“Exceptionally rare” drawings and paintings that show the First Indochina War and Vietnam War through the eyes of a North Vietnamese soldier and war artist are coming up for auction in Britain.
The seven wartime sketches by Pham Thanh Tam (1932-2019) each have estimates of £400-£600 in Chorley’s sale of Modern Art & Design on November 21 — although auctioneers believe they could sell for significantly more. Most of the sketches were made in the field and they include a study of a young female soldier holding a rifle and another of soldiers riding on a tank at the Fall of Saigon in April 1975.
The 20th-century wars in Vietnam loom large in the Western cultural imagination thanks to images from photographers like Eddie Adams and Don McCullin and filmmakers including Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola. However, Vietnamese artistic responses are rarely seen outside Vietnam.
Commenting on the collection, the current owner said: “As a long term expat in Saigon I was fascinated in the history and art of the country and started collecting Vietnamese art. I was captivated by Tam’s rapid fluidity of sketching in the most adverse conditions, and how it caught that moment in time.”
As a young teenager in 1945, Tam participated in the “August Revolution” in which the communist Viet Minh asserted Vietnam’s independence from French and Japanese colonial rule. When French forces sought to seize back control in the following years, Tam served in a propaganda painting division and learnt — on a course held in the jungle — to create murals designed to celebrate the resistance and intimidate French troops.
In 1950 he formally joined the Viet Minh, in which he would serve not only as a combatant in the First Indochina War but also as an official war artist and reporter. Four years later, aged 22, he served at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, when massive Viet Minh forces sought to overrun a French fortress near the Laos border. The battle was a decisive Viet Minh victory which led to the partition of Vietnam into a communist north and American-backed south.
Tam’s experience of the long and brutal siege was formative for the young soldier-artist. He narrowly escaped death when the artillery battery he was attached to was destroyed by a French shell while he was out accompanying an infantry unit. He later recalled the “iron” smell of his dead comrades’ blood when he returned.
After a brief interlude of study at Hanoi’s Institute of Fine Arts, he resumed his duties as a soldier, reporter and artist in the Second Indochina War. This time, the army of communist North Vietnam was pitted against South Vietnam and its allies, led by the US. Tam’s contribution included writing and painting from numerous different battlefields and fronts, including the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968 and the Ho Chi Minh trail — the sophisticated North Vietnamese logistical trail supplying the Viet Cong guerrilla army and North Vietnamese troops in the south.
Twenty one years after Dien Bien Phu, he was present, pencil in hand, at the Fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces on April 30, 1975.
Sketches by North Vietnam’s war artists were reproduced in newspapers and sometimes became the basis for posters and other larger works. They were also shown to troops in makeshift exhibitions and the artists’ presence at the front was considered good for morale. Tam remembered: “Soldiers enjoyed it, having me around drawing. They thought it was relaxing. To have someone remembering you by drawing you — it was like telling a beautiful girl she is beautiful.”
Tam sent most of his drawings from the front back to Hanoi for safekeeping as he travelled. Describing his technique in an interview with The Guardian, he said: “At Khe Sanh I did the watercolours right there at the battle. I used a plume rehaussée d’aquarelle [pen with watercolour]. The idea was not to hang around too long in one place. So I would usually add the pen later on. When I travelled around the country and there was no fierce fighting, I had more time to sketch carefully. I travelled with a photographer. That was very useful. If I forgot details, I could look at his pictures and fill in details. I used all kinds of materials: watercolours, pens, pencils — whatever I could find.”
In 1989, after retiring from the army at the rank of colonel, he moved to Ho Chi Minh City, otherwise known as Saigon, and continued to produce art in different media. His diary entries and a selection of sketches were collated in the book Drawing Under Fire: War Diary of a Young Vietnamese Artist, published in 2005. He is now considered one of the most important Vietnamese artists of his time.
Commenting on the works coming up for sale, Chorley’s director Werner Freundel said: “Tam’s impressionistic artworks, drawn from life in the battlefield and Vietnamese camps, capture the realities of war and intimate snapshots of daily life on the battlefield. They are hardly ever seen at auction, making these exceptionally rare.”
“There were a number of North Vietnamese propaganda artists that did these field sketches. They were looking at the army’s exploits and creating artworks to further communist principles. Tam is one of the most well-known and was very prolific. He built a good reputation and travelled right across Vietnam, rather than being one area. So he found a lot of fame.”
As for the sketches coming up for sale, he agrees with the vendor that their immediacy is one of their finest qualities. “What is really captivating and enthralling is the fluidity and quickness — especially of the ones done in the field, such as the lady kneeling and holding a gun. It’s done in relatively few strokes because, obviously, time is not on your side when you have Americans looming over you. He does manage to capture those situations. There are also some works in the collection that were made in barracks and have more detail.”
He believes the sketches are more likely to appeal to the collector of Vietnamese art than a militaria buff. “I think it is going to be someone who is collecting contemporary Vietnamese art. That has received a huge amount of attention in the last two years or so. Prices have rocketed — especially because Vietnam is undergoing a big transformation and a lot of wealth is being generated.
“Institutions will also be interested. Tam is already represented in the British Museum’s collection, so there is appreciation of his work from a curatorial point of view. However, his work hasn’t really come to auction so it’s a bit of a shot in the dark as to what they might make. We’ve made estimates based on similar artists’ work, but no one of his calibre has come to auction with these kinds of sketches.”
The artworks will be up for sale at Chorley’s sale of Modern Art & Design at Prinknash Abbey Park, Gloucestershire, on Tuesday, November 21. The image at the top of the article is a watercolour and gouache sketch of villagers and a soldier by North Vietnamese war artist Pham Thanh Tam. Photo: courtesy of Chorley’s