Many of the works at this 90-year-old painter’s ongoing first solo exhibition titled ‘Between Two Centuries’ feature old, ordinary women whose wrinkled faces testify to the hard and rich experiences of their personal lives and country.
Bich recalls the countless rural women she has met in her lifetime, women who contributed to Vietnam’s war efforts by staying behind, taking care of the young and old, and working on the home front while the men had all gone off to defend the country.
“Whenever I went, I met heroes. Their hands, feet and visages showed the hardships they had gone through.”
Though such subject matters as old rural women and ethnic minorities living in mountainous areas make her paintings hard to sell, Bich considers herself lucky to be free of commercial temptations and pursue art for its own sake, an attitude she finds confirmed in Russian writer Nikolai Gogol’s short story ‘The Portrait.’
She may not make much money, but she has been recognized for her original efforts. For instance her meticulously painted silk portrait of a supposedly unattractive subject, Ngu, an old beggar she met on the street and befriended, titled ‘Ba Gia’ (Old Woman) was awarded the first prize at the 1993 Vietnam Fine Arts Association exhibition.
Mong Bich’s silk portrait ‘Ba Gia’ (Old Woman) won the first prize at the 1993 Vietnam Fine Arts Association Exhibition. Photo courtesy of L’Espace.
According to Prof Nora Taylor of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an expert on Vietnamese art, some young artists at the time were upset with the association’s decision because as a member of the older, wartime generation, Bich did not reflect Vietnam’s emerging art scene.
Contemporary tastes had moved on to abstract nudes and colorful, expressive works while realistic portraiture, which culture researcher Phan Cam Thuong considers Bich’s forte, was seen as outdated.
But Taylor considers the award the right choice because the Vietnam Fine Arts Association had rarely recognized women artists before and Bich’s work was not similar to earlier award-winning themes such as soldiers and rural life.
The “Old Woman”, like the painter herself, symbolizes Vietnam’s hardships, Taylor writes in the exhibition catalogue, pointing out Bich’s timeless and universal appeal.
Legacy of women artists
Bich, a graduate of the Indochina College of Fine Arts, now the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, squeezed time to capture the beauty in the seemingly unexceptional people and objects around her.
Le Kim My, a septuagenarian painter and close friend of the artist who held her first exhibition four years ago, says: “Bich never copies reality in a naturalistic way, but only distills the most basic and beautiful.”
Besides old women, other female topics also figure prominently in Bich’s 30 silk paintings, watercolors and sketches on display at the French Institute in Hanoi (L’Espace).
There is a pencil sketch of a silk painting titled ‘Me Va Con’ (literally Mother and Child) of a rural woman breastfeeding her baby. Painted in 1960, the silk work was at first eliminated from the Viet Bac Interzone Department of Culture’s fine art exhibition and contest in 1961 for “vulgarity” because the breasts were not covered, and consequently left in a corner at the department’s office.
Later Bich’s teacher, the famous painter Tran Van Can, painter Phan Thong and a visiting member from the Polish Academy of Fine Arts noticed it, immediately realized its value, and awarded it the first prize.
The painting, retitled ‘Spirit of Mother’, was acquired by British collector Robert Thornhill, who donated it to the British Museum in 2005.
Suzanne Lecht, art director of the Art Vietnam Gallery, who has been living in Hanoi since 1994, considers Bich’s paintings to be extraordinary works of museum quality by any international standard, and her female theme does not just capture Vietnamese womanhood. “Women are so strong in Vietnam and have to do everything. Mong Bich really portrays their grace and strength.”
Lecht describes Bich and her close friend Le Thi Kim Bach as two great women artists from the same generation who have portrayed Vietnamese women in art.
Throughout Vietnamese art history, because of social roles and expectations that bind them to housework, women have attended art schools, pursued full-time art careers or achieved professional or commercial success in much lower numbers than men, though the situation is changing today.
Taylor says that in fact, many of the most renowned contemporary artists are women. As one of the first women graduates of the post-1945 Vietnam University of Fine Arts, Bich occupies a unique position in Vietnamese art history as the person who paved the way for later generations of women artists to search for their own styles and expressions, she points out.
Bich’s attention to detail, her personal connections with her subjects and her deep interest in women’s and mothers’ hardships make her different from colonial-era masters such as Mai Trung Thu and Vu Cao Dam, whose paintings idealized and romanticized women as aesthetic objects to please the male gaze.
Mong Bich’s 2000 silk painting ‘Niem Vui’ (Joy) features a Dao ethnic woman busy preparing food and taking care of her child in a beautiful mountainous setting. Photo provide by the artist’s family.
At Bich’s exhibition, one big silk painting that some people find the most impressive captures the artist’s graceful and strong woman at her best. Titled ‘Niem Vui’ (Joy), it features an ethnic mother sitting on the ground and preparing food with her child on her back and looking sideways lovingly at a pig nearby suckling its young, evoking an idyllic way of life amid nature.
Luong Xuan Doan, chairman of the Vietnam Fine Arts Association, likens Bich to a village woman singing in a gentle voice, making a “quiet and modest contribution” to art.
Painter My considers Bich a first-rate silk painter who manages to “carve” images into silk, an accomplishment that requires superb skill and persistence because paints easily get blurred on this delicate material.
Doan says by combining the best values of Vietnamese womanhood down the ages and her great art teachers into her own generous soul, Bich manages to capture and pass down the beauty of art to younger generations.
For Thierry Vergon, director of L’Espace, compared to younger contemporary artists who might be considered “rebellious” by experimenting with more unconventional subjects or styles, Bich’s idiosyncrasy lies in her life-long resistance to passing trends.