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Artists Under Fire

By Dr. Hal Elliott Wert
4/14/2017 • HistoryNet

Stirring posters created by Vietnamese combat artists on the battlefield inspired communist forces to victory.

The North Vietnamese Communists waged war against first the French (1946-54) and later the Americans (1960-75) from a position of inferiority in firepower and mechanized mobility. This forced them to utilize traditional low-level technology against their far superior opponents. North Vietnam’s leaders, Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap, did so brilliantly by demonstrating a flare for organization and masterful logistical  accomplishments coupled with a callous disregard for the casualties inflicted on their forces. Their success was based on using massive numbers of coolies (unskilled laborers) to transport supplies and on years of sustained combat fought by highly motivated soldiers commanded by a disciplined officer corps – all under the eyes of iron-willed political commissars.

A major problem for North Vietnam’s leadership, however, was how to instill in the population the ideals of the communist revolution in a country that was essentially without modern printing plants or radios and with a low literacy level. Mobilizing the peasant masses against the enemy, maintaining organizational discipline, sustaining morale and encouraging sacrifice became the task of “agitprop” (agitation and propaganda) units composed of artists, actors, singers, photographers and filmmakers.

The mission of the agitprop units was to create highly politicized art to promote the communist regime’s propaganda message. These literature and arts divisions (Van Nghe) were assigned to army units and assiduously worked territory controlled by the Viet Minh opposing the French and later those areas dominated by the Viet Cong fighting the Americans and South Vietnamese. Their contribution to North Vietnamese final victory in 1975 was their success in turning peasant resentment and discontent into militant peasant nationalism.

Borrowing freely from techniques developed by the Soviets and the Chinese Communists, agitprop units relied heavily on visual culture, producing an array of newspapers, posters, pamphlets, photographs and films. In promoting the revolution, all of the traditional Vietnamese art forms were co-opted and pressed into communist service. Often, artists were assigned to combat units, where they would create art during lulls in the fighting.

In the early stages of the war against the French, many artists trained at the L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi, Vietnam’s prestigious art school established by the French in 1924. The faculty there emphasized developing a style of painting in which the artists used their own culture, local materials and techniques as a basis for their art – a style then emerging in France.

Labeled Poetic Realism, this evolving Franco-Vietnamese style in the 1950s merged with Soviet Socialist Realism to heavily influence the making of propaganda posters. Ho Chi Minh, like Mao Zedong and Josef Stalin before him, declared that all art must be political. Party Secretary Truong Chinh, who in the early 1950s created a Propaganda Poster Bureau in the Department of Information and Propaganda, emphatically stated: “When propaganda achieves a certain level, it becomes art. When art reaches a particular level of effectiveness, it clearly has a propagandistic nature. Art is only real art if it becomes propaganda.”

Vietnamese posters were generally quite unlike those created in the Soviet Union or China, which were printed on offset presses in huge numbers and featured an exaggerated Socialist Realist style presented in bright primary colors. Since the Vietnamese usually lacked the necessary equipment and materials, only a few small offset print runs were done in Hanoi and distributed throughout the country. Instead, Vietnamese artists used a variety of printing techniques more readily available. In larger cities, letterpress predominated, while lithography, screen printing and occasional stencil painting were also utilized.

Agitprop units in the field, however, often turned to hand-colored woodblock prints that displayed a much wider palette than those of the posters made by Soviet, Chinese or North Korean artists. Pastels, the influence of Poetic Realism and French Expressionist painting (especially light blues, grays, pale yellows, pinks, lavenders and tan earth tones), portrayed the Vietnamese communist revolution in softer colors and made the posters more accessible to the peasants and workers they were intended to sway.

But the more common technique employed in making posters was hand-painted gouaches that other artists then copied – a laborious task. Sometimes the original artists added their signatures to their work, and sometimes the copy artists signed their own names or repeated the signatures of the original artists. Often the originals and the copies were left unsigned, so no one knows how many duplicates were made of any one poster. Few originals have survived, making these posters quite scarce.

Although the creation of propaganda posters began in earnest in the summer of 1945, anti-French posters, cartoons and caricature had started almost two decades earlier with the birth of Vietnam’s Communist Party in 1927. Ironically, the use of caricature in Vietnamese poster art was influenced by the French artist Daumier and by French left-wing satirical journals of the era.

The success of the August 1945 revolution encouraged Ho Chi Minh to declare independence on September 2. A celebratory exhibition of posters by leading radical artists was held in the Grand Hall of the Municipal Theater in Hanoi. However, a year later the French returned and Ho Chi Minh was forced to flee to the Viet Bac (the resistance zone) north of Hanoi to set up a revolutionary government in friendly territory.

The L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine closed its doors and many professors and students made their way to the new Viet Minh center of power. Artists then organized workshops to train adolescent fighters in classical drawing techniques, revolutionary graphics, newspaper illustration and poster design. After completing the required training, agitprop artists were assigned to military units producing newspapers, flyers and posters printed on letterpresses the Viet Minh had disassembled and carted from Hanoi. Well versed in political slogans, inspired by the writings and speeches of Ho Chi Minh, and clearly understanding their mission, the artists were left relatively free within these guidelines to produce posters as they saw fit.

At the decisive March-May 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, in psychological operations of sheer bravado, propaganda teams pinned up hundreds of posters within sight of the French defenders’ bunkers, urging the enemy to desert, give up and get out of Vietnam. Artist Mai Van Hien created a 107-square-foot poster calling for surrender that was boldly emplaced on a hill facing the French command post.

The extensive field experience of Huynh Phuong Dong, one of Vietnam’s leading painters, closely mirrored that of many Vietnamese combat artists. After participating in the August 1945 uprising in Saigon and in battles in the surrounding area, Dong left in 1947 for a 36-mile hike to the Viet Minh guerrilla base in the Rung Sac mangrove forest, where he recorded the battles with the French in paintings and drawings.

In 1954, the Geneva Peace Accords created two Vietnams, a communist North and a democratic South, divided at the 17th parallel. Dong, along with a group of select artists, was sent to study for a year in China and Russia. In 1963, as an officer in the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), he was ordered south to support the Viet Cong (VC) insurgency. Leaving Hanoi on foot while carrying on his back his personal belongings, including a weapon and art supplies, Dong commenced the arduous 1,000-mile journey down the Ho Chi Minh trail through the jungles of Laos and Cambodia to the Cu Chi guerrilla base northeast of Saigon.

Cu Chi was a network of bases and tunnels that stretched into Cambodia – a place American GIs speculated was the location of their enemy’s headquarters, the fabled “Bamboo Pentagon.” Artists attached to NVA and VC units were sent out into the villages throughout this area to disperse propaganda and to shore up support for the war effort. They distributed political pamphlets and newspapers carrying reports of the war, erected poster displays, held art classes, performed songs and dances, staged evening plays and showed films. Casualties among the propaganda troops were a regular occurrence, as were staggering casualties among the NVA and the VC guerrillas. Dong was wounded twice, once in the French war and again during a B-52 bombing attack in 1969.

Le Lam, a field artist in the South, recalled that when comrades were killed, the others cried, buried them and then “had a drink and moved on to the next exhibition.” It was a rule that propaganda posters were not to depict the suffering of those in the army, the guerrilla forces or the civilian population. While official propaganda was all positive, emphasizing that strength and determination would bring victory and a bright future, the men and women fighters enduring extreme hardship under fire often asked the artists to draw their portraits in case they were killed.

Encounters with the U.S. 25th “Tropic Lightning” Infantry Division occurred regularly, as it too was positioned at Cu Chi. Major engagements with the Americans included operations Attleboro, Cedar Falls and Junction City. During the battle to destroy the tunnel complexes, GI “Tunnel Rats” crawling into underground rooms sometimes discovered small letterpresses, woodblocks and other paraphernalia used to print newspapers and posters. Members of search-and-destroy missions found posters on jungle trails encouraging the locals to resist or GIs to surrender or go home. During the 1968 battle for Khe Sanh, artists attached to various NVA divisions printed letterpress newspapers and posters throughout the siege. One artist/soldier even lugged a heavy lithographic stone down jungle trails regularly patrolled by U.S. Marines.

In the field and under fire, artists far from Hanoi and any source of art supplies were forced to make paper and paint from material at hand in the jungle. Tran Huu Chat’s first posters in the 1950s were drawn in charcoal on a paper made from the whitewashed bark of the banana tree. Bananas often served as paste for attaching posters to walls. Do, a traditional paper made from the bark of an indigenous tree (rhamnoneuron balansae), was pressed into service, as were the backsides of maps, recycled posters, cardboard boxes and any paper items tossed aside by the Americans in the field. Brushes, equally scarce, were made from pigs’ bristles or by carefully chewing the ends of twigs. Yellow paint was created by mixing oil or water with dried, ground turmeric.

Occasionally, VC guerrillas in the South smuggled art supplies out of Saigon or in from Cambodia to artists working at base camps. One artist at Dien Bien Phu begged medics for Mercurochrome to make the color red. In 1961, the first issue of an army magazine on literature and the arts, entitled Van Nghe Quan Doi, featured a watercolor on the cover by artist Pham Thanh Tam – the entire issue was hand painted and printed. Tam, who also produced a number of hand-colored woodblock posters, later became the director of the Military Museum in Hanoi.

Life for artists outside of combat zones improved in 1968 as the Propaganda Poster Department in Hanoi moved to increase production. Pham Hoc Hai, a poster painter working in the heavily bombed areas of the North, recalled that artists were paid 45 dong (about $11.50 in 2013 dollars) per month and were provided materials, living quarters, 13.5 kilos of rice and a half-kilo of meat.

In the long struggles against the French and the Americans, Vietnamese artists demonstrated perseverance and ingenuity by producing thousands of propaganda posters, drawings and paintings under brutal combat conditions. Using the crudest of materials, often extracted from the jungle, the propaganda units helped to unify and motivate both soldiers and civilians. This often-ignored body of diverse and colorful visual material, and the incredible effort to produce it, provides an important window into understanding the eventual North Vietnamese victory.

 

 Dr. Hal Elliott Wert is a professor of history at the Kansas City Art Institute. He has written a number of scholarly articles on food relief in World War II and has had many of his book reviews published in the “Journal of Military History” and “Military Review.”

Originally published in the January 2014 issue of Armchair General.

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