For decades a large oil painting has been on display at the National Museum of Vietnamese History in Hanoi, portraying the country’s biggest naval battle, on the Bach Dang River, when the Tran Dynasty defeated Mongolian invaders in the 13th century.
To truthfully depict the battle the painter took a boat trip along the river to measure its depth and imagine what took place. After returning home he threw a lit cigarette and duck’s blood into a pot of water to see how fire and blood behave on the surface of water, Ms Le Ngoc Huyen, his daughter, explained.
Under his talented brush the Bach Dang Battle painting brings to life a proud part of Vietnamese history. Like his work, the life of painter Le Nang Hien, one of a few painters to emerge in the first generation after the revolution in 1945 - the modern days of Vietnamese fine art - was also like an animated ‘battle’. Living in wartime, revolutions and peace, Hien followed the fierce moments of history and self-studied and explored.
Born in 1921 to a civil servant family in Hanoi, none of whom were involved in art, Hien soon showed his aptitude for painting.
Going to school at the age of seven he was rather lazy at the lessons and homework. So he began drawing pictures on request from his classmates, such as flowers, princesses, dogs, and ships, in exchange for them doing his schoolwork. These early drawings proved popular and every day he had new requests. One day, when the little painter was busily painting in class he was caught by the teacher. His punishment was having all his paintings glued to his shirt, which he had to wear for the rest of the day. It only made him more famous. At 12 one of his paintings won second prize in a newspaper competition.
His talent had no chance to develop, however, because his parents couldn’t afford the tuition at Ecole-des Beaux Arts (Vietnam University of Fine Arts). So while still attending public school he self-studied art and researched a range of European culture and artists such as Victor Hugo, Moliere, Shakespeare, Honore de Balzac, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Corot.
For financial reasons he eventually had to cease self-studying as he grew older and started working as an accountant. Art, though, was his destiny.
After the 1945 August Revolution, like many other Vietnamese who wanted to contribute something to the country, he joined the national volunteer program in mass education, which aimed to teach illiterate people, who accounted for 90% of the population, how to read and write. Lacking funds, he painted some portraits to raise cash for these classes. The enthusiastic volunteer teachers also acted in plays to encourage people to attend classes. His love of theatre began to grow.
Hien then went to watch the Ministry of Culture’s professional performers rehearse. As a regular guest every day he learned the lines of all the characters and at times took on roles as an understudy. Impressed with his voice and gestures in different characters, the director gave him the first professional role in his life: playing a servant. He went to watch how servants behave, trying to imitate their stooping walk and respectful low voice, while also picking the director’s brain about theatre skills. Researching and trying to be truthful to the subject became his way of performing and painting.
Acting would have become his career if it was peacetime. After just two nights on stage the show had to stop because of the French massacre in Hanoi at the end of 1946, where surviving Hanoians had to flee to neighbouring provinces.
Despite the difficulties, he persevered. While temporarily living in an evacuation zone in Hung Yen province (about 60 km from Hanoi), he set up a theatre troupe of around ten amateur players, where he was the leader, actor, playwright, and painter. Tickets were free, with Hien instead drawing pictures of Ho Chi Minh to sell at the shows to bring in some money.
The shows were well received and local authorities encouraged the troupe to host more shows in the province while battles raged along the Red River. As their popularity grew, though, the troupe suddenly disbanded after some conflict among its members. His Odéon dream was put on hold.
Gaining more recognition for his paintings of Uncle Ho, Hien was offered a new job at the provincial information department as a propaganda painter. His new paintings found interest among local people for their depiction of the fighting and were a breath of fresh air compared to the usual pigs, chickens and markets found in traditional Dong Ho folk paintings. One of the most popular propaganda pieces was ‘When the enemy comes, even the women must fight’, which portrayed a woman in farmer garb holding a rifle.
As his talent at painting grew he was then offered work as a military painter. He went to the front and sketched the lives of soldiers fighting the French. It was dangerous, and many times he found himself in harm’s way.
After that project he continued working for the military. At night, back in the evacuation area, he became restless. He missed the theatre, but he was the only actor there. So he decided to put on a one-man show - the first time many in the audience had seen one person play eight different roles on stage.
Word spread and he was soon asked to join a theatre troupe in a nearby village. By that time he had won acclaim both as an artist and as a thespian. Once again, though, war intervened. As fighting spread from Hanoi to neighbouring provinces the members of the theatre troupe had to flee to a safer place. When victory came in 1954, Hien returned to Hanoi and established a new theatre troupe, but a few years later it was hit by financial problems brought about by the tough post-war economy.
Hien then focused on painting and became one of nine members of the first association of fine arts in Hanoi. His style had become more specific. Having lived through the war and with an interest in history, he contributed major works in both, depicting life and historical events and also building wood and gypsum models of historic battles, which were displayed at the National Museum of Vietnamese History and T
Together with history, women have also been a never-ending source of inspiration for his paintings. Together with materials such as oil and lacquer, his most popular art was done on silk. According to Huyen, her father used silk more often because other materials were scarce and expensive. It was also a challenge, though, because the thin fibre of the silk sees the colours more easily streak. But Hien conquered the skill. In his pictures are clear skin tones and sharp colours in the clothes. ‘You need to control the material,’ Huyen recalls her father telling her. ‘Sometimes you even use its weakness to make it become a strength.’ ‘He was very good at it,’ she said. ‘Like the smoke seen in some paintings, he took advantage of way the colours streak on silk to make it natural.’
Hien continued to research and exploit new things for his art until the last days of his life. At 76 he decided to sell all of his paintings, to fund a new collection. By 90 he had painted hundreds of pictures, which have been recently exhibited to commemorate the fist anniversary of his death. He may be gone, but his talent lives on.