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Biography - Thanh Chuong Fine Art

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THANH CHUONG
biography
 
“It is said that painting is one way to understand the world. I want to add that it’s also a way to love the world.
A painter reveals an image that has been seen by the eyes of his soul. He creates a new world to love and to care for.”

Thanh Chuong

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Born in 1949 to a family of prominent artists and intellectuals, Thanh Chuong was raised during a pivotal time that nurtured his creative ingenuity. The French colonial era was about to end and a new volatile chapter of Vietnam’s history would begin. Thanh Chuong’s artistic sensibilities were crafted as much by his country’s history as they were nurtured by this family of artists and writers. His prodigious abilities surfaced when he was only seven-years-old as he started winning awards and prizes for his drawing both in and outside of Vietnam.

Thanh Chuong was awarded his first notable international prize from London in 1957 for Doi Ga To, or “A Couple of Hens.” In 1960, when he was just 11-years-old, he was invited to attend a class for gifted students at Vietnam’s most prestigious art college: the Vietnam Fine Art College.

He was drafted into the Vietnam People’s Army in 1967, an episode that would dominate the next eight years of his life until the end of the war in 1975. This period did not signify a departure from his artistic ambitions, however, as he continued to paint, teach painting, and began his collection of invaluable artistic artefacts from the destruction that the war left behind. Thanh Chuong’s experience in the military would have a profound impact on his artistic directions.

In 1975 Thanh Chuong was recruited to work as an illustrator and designer for Van Nghe (Literature and Art), the most prestigious culture magazine in Vietnam. He made significant contributions to the publication as the principle designer and illustrator, as well as holding responsibility for the magazine’s coverage of fine art. Although he also concentrated on his own work, his art wasn’t given a platform by the government as he didn’t allow his creativity to be influenced by party guidelines.

The renovation period that began in 1986, known as Doi Moi, saw a drastic change to Thanh Chuong’s professional ambition and artistic sensibilities. He spearheaded the movement of contemporary art that the increased political and cultural freedoms allowed, while directing Van Nghe through a fundamental conceptual change suitable to the more open artistic environment.

Momentum for Thanh Chuong’s national and international recognition as a prominent Vietnamese artist began in 1994 with his first solo exhibition at Song Hong Gallery in Hanoi. This catalyzed a string of national and international exhibitions, where he was reaffirmed internationally as an artist of exceptional talent. He pioneered a new school of painting known as “Vietnam School,” which signified a marked departure from the influence and dependence on French artistic traditions and the blossoming of an indigenous Vietnamese style imbued with national identity.

Thanh Chuong quickly became known for his devotion to Vietnamese folklore and countryside life. The rapid urbanization that followed the renovation period – a phenomenon Vietnam is still experiencing today – has prompted a national nostalgia for traditions, folklore, and countryside living. His vivid scenes combining Vietnamese festival colors and using great buffalo and farmers in conical hats as subjects became synonymous with his unique style. He is the first artist to depict the Vietnamese countryside in such a way.

He employed mediums such as oil and pastel, though he propelled his reputation by becoming one of the world’s most prominent lacquer artists. Mastering this challenging medium provided Thanh Chuong with a style for which he became most famous. Lacquer is an indigenous Vietnamese medium that Thanh Chuong has played with, experimented with, and reinvented to raise the style to new altitudes.

In 2000 Thanh Chuong was voted by the national press to represent Hanoi in the field of culture and art. In 2001 his painting “Love” was selected by the UN as the symbol for the International Year of Volunteers and printed on stamps that were circulated around the world. Thanh Chuong was the first Asian painter whose work was selected for a UN stamp.

From 2001 to 2005, Thanh Chuong continued his personal and artistic development as a devotee to the traditional culture and art of Vietnam. He feared the erosion of Vietnam’s cultural heritage as the country developed so quickly and embarked on his grandest and most ambition installation: an expansive palace of national art and artefacts spanning almost 10,000 square meters. Viet Phu Thanh Chuong, or Thanh Chuong Viet Palace is the pinnacle of his artistic career: an otherworldly garden of cultural houses, ancient trees, serene ponds, and historic artifacts. This installation is focused on the display, conservation and preservation of Vietnam’s rich heritage.

Whispers of an ambitious new art installation tucked away in the countryside near Hanoi spread through journalistic and artistic circles across the world. In 2004, Thanh Chuong Viet Palace was officially opened by Her Majesty the Queen of Sweden during her official visit to Vietnam with the King and their delegation. In 2009, after more than eight years of free but restricted admission, the installation was opened to the public. The national and international press continue to refer to the palace as a key cultural attraction in Vietnam to this day.

In 2010, after 35 years, Thanh Chuong retired from Van Nghe. He earned prestigious titles in Vietnam’s culture and art communities, including a seat at the Vietnam National Council of Art; and Chairman of the Vietnam Association of Fine Art Graphic Art Council. He remains one of Vietnam’s most prolific, celebrated, and creative artists with a truly international reputation.

 

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THE WORLD OF THANH CHUONG

Thanh Chuong is an extraordinary artist, a famed leader of Vietnam’s art world. Ever since he started drawing at age 6, Thanh Chuong’s passion and special talent have been recognized with countless awards. It can be said that art has become his way of life, his vision, and his own personal school of thought.

Thanh Chuong’art betrays the influence of the Western modernist movement of the early 20th century. He has admired Picasso and Matisse ever since his student days. As though he realized even at that young age the affinity between modern art’s simplification of its graphic language and tendency towards pristine primitivism with Vietnam’s own folk aesthetic. With his strong talent and individualistic style, it didn’t take long for Thanh Chuong to digest these influences and create for himself a personal artistic language. This highly sophisticated and singular style has become a brand name called Thanh Chuong, and a symbol of contemporary Vietnam.

Thanh Chuong’s paintings include depictions of boys herding water buffalos, kites, conical hats, the moon, children, women, and his own self-portrait, among many other. Shapes intertwine with each other to create unexpected, impromptu cubist compositions. Faces lift themselves to the sky, half hidden or inclined at odd angles in a very “rustic” style filled with folk conventions, like the carved images of the Vietnamese communal halls, where long ago the artisans were often forced to fit their images onto the narrow slabs of wood. This necessity created images that were lively, humorous and unique, and ever since Vietnamese folk painting has shared this same mischievous, lopsided quality.

For his palette, Thanh Chuong likes to use bright, highly contrasting and decorative primary colors in the manner of Matisse of the Fauvists. His colors choices are jarring and bold. Colors such as vermillion, scarlet, rose, sprout-green, brilliant blue, reddish-gold, gold…all colors typically spurned and avoided by artists, and yet these are the typical colors of the traditional costumes and decorations used in the riots of color and movement that are the Vietnamese village festivals. In Vietnamese eyes, the more it “pops” the more beautiful it is.

Thus, Thanh Chuong’s painting embody a profound folk sensibility, from his subject matter to his use of color and line to his flat, conventionalized, decorative shapes. It may be said that his paintings are modern Vietnamese folk art. Thanh Chuong’s art is a bridge linking the soul of Vietnam’s folk culture to contemporary international graphic sensibilities. Although it is graphic in nature, the trend from the early 1900s until now has been to increasingly erase the distinction between graphic art and fine art; all are now simply considered art.

When speaking of bridges between Vietnamese art, with its strong folk influence, and international contemporary art, we cannot fail to mention the famous painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem, a pioneer in this work. Nghiem used many of Vietnam’s ancient artistic motifs, from the Dong Son woodblock prints to 17th century communal-hall carvings, and transformed them into a modern language. His paintings, such as Traditional Dance, Giong, and the Fairy to name a few, are suffused with pensive solemnity, the essence of the spiritual life and beliefs of people.

Thanh Chuong differs from Nguyen Tu Nghiem in that he exploits different aspects of the stuff of Vietnam’s traditional character. Rather than reflecting spiritual life, he focuses on the folksy simplicity of the every day. Thanh Chuong’s paintings are suffused with the spirit of children’s songs, rural activities, and the colors of cheerful village festivals, combined with an eye for unusual configurations, mischief, imagination, and contemporary design.

Thanh Chuong has exerted a significant influence on the generation of young artists working in the “doi moi” (renovation) era. This widespread trend back to the villages, with rustic subject matter such as water buffalos, conical hats, and children singing rendered in a naive style, owes much to the artistic language of Thanh Chuong. It would be impossible to discuss contemporary Vietnamese art without mentioning his name, for his unique style and language has made an indelible mark on Vietnamese art. Thanh Chuong is the leading contemporary folk painter in Vietnam today.

Bui Nhu Huong
Arts Critic
Hanoi, December 2007