within they are not French. I’ve not seen work from Viet Nam artists but I can guess they will look more Viet Namese than French. Just a guess.
In an economy so starved my guess would be not too many people are painting to survive. This would still probably be reserved for the privileged classes. I believe for art to flourish it needs to be open and free and practiced by the general populace and supported in the schools. Not to mention there needs to be those to purchase it (other than the wealthy or the royals)
Technology also limits the dispersion of art to the general population. I don’t see many with leisure cash to make a substantial price purchase of artwork when basic needs still prevail.
Possibly if the balance of power were to shift more in their direction and incomes of much change, art will keep its religious connections. Secular art will only happen if people have the necessary basic needs satisfied. Until then Viet Nam art or artists will have it worse than American, Canadian or French artists.
Add to which I think you are viewing Viet Nam through rose-colored glasses. They are still poor
and struggling to get by. There is probably the same if not more corruption in government than before and the people will do what they have will to survive and it’s not going to be art.
I just acquired an original by your aunt, and I am trying to get more information about her. I found it in St. Louis MO, and it is dated 1926. I think it is watercolor, but could be oil. Can you tell me more about her? Thanks
Dear Norman- How nice to see just exactly what some folks think of us artists when we’re children! That if we keep drawing- we’ll grow up QUEER. Ooops! It was exactly because I was already an artist at 8 years old that I got referred to (to the point of regular ongoing peer group abuse that lasted until I graduated from high school) as QUEER- and guess what? I’M QUEER. And I kept drawing- and painting- and stitching- and sewing- and designing- and writing- and a whole lot of other creating- and I’M STILL QUEER. This off-handed totally derogatory social comment intended to cause horror to rise up in heterosexist people- (most of you) that they might actually BE QUEER- will it never end? I may be QUEER- but I am beyond talented and I’ve put in the far more than 10,000 hours necessary to develop and refine and perfect that talent and the outpouring of my creation experience- and being a sexual being who also happens to be QUEER influences my creating every single day of my life. So- thanks.