Art and the Vietnam War
When we think of art associated with the Vietnam war, we might think of the American protest art produced by artists such as Nancy Spero, Martha Rosler and the Art Workers Coalition, who produced highly politicised, often very jarring and brutal art that was extremely critical of the US’s involvement in Vietnam. However what has received less attention is art that tells the other side of the story, the Vietnamese artists who captured the war in their own unique way which differs decisively from American art of this period. Vietnamese artists captured their own perspective on events in a way that dealt with the trauma that they were surrounded with every day.
North Vietnamese artists focussed on the quiet everyday moments away from the conflict they were constantly surrounded with. The images produced are a highly sentimental snapshot of daily life and civilians and soldiers persevering throughout the war. Artists portrayed people playing music, reading, farming as well as families just being together. Daily life was of a particular importance as the artist Thai Ha said ‘you must keep on living an ordinary life to fight a long war.’ They also captured portraits of soldiers who were portrayed as resilient and vigilant fighters, heroically persevering through the war. The destructive effects of war are rarely shown and if it is, it is usually through the effects on the landscape, as nature had a particular importance to the Vietnamese and provided a motivating force to defend the homeland.
Painters were termed ‘guerilla artists’ during the war and worked on the front line, having to paint when they had the opportunity. The practicalities of being in a warzone deeply affected these images. Artists used watercolours on paper as it was fast-drying and easily transportable, often being stored in US ammunition boxes as they were watertight. Artists also don’t portray fighting for practical reasons as it was easier to work from life in quiet moments in between the conflict, rather than in the midst of a battlefield. But also artists didn’t want to depict the brutality constantly around them and so used art as a form of escapism. A popular saying at the time was ‘drawing like singing drowns out the sound of bombs.’ The Vietnamese were constantly surrounded by the dehumanising effects of war and so in their painting preferred to focus on the multi-faceted experiences of survival and resistance. It was ‘art for the people’s sake’, dwelling on human emotion and poignancy, as well as a deep sense of a common purpose which kept people united throughout a long and intense war.
What the Vietnamese chose to portray in their art is a result of their unique position of being constantly surrounded by war. This is compared to US artists who similarly drew upon the Vietnam war in their art but were often thousands of miles away from the battlefield. They therefore were more able to use the jarring and violent imagery coming from documentary photography to essentially shock their American audience into the realisation of the human cost of this war. The ‘And Babies’ poster by the Art Workers Coalition is an iconic yet brutal image of the My Lai massacre used to highlight the brutality of US tactics. The contorted mass of bodies as a result of the massacre dehumanises the victims, yet the ‘and babies’ quote shocks the viewer into realising that even innocent children were dying as a result of US military actions. The disturbing reality of these events to the Vietnamese was such that it was too traumatic to capture in art, instead they portrayed the camaraderie, the valiant spirit and shared bonds of the Vietnamese people
Although it is not explicit, violence nevertheless affected these works. It was the result of Vietnam’s unique position which resulted in a mindset which did not want to glorify war but instead glorify the humanity which continues despite war.
Sherry Buchanan, Mekong Diaries: Viet Cong Drawings and Stories 1964-1975, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008)
Catherine de Zegher and Katherine Carl, Persistent Vestiges: Drawing from the American-Vietnam War, (New York: Drawing Centre, 2005)
Credit also to Dr Rider’s lecture ‘Artist's Engage with the Vietnam War’