Vietnam Posters: The David Heather Collection
by David Heather and Sherry Buchanan, Prestel, 2009
When rebellion, revolution and war grip a society, the reverberations reach into every corner of the culture, including the world of art and design. The great Communist wave that was launched in 1917 infused liberation movements and revolutions around the world with a bold and vibrant propaganda poster style that lives on in the 21st century. Visitors to the modern and robust Vietnam might be surprised to see cities and villages still festooned with colorful state-controlled posters. Rather than beseeching the people to resist and defeat the American or French “imperialist agressors,” these urge couples to have fewer children, promote literacy, discourage smoking and encourage other positive social behavior.
London businessman and art collector David Heather has assembled a feast of Vietnamese poster art that helps convey the last 60 years of Vietnam’s history of anticolonial war and revolution, both social and economic. The author of several books on art, history and culture and a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal and Internation Herald Tribune, Sherry Buchanan offers readers insights into the development of Vietnam’s rich cadre of Resistance artists. They gained inspiration from a strong and determined people who—despite immense economic and technological disadvantages —drove one colonial oppressor from their land in the 1950s and bloodied history’s mightiest military power in the 1960s.
During the war against the French, the Viet Minh, who had been spurned by the West, embraced the Socialist realism as the “art for the people,” and Communist theoretician Truong Chinh proclaimed, “Art is only real art if it becomes propaganda.”
Naturally, the United States doesn’t fare well in the posters from the war era, but with an objective eye one can appreciate the inspirational power embodied in these portrayals of an overmatched people defending their homeland and their children.
But before and after the Americans, Ho Chi Minh rules in the world of Vietnamese propaganda—from the daring young revolutionist humiliating the French, to the intellectual theoretician writing history, to the conductor of the party orchestra, to the kindly, white-haired Uncle Ho. Alongside Ho are local heroes, guerrillas, broad-shouldered factory workers, gun-toting peasant women, war machines and happy farmers.
Much of the art in Vietnam Posters has rarely been seen by people outside Vietnam and, for that matter, given the relatively small numbers printed of many of these posters, by most Vietnamese themselves.
This volume is first and foremost an art and design book, full of high-quality reproductions of posters spanning half a century. It gives readers just a brief overview of Vietnam’s history and the role of the Resistance artist in it. The historically curious will find themselves wanting to learn more, especially about some of the more provacative pieces in the collection.
Originally published in the August 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.