There is a small gallery on Ton That Thiep that throws open a window on a forgotten area of Vietnamese 20 th Century art: Propaganda Art. For a growing number of collectors around the world Propaganda Art reflects a unique historical time period, a time where the Government altered the natural flow of art and made it an instrument for its own use.
Propaganda can be as blatant as a swastika or as subtle as a joke. Advertising is propaganda for today, just as Julius Caesar's head on a coin was propaganda two millennia ago. Vietnamese Propaganda Art, in its heyday from 1954 to 1975, should now be compared to Propaganda Art of the great dictators: Stalin, Hitler and Mao, even Castro.
The ideology of Socialist Realism was defined in 1934 in the Soviet Union. It was based on the principle that the arts should glorify political and social ideals of communism. Stalin's propaganda machine coloured all others that followed, bringing politics into the arts. Film was also used as propaganda, the most famous of these is Leni Riefenstahl's film of the Nazi Party"'s Nuremburg rally. 'Culture, literature and art are also a battle front, and you are all fighters on that front', said Ho Chi Minh in 1951. By 1954 all Northern Vietnamese artists were ordered to paint pictures with a political message. Freedom of expression had been abandoned and a new art form created.
Technically Vietnamese Propaganda Art is unique. While posters were used elsewhere, in Vietnam an even cheaper medium was used. Hanoi artists were commissioned to paint posters illustrating the slogans they were given, such as 'Long Live the Vietnamese Labour Party', 'Victory will Definitely be Ours', 'Greater Food Production is key to Expelling the Americans'. These paintings were then copied around the country on to boards which were used over and over again. Consequently only a few images remain, although they are all original paintings, not mass produced copies.
Vietnamese Propaganda Art also has its own style. It is less naturalistic than either the portraits of Stalin or Mao, more restrained and frank. Chinese Prop Art is filled with giggling infants and such gushing optimism you might choke on it. Chinese women are shown as masculinised, wearing baggy clothing and with a blinkered sense of purpose, you can almost hear them ranting slogans, unapproachable and unthinking. The women portrayed in Vietnamese Propaganda Art are more subtle. They are beautiful, as in 'Victory will definitely be ours', at DOGMA Gallery. You can still see a hint of the French colonial tradition set by the Hanoi College Fine Arts in this poster. A beautiful girl holds a dove in her hands, she is stylised, but her simplicity makes her so much stronger than her counterpart in Chinese painting.
Vietnamese Propaganda Art has more in common with the bold images from Cuba, often brightly coloured silk screens. These are punchy, colourful and unpretentious, more similar to American Pop Art. Vietnamese Propaganda Art from the same period is not as influenced by American culture, other than a desire to expel it from their country.
Most Propaganda Art belongs to its own time period and needs to be seen in that context, but occasionally an image stands above that, as with 'The world must have peace!' at DOGMA. This message is eternal, and each time the world endures conflict it becomes relevant again. The contrast in images between a fixed bayonet, the imploring hands, a full moon or blazing sun, the dove of peace is childishly simple. It speaks of the infinite sadness of war, and the infinite hope that it will disappear.
One theme that all Propaganda art shares is the glorification of its leader as a superhero. Chairman Mao is portrayed as the Great Leader, Great Teacher, Great Helmsman, Supreme Commander. Ho Chi Minh's face has been used over and over again in Vietnamese paintings. His image has gradually been refined until only the barest outline of his profile will evoke him, similar to a crucifix provoking an image of Christ, or even a 40-something female American singer.
Where does Propaganda Art stand in the pantheon of Vietnamese art? Probably it is its most undervalued and least acknowledged genre. This is something DOGMA is seeking to address. As the first Propaganda Art gallery in Vietnam it is showing works that have not been seen since they were painted forty years or more ago. The gallery also sells modern reproductions of the paintings.
On the international art market collecting Vietnamese Propaganda art could be the next phenomenum. Museums and auction houses handle Propaganda Art from other regimes and interest is mounting. In Europe collecting art is seen as a form of appreciation, and there is always the possibility of a collection purchased cheaply might be worth much more later. Abroad there is an obsession with Vietnam spawned by the Vietnamese-American war. A painting of war imagery is a much more pleasant collectible than a dog-tag and zippo lighter which might have been manufactured last week in Cholon.