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Research and Encounters around the Conservation of a Vietnamese War Painting

A joint venture between artist, collector and conservator  
Sabine Cotte

Résumés

Cet article relate les recherches entreprises conjointement par un collectionneur et un conservateur-restaurateur pour établir le traitement d’une peinture Vietnamienne de la fin de la guerre, très endommagée. Grâce à un réseau d’interactions professionnelles et humaines, la peinture a pu être réinstallée à sa place de premier plan dans son propre contexte historique et social, incitant à de nouvelles collaborations pour le futur.

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Texte intégral

The author wishes to thank all the persons who contributed to this research: Martin Exelby, Bettina Ebert, Lyn Chua, Hua Tanh Binh, Phuong Nguyen, Rachel Kathryn Witt, Sally MacMillan Armstrong, Lawrence Chin.

Introduction

1Paintings are more than material objects and more than artistic objects; they are witnesses of a period, that of their creation, and vehicles for meaning and emotional responses through visual appeal and subject representation. This article will explore the various interactions between people from different fields of expertise that arose from the conservation project of a Vietnamese war painting purchased by an Australian collector.

  • 1  Discussion initiated on LinkedIn professional network, conservator-restorer group.

2This research involved interactions with conservators worldwide on professional social media1, electronic conversations on the web between collector, vendor and conservator, professional collaboration via email between conservators in different countries, face to face encounters between artist, collector and conservator.  The artist, the collector, the vendor and conservators worldwide with experience in similar paintings all informed the treatment decisions. Now conserved, the painting is a starting point for future interactions between institutions and between museums and the public. Modern technologies such as professional social networks or digital communication prove crucial in this type of interdisciplinary research, combined with research in social field (war artists’ memoirs, study of propaganda art) and face-to-face meetings between projects participants.

Historical background

3The painting ‘Taking over the city’  (figure1) dates from 1978 and represents the victory of the North Vietnamese army over the South in April 1975.

Fig.1 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig.1 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

 Oil on canvas mounted on stretcher, 86 x 118.5 cms. Private collection, Australia.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

  • 2  Source: http://loeser.us/flags/cold.html
  • 3  Information collected from the artist by the collector
  • 4  Information collected by the collector from the art dealer.
  • 5  Information collected from the artist by the conservator.

4The subject is a real-life event, the ransacking of the Saigon regime's police station in District 1 following the takeover of the city. It depicts people of both the North and the South (marked by the red armbands) joining together to takeover the police station. The large sign is being taken down while a man puts up the National Liberation Front flag2 in its place. The ground is littered with the boots and helmets of the southern army and Americans.  At the centre of the image, a woman is painting a cross over the orange striped South Vietnam flag to the left of the police station door, as this was a symbol of the old puppet Government3. There is an abundance of historical details such as the presence of female soldiers (the famous “long haired army”), the different sorts of guns depicted (the soviet-made AK47-better known as Kalashnikov- and the US supplied guns), topographic details of the area and a vivid description of the barricaded buildings as well as the exalted soldiers celebrating. This painting was part of a pair on the same theme4, the other one showing a close up of happy people’s faces with military tanks bearing the NLF flag in the background. Both paintings were a museum commission to the artist, at the time freshly graduated from the academy and a staff member of the museum, for a specific exhibition on the war years. The artist had not seen the paintings since then and considered them lost5. Through time the paintings left the state collections in unclear circumstances and passed through several hands.  The Singapore Arts Museum bought one of them from the last owner, a Vietnamese art dealer. The other one ended in Australia in the home of a private collector passionate for the art of this period and currently building a large collection through his travels to Vietnam and encounters with the veteran war painters.

5Ho Chi Minh City has several museums approaching the war period through various historical objects and artworks. However the particular subject of this painting is not frequently encountered, while the everyday life of people and soldiers during the long years of war is better represented in the collections.  Historically the victory of North Vietnam over the South marked the beginning of a large migration of Southern Vietnamese families from the upper classes seeking refuge in Europe and the United States. They shaped a vision of their country in the West that was little challenged for a long time, given the lack of access to reunified Vietnam until the 1990s.  The painting is therefore an important document illustrating a different version of history, originating from within the country.

Condition

  • 6  Masonite is a type of hardboard made of steam-cooked and pressure-molded wood fibres in a process (...)

6The painting came in a very poor condition; it is made of oil on a very thin canvas similar to cotton, mounted on a custom made strainer. The paint has a fluid and matte aspect, combined in places with a grainy texture (figure 2). Pieces of canvas, masonite 6panel and cardboard were stuck on the reverse, in an attempt to consolidate the canvas, torn in many places (figure 3).

Fig. 2 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 2 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Detail of blisters and grainy surface of paint.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

Fig. 3 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 3 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

General view of the reverse prior to treatment, with patches of thick cardboard and Masonite.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

7The face of the painting showed many thick over-paintings (along the accidents) and many hardened blisters due to the uneven laying on additional supports (figures 2 and 4).

Fig. 4 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 4 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Detail of surface condition prior to treatment, with tears, blisters and over paintings.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

8This was clearly a major conservation treatment and an opportunity to study technically a painting made shortly after the war, in a region impoverished by years of combat and relative political isolation in the late Seventies. Given the fragility of materials used and the unknown life circumstances of this painting prior to its arrival in Australia, the possibility of the previous repairs being done by the artist himself could not be excluded; if so, it would open discussions about the suitability to conserve them or not.

9The only information known at the time was that the painter was now the vice director of Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. The research therefore developed in two directions; first, a list of preliminary questions about technique, process and eventual previous interventions was made. The collector established contact with the painter through the vendor, seeking answers to these questions. At the same time, the conservator activated professional contacts and professional digital networks to find more about the materials and techniques used by Vietnamese artists during and shortly after the war years, and to find more information about the conservation of the pendant painting now in Singapore. The preliminary information from the artist and from conservation colleagues (collated via email) enabled the start of the first phase of treatment (elimination of the backings), while the body of information was gradually building up.

Documenting the history

10The conservation treatment of the support was a very long and difficult process that involved firstly peeling the masonite backings, then the strainer that had unfortunately become attached to the canvas through seepage of paint and glue (figure 5 and 6).

Fig. 5 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 5 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Detail during the removing of backings.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

Fig. 6 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 6 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Detail during peeling of stretcher.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

  • 7  Information supplied to the collector by the vendor, December 2012, and by the artist, February 20 (...)

11Documenting the mounting with bent nails (characteristic of the Indochina Art School) and the rough finish of the hard wood stretcher (custom-made at the Fine Arts Museum) was an interesting insight into the combination of French legacy (Ebert 2008) and local materials and climate. Valuable information came through professional networks contacts about materials used in Vietnamese art: at the time they were mainly coming from East Germany and the USSR, joining history and politics with commercial trade and artistic practice (Ebert 2008, MacMillan 2007). The artist confirmed this, adding that the reds were Russian paint and the blues East German paint. As he had no oil paint thinners or turpentine at the time he used lamp oil. From his memory, most of the picture was painted using a palette knife.  The grainy texture can be due to various causes: the mix of East German and Russian paints, the rubbing of the paint with the coarse canvas, and also the way the artist used the paint (seemingly quite dry)7. It may also be due to the presence of extenders and carboxylate soaps in the composition of the paint (MacMillan 2007, pp. 166-193).  

  • 8  Information supplied by the collector, February 2013

12Half way through the support treatment, the owner went to Vietnam and met with the artist, to whom he showed reports and photos of the conservation treatment in progress. He returned with information both helpful and warming. The painter was extremely happy to have rediscovered the paintings that he thought were long lost and to know that they were being cared for.  He gave additional information about his materials and technique, such as being conscious of the poor quality of the canvas he had bought locally, which during painting let too much paint squeeze through the open weave.  He therefore put a layer of clothing cotton behind the canvas, which may be part of the many strips of fabric uncovered when removing the backings. Since he had no primer paint for the canvas he used ivory door paint (visible at the edges), which may also contribute to the grainy texture to the paint.  Most importantly he confirmed that he had never touched the paintings again; he was therefore happy for the over-paintings to be eliminated from the face and grateful for the long hours of treatment necessary to retrieve the initial visual impact of the painting8.

  • 9  The author wishes to thank the Heritage Conservation Centre, Singapore, for providing information (...)

13After the painting was freed of all additional backings, the tears were repaired and the canvas relined. The newly consolidated painting was stretched on a conservation grade stretcher. The surface treatment could then be undertaken, informed by all sources including the artist’s statements and the Singapore Heritage Conservation Centre9.

14The surface treatment included cleaning, removing or thinning thick layers of over-paintings, often covering original paint and sometimes changing details of the composition (figure 7 and 8).

Fig. 7 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 7 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Detail of man putting the flag prior to treatment, with angular right shoulder and thin right arm.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

Fig. 8 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 8 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Same detail after treatment, recovering the original drawing of the shoulder.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

  • 10  Information provided by the collector, December 2013.

15One of the paint losses affected the most part of a letter in the police station sign (Figure 9). During in-painting, information was sought from Vietnamese speaking people to reconstruct it, revealing the use of an old form of language. ‘Chi Police Department’ should strictly read CHI CỤC CẢNH SÁT, but in old language it can also be CHI CUỘC CẢNH SÁT, which is the case here10.

16Another interpretation of a missing part (most of the leg of a woman soldier on the left side of the painting) was made using the existing traces and the surrounding figures. The artist later approved it on photographic documentation.

Fig. 9 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 9 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Detail with fillings, letter missing in the inscription.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

17A few months after completion of the treatment, I travelled to Vietnam and met with the artist, an active painter working from his office/studio at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. This was a very emotional encounter for both of us, as he went through the pages and illustrations of the conservation report and told me that he was moved to tears by the rediscovery of his painting, and the extent of the care given to it (figure 10). This style represented only a short period in his artistic career and very few pieces have subsisted, making the painting all the more valuable.

Fig. 10 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Fig. 10 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’

Same detail after treatment.

Credits: Sabine Cotte

18Such moments are certainly immensely rewarding in a conservator’s career and in my opinion give all its sense to our work, which is enabling connections (emotional, aesthetical, intellectual, historical or social) between art and people to be continued through time for everyone’s pleasure.

Future outcomes

  • 11  http://dogmacollection.com/. The Dogma Collection also publishes books on the artworks of war arti (...)
  • 12  See PHAM TANH TAM, ‘Drawing under fire, war diary of a young Vietnamese artist’, London, Asia Ink, (...)

19During this treatment, and various additional treatments of war paintings by veteran Vietnamese artists, my knowledge of the context gradually built up through the readings of war artists’ memoirs; these give a poignant account of the years dedicated to collectively document an ideal in incredibly dangerous conditions. Through the painting’s owner, I also discovered the great work done by The Dogma Collection in collecting, archiving, preserving and disseminating propaganda art, a period originally neglected by the authorities, more focused on the country’s modernization in the 1990s11.  I also had the chance to meet with Colonel Pham Tanh Tam, one of the veteran war artists whose paintings I had also conserved for the same collector. Aged 84, Colonel Pham Tanh Tam is one of the last survivors of the battle of Dien Bien Phu; he has been part of the two Vietnamese wars, against the French and against the Americans, which saw him walking the famous 1000km long Ho Chi Minh trail twice. His recollections of painting and drawing under fire, using colour sparingly to get more out of a supply of materials, storing paintings and drawings in found US ammunition boxes that proved the best waterproof storage at the time and his stories about life on the war front and about the art classes organized to keep the troupes’ morale were both illuminating and humbling12.  

  • 13  Meeting with the artist, January 2014

20Although Hua Tanh Binh was too young to be a war artist himself, he saw firsthand as an eighteen year old man the takeover of Saigon, where he was born and had been educated at the University of Fine Arts. He collected stories from soldiers and ordinary people to make these two paintings in 1978 and managed to convey the feeling of elation prevalent in the troops taking the streets of Saigon three years before13.

21The importance of ‘Taking over the city’ was gradually discovered through meetings between the artist, the collector and the conservator, and through sharing the information collected. The use of modern technologies greatly facilitated this research that would probably not have been possible in this format and time frame 20 years ago. The amount of knowledge collected about the painting created the feeling of a ‘moral duty’ to conserve the painting and transmit its historical and social value.

22Other future projects sparkling from the conservation of ‘Taking over the city’ include the possibility of reuniting the two paintings through a temporary exhibition or a loan to the Singapore Arts Museum (for the collector) and assisting the staff at the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum to conserve similarly damaged paintings (for the conservator).

Fig.11 The author with the artist in his Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum office

Fig.11 The author with the artist in his Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum office

January 2014

Credits: Sabine Cotte

23Beyond the satisfaction of saving a painting that would otherwise soon be lost, this journey illustrates how many human and professional interactions were triggered by a single artwork, taken at a particular point of its life story. Thanks to a common will to find more information about a painting and to replace it in its proper social and historical context, human relationships have been formed that may result in further projects between institutions and individuals in three different countries.  

24This story illustrates the place of conservation at the interface of many fields (art history, social history, oral history, technical studies) and the role it plays in connecting these fields.  The painting ‘Taking over the city’ documents the historical context of the 25 years long Vietnam war, an event that had an impact on a whole generation; the various meetings with the painter emphasise the role of oral history in conservation, specifically in the study of materials and the relationships between politics and artistic practice. The significance of this post-victory official command, in line with a long artistic tradition of victory celebratory artworks, takes a new dimension in the light of the collapse of the communist regimes in the end of the twentieth century. Apart from the Chinese giant, Vietnam is but one of the remaining communist countries in the world, operating a pragmatic opening to the capitalist world, mainly through tourism. The conservation and subsequent resurfacing of this painting gives a unique glimpse in the enthusiasm and idealistic joy of the immediate after war years, and contributes to the personal and collective memory building that shapes the present and future of this new country with a long past.

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Bibliographie

Buchanan, S. (2008) ‘Mekong diaries, Viet Cong drawings and stories 1964-75’, Chicago, the University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Ebert, B. (2008) A scientific investigation into the degradation processes of zinc-based paints, together with art historical research, Research Project presented at Northumbria University for the Degree of Master of Arts in Conservation of Fine Art, unpublished.

MacMillan, S. (2007) A report on the art historical investigation, condition, technical examination and initial investigations into the conservation treatment of two paintings on canvas by Vietnamese artist Nguyen Trong Kiem (1933-1991) dated 1963; in conjunction with scientific investigation of various tube paints used by Vietnamese artists during the mid C20th, and the materials, degradation mechanisms and conservation issues regarding the two paintings. Research Project presented at Northumbria University for the Degree of Master of Arts in Conservation of Fine Art, unpublished.

Pham Tanh Tam (2005) ‘Drawing under fire, war diary of a young Vietnamese artist’, London, Asia Ink.

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Notes

1  Discussion initiated on LinkedIn professional network, conservator-restorer group.

2  Source: http://loeser.us/flags/cold.html

3  Information collected from the artist by the collector

4  Information collected by the collector from the art dealer.

5  Information collected from the artist by the conservator.

6  Masonite is a type of hardboard made of steam-cooked and pressure-molded wood fibres in a process patented by William H. Mason. This product is also known as Quartrboard,Isorel, hernit, karlit, torex or treetex.

7  Information supplied to the collector by the vendor, December 2012, and by the artist, February 2013. No analysis were carried out on the painting to confirm/infirm one of these theories.

8  Information supplied by the collector, February 2013

9  The author wishes to thank the Heritage Conservation Centre, Singapore, for providing information about their treatment of the other painting from the pair, now in their collection.

10  Information provided by the collector, December 2013.

11  http://dogmacollection.com/. The Dogma Collection also publishes books on the artworks of war artists.

12  See PHAM TANH TAM, ‘Drawing under fire, war diary of a young Vietnamese artist’, London, Asia Ink, 2005, or BUCHANAN, S. ‘Mekong diaries, Viet Cong drawings and stories 1964-75’, Chicago, the University of Chicago Press, 2008.

13  Meeting with the artist, January 2014

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.1 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende  Oil on canvas mounted on stretcher, 86 x 118.5 cms. Private collection, Australia.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Titre Fig. 2 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende Detail of blisters and grainy surface of paint.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 144k
Titre Fig. 3 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende General view of the reverse prior to treatment, with patches of thick cardboard and Masonite.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 68k
Titre Fig. 4 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende Detail of surface condition prior to treatment, with tears, blisters and over paintings.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 156k
Titre Fig. 5 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende Detail during the removing of backings.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 116k
Titre Fig. 6 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende Detail during peeling of stretcher.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Fig. 7 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende Detail of man putting the flag prior to treatment, with angular right shoulder and thin right arm.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 80k
Titre Fig. 8 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende Same detail after treatment, recovering the original drawing of the shoulder.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Fig. 9 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende Detail with fillings, letter missing in the inscription.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 124k
Titre Fig. 10 Hua Tanh Binh ‘Taking over the city’
Légende Same detail after treatment.
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
Titre Fig.11 The author with the artist in his Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Museum office
Légende January 2014
Crédits Credits: Sabine Cotte
URL http://ceroart.revues.org/docannexe/image/4562/img-11.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 70k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Sabine Cotte, « Research and Encounters around the Conservation of a Vietnamese War Painting  », CeROArt [En ligne], 10 | 2015, mis en ligne le 12 mars 2015, consulté le 30 avril 2017. URL : http://ceroart.revues.org/4562

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Auteur

Sabine Cotte

Sabine Cotte has degrees in conservation of paintings from the Institut National du Patrimoine (France), ICCROM (Italy) and the University of Melbourne (Australia). She has been working as a private conservator, first in Paris and now in Melbourne, Australia where she resides. She has completed various missions for UNESCO and private foundations in Bhutan and Nepal, training a number of regional people in heritage conservation. Her interests lie in questioning the relevance of conservation in its relationships with contemporary artists, communities and users of living heritage. She has published several articles and posters in international journals and conferences. She is currently enrolled in a PhD in conservation at the University of Melbourne. Address: 31 Niagara Lane, Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia. Email:sabinec@ozemail.com.au

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Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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