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Art and architecture

Three main artistic civilisations have successively flourished in Vietnam with a singular lack of continuity and with gaping chronological interludes. The Dong Son bronze civilisation (7C-2C BC), was the first, covering a vast area from southern China to the coasts of Indonesia; the second Cham period (7C-15C AD) produced brick and clay sculptures in honour of the Champa gods and kings; the third occurred from the 11C under the impetus of the Vietnamese kingdoms and gave rise to the use of carved wood decoration of palaces and temples. Very little remains of any of these civilisations. Ancient, and to an even greater extent, recent, wars have taken their toll. The damage is further aggravated by the fact that up until the mid-20C almost no research into the arts of Vietnam had been undertaken. Now however they are more alive than ever. Whether it be the traditional crafts of the country’s various ethnic groups or the work of its contemporary artists, it is as if this nation’s tireless will to rebuild its country is constantly rekindling its artistic talent.


Early art in Vietnam

The drum beat

At the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, metalworking reached a remarkable level of sophistication in the Dong Son culture. In a necropolis of 200 burial places near the village of Thanh Hoa, several hundred bronze objects were discovered which had been made using techniques such as lost-wax metal casting, planishing, riveting and soldering. The burial places held tools (axes, knives), weapons (swords, lances), a few human and animal statuettes, together with two ritual objects, drums and situlae (bucket-shaped containers), which contained cereals, Chinese coins or shells. The impressive dimensions of these artefacts, some of which are up to 60cm in height and 80cm in diameter, bear witness to their importance even if their decoration is now more subject to conjecture than to certainty. Portraits and scenes of everyday life including figures with feather head-dresses, vividly portrayed in profile (hunting, farming or soldiering) and animals (deer, aquatic birds, crocodiles) were carved around the lids of the situlae. On the drums, these strip-cartoon-like scenes were laid out in spirals radiating from a central star motif, possibly symbolising the sun. They gradually became simpler, evolving into geometric patterns, sometimes accompanied by little frog statuettes in allusion to a water-bound civilisation. Chinese occupation from around the 1C AD silenced this art form, but it revealed the symbolic significance of these drums. General Ma Yuan, sent to crush uprisings in the south, had the Dong Son leaders’ emblems of power melted down whenever one of them was captured.

The Dong Son legacy

Despite vigorous attempts to Christianise them, the Highlanders today represent a living link with Vietnam’s ancient civilisation. The Austronesians in particular, by virtue of their languages, represent a cultural era which coincides with that of the Dong Son drums, examples of which have been found in the Philippines and in Indonesia. On either side of the South China Sea, ancient architectural traditions have given rise to a house similar to that depicted on the drums. The rooftop was the most striking feature of these stilt houses, whether it be the trapezoid E De house, the Gia Rai longhouse or the Ba Nang communal house (rong) with its tapered double roof. Ethnographists have yet to agree to what extent the rituals of the Dong Son have been reproduced by the Highlanders, whose communal house contains artefacts held sacred by the community, such as pitchers, gongs and drums. Several groups transmit the myth of a drum-boat which saved humanity from the Flood. Drums and gongs continue to summon the community to meet during complex sacrificial funeral rites when the deceased gradually leaves the land of the living for the world of the spirits. Among the Gia Rai, the E De and the Ba Na, the definitive departure of the dead is marked by the building of a funeral house, the statues of which represent nature and fertility.


Cham art

The Champa kingdom was heavily influenced by India, the first signs of which had reached the Mekong Delta around the 1C AD. After the fashion of their Khmer neighbours, the Cham sovereigns worshipped the Hindu pantheon of gods, focused around two main divinities, My Son, the “Good Mountain”, devoted to Shiva, and Po Nagar, the rock overlooking the sea, devoted to the Goddess Bhagavati. From the 7C, the spoils of war financed large numbers of identical brick spire-shrines and a wide variety of carved sandstone images. Some experts have argued that it is almost as if Vietnam’s artistic civilisation had stood still before jumping a few generations, and indeed Cham art only really emerges from the 15C. Such lack of continuity has complicated analy­ses, already hampered by a clear preference for studies of Khmer art. A few meagre towers scattered along the Mandarin Road, statues in Vietnam and in the Guimet Museum in Paris, old photos of architectural complexes destroyed during the Vietnam War and a few inscriptions are all that remains of this vanished civilisation.

A conservative architecture

The remains of Cham architecture are religious and based almost entirely on a single model, reproduced from the 7C by all the major Indianised kingdoms from the Indochinese peninsula to the Indonesian archipelago, namely that of the sikhara or spire-shrine, called kalan in Cham. The dwelling-place of the god was designed to be a place of worship and not of assembly. These confined, windowless shrines hold a divine image, either in the shape of a statue or a lingam, as in the case of the cult of Shiva. The image is placed on a pedestal, the yoni, sometimes equipped with a drainage system which collects the holy water poured over the statue during ceremonies. The design of the exterior reflects the sacred nature of the edifice, which generally faces east. Each shrine is built on three levels, reflecting the Indian mythological concept of the world, with the foundations, relatively low in the Cham version, representing the world down on earth (bhurloka), up to the pyramidal roof depicting the heavenly spheres (svarloka). The slenderness of the edifice is enhanced by mini­ature corner stones, which faithfully reproduce the kalan’s outline. The shrines at Hoa Lai (late 8C-early 9C) are the oldest examples of this architectural form.

In the 10C, at My Son, a more complex type of structure emerged. It comprised a perimeter wall within which stood a number of edifices, more or less derived from the kalan, such as the gopura (tower-porch) which forms the entrance into the holy area, the mandapa (four-door pavilion) where the offerings may have been prepared. There were also barlong-type constructions, such as the koshagraha (library), covered by a vault, where the sacred objects were kept. Unlike the Khmer, the Cham did not build on a grand scale; the only exception to this rule was the Buddhist complex at Dong Duong (late 9C), which was entirely destroyed during the Vietnam War.

The materials used by the Cham changed very little over the centuries. Wooden prototypes probably existed, but in the 8C they began to use brick, undoubtedly cemented with a resin. Unlike the Khmer, the Cham only used sandstone very sparingly, restricting it to a few blocks over or around the doors or in decorative elements, such as tympanums or friezes. The brick was carved to emphasise the building’s features, using pilasters around the main entrance doors, recesses and false windows to enliven side walls or moulding on the cornices around the base of the roof. Even if it is true that the basic layout of such buildings underwent few changes over the centuries, their architectural ornamentation reveals a clear evolution in style.

Unique carvings

The few remaining individual pieces or groups of statues which are still in place paint a picture of what is one of the Indochinese peninsula’s most unusual types of statu­ary. The Cham had become master craftsmen in the art of brickwork and some of their buildings still display examples of superb ornamental and figurative sculpture, carved directly into the stone, such as that on the walls of the koshagraha of the B group at My Son or the statues which ornament the three façades of the annexe to the temple at Po Nagar. The essentially Shivaist ­iconography of Cham art, with the exception of a Buddhist interlude (late 9C-early 10C) and several rare appearances of the God Vishnu, reveals the undisputed influence of India, although over time it developed its own stylistic forms, enriched by Khmer, Indonesian and sometimes Chinese influences.

The earliest known works, which come from the E1 tower at My Son (mid-7C), impress by their sobriety and elegance. The carved altar base, a recurrent element of Cham architecture, features an elaborate blend of divinities with other more everyday motifs. In the late 9C, the Dong Duong style reveals a radical change in direction, particularly apparent in its adoption of concepts such as the Buddhist Greater Vehicle. The intricate foliated motifs and thread-like tracery bear witness to the Buddhist abhorrence of empty spaces and the guardian gods (dvarapala) are depicted with exaggerated faces and stances. After a transition phase, My Son returned to its former classicism, revealed by the statues of the now-vanished complex at Tra Kieu (10C), such as the pedestal with apsaras or the altar with dancers. The style becomes purer and the lines rounder as the Cham also develop a catalogue of naturalistically depicted animals in which the elephant figures prominently. In the mid-12C, the Thap Mam style is illustrated by religious furniture and architectural decorative features which echo the exuberant aspects of Dong Duong. Gods, guardians and animals are covered in robes, the details of which are intricately carved. With its garuda (bird-men), begging dragons, lion-elephants and lions balancing on their heads, the Thap Mam style created one of the most fantastic bestiaries of Asian art. But subsequently, Cham art began to repeat itself and entered a long period of decline, reflecting the absorption of the Champa Empire into Vietnam.


Art of the Vietnamese kingdoms

To an even greater extent than Champa art, Vietnamese art has suffered from having long been considered little more than a “marginal” Chinese art. Up until the 10C-11C, this epithet was probably justified. At that time, Vietnam was simply a far-flung province of the Chinese Empire and although many religious foundations date back to this era, nothing of them remains today. Archaeological excavations have unearthed only a few artefacts from tombs, which were designed, along the Chinese model, to be dwelling places in the afterlife and accordingly equipped with crockery and tiny ceramic edifices. Vietnamese art only really emerges when the Vietnamese kingdom becomes independent. From this point on, one of its most striking characteristics is an amazing capacity to assimilate other models – mainly Chinese – into its culture, only to break free of them later.

Not built to last

Wood and clay

The oldest remaining architectural traces can be found in the North, though they were sorely damaged by the 20C wars. Destruction by man is not, however, the only reason that so few edifices remain from the Vietnamese kingdoms. Whether built for secular or religious purposes, Vietnamese architecture was never intended to last. Although it won its independence in 1428, Vietnam remained under Chinese influence, which differed immensely from the Indianised traditions favoured by the Champa.

The materials used remained perishable. Buildings were made out of wood and not brick and the structure was upheld by columns instead of walls. The similarity with its Chinese counterparts is however purely superficial. The amplitude and curves of the turned-up roof are in fact more akin to Dong Son constructions. Beginning with a primitive farmhouse built around a single, central post, buildings gradually acquired a multitude of supports, thereby offering more scope to the sculptor’s chisel. The roofs were covered in flat tiles, laid out like overlapping fish scales, or in semicircular tiles in the Chinese tradition. Pottery also became a major feature of architectural decoration and appeared on walls, floors and rooftops. Stone was used primarily for foundations, bases of columns, balustrades, bridges and staircases. Brick or mud walls served as simple envelopes and were no more structurally load-bearing than were the inner wooden or bamboo partition walls.

Portable buildings

Partition walls were not the only movable features of this foundation-free architecture. The load-bearing columns were erected without mortice and tenon joints, straight onto the stone bases, enabling the structure to be entirely dismantled. Each building could be easily taken down and rebuilt elsewhere in case of war, natural catastrophe or a change in the seat of power. Such removals even occurred within the grounds of the Imperial City at Hue. In 1833, Minh Mang had the throne moved to the south in order to build an enormous golden gate in its place, itself built from materials from a former palace at Gia Long. The passing whims of the royal families were not the only motives behind such displacements, which were also dictated by the logic of geomancy. This ancestral science of Chinese origin examines the conjunction of a number of phenomena and the disposition of buildings, to determine what is propitious or ill-fated for any given structure. Geomancy was what caused so many buildings to be built with a southern aspect.

Official art

Ghost capitals

The inherently temporary nature of Vietnamese architecture explains why the remains of Vietnam’s past capitals fit into just a few museum display-cases, and consist of a few forlorn engraved paving stones and ornamental roof features and tiles. Hoa Lu, the first capital of the independent kingdom was moved to Hanoi, and, after eight centuries as the seat of power, transferred to Hue. The only notable exception to this rule was the Temple of Literature, founded in the 11C at Hanoi for the cult of Confucius and enlarged by successive dynasties, and which remained in the city.

Power and protocol

The last Imperial capital, Hue was designed on the Chinese model. Three concentric square enclosures define the three areas of the citadel and, by extension, the protocol of the Nguyen court. The Capital City (Kinh Thanh), or citadel, marks the separation between the town and the area where the civilian mandarins and soldiers in the emperor’s service lived. The immense Southern Gate set in the ramparts leads into the Imperial City (Hoang Thanh), which contains the throne room and temples devoted to the worship of the dynasty’s ancestors. A third gate leads into the Forbidden Purple City (Tu Cam Thanh), the private quarters of the imperial family. The dragons making their way around the rooftops in search of a pearl add a frivolous touch to this otherwise austere edifice.

Eternal palaces

Up until the dynasty of the Later Le in the 15C, Vietnamese monarchs were interred in simple burial mounds, marked by a stele. After this they adopted the customs of the Chinese court and had eternal palaces built within concentric enclosures similar to those of their citadels and set in vast grounds. This type of construction is the only departure from the otherwise short-lived, removable qualities so characteristic of Vietnamese architecture. The tombs of Hue’s emperors are the apotheosis of this style of funerary art. Built during the emperor’s life, each one is stamped with its future occupant’s personality. Tu Duc’s tomb illustrates his whimsical, poetic nature, Minh Mang’s burial place echoes his austere, rigorous personality and Khai Dinh’s symbolises his grandiloquence.

Religious art

The Buddhist pagoda

Introduced between the 3C and 6C, Buddhism, which only prospered from the 11C-14C under the royal patronage of the Ly and then the Tran dynasties, was to bequeath Vietnam a number of masterpieces.

The pagoda (chua) is a complex of buildings, whose number varies depending on the importance of the site and its topography. The layout reveals a sense of rhythm and space, characteristic of this modular approach to architecture which alternates courtyards and buildings. It is an architectural form which attaches great importance to blending in with its surrounding landscape, as is illustrated by the Thay (Master’s) Pagoda, suspended between mountain and water, the Keo Pagodas, But Thap in the flat expanses of the delta or again, the Tay Phuong Pagoda perched on an outcrop.

The heart of the pagoda is the shrine. It is surrounded by a series of galleries (hanh), which enclose it on three sides and are preceded by a large courtyard, entered through a gate. The rear gallery houses the altars devoted to the patriarchs who lived here. The side galleries provide shelter to the pilgrims and sometimes accommodation for monks. Among the outbuildings, there is often a tower with a bell or a gong, which is rung at prayer times, and stone reliquary-towers, which are in fact the real “pagodas”, containing the ashes of monks or lay donors.

The shrine is divided up into three successive areas, sometimes all housed under the same roof. An ante-room (tien duong), where guardian gods (ho phap) protect the faithful come to worship, an Incense Room (thieu huong) where the monks read prayers and a Main Altar Room (thuong dien) which houses the pantheon’s divin­ities, who stand at the foot of the trinity of Present, Historical and Future Buddhas.

Stone carving is rare. Buddhist artists preferred to carve painted, lacquered or natural wood, producing works of immense depth of expression.

A review of Vietnamese Buddhist art would be lacking should it fail to mention one of its most unusual facets, a sort of combined effort of nature and man. These rocky cave pagodas, where the blue light of day filters through natural windows, were initially the result of erosion leaving curiously shaped caverns later adopted by worshippers. Among the most famous are the Marble Mountains at Da Nang, the caves at Lang Son and those on the Mountain of Fragrant Traces, not far from Hanoi.

Temples inhabited by spirits

In former times, each northern village had its own communal house (dinh), where the wise-men of the village held court, under the aegis of the community’s patron spirits – founder, hero or beast. A large courtyard served to welcome the villagers during local festivals. Of a barlong-type construction, each house had altars at either end of its long structure. From the 17C, the dinh was to supplant the pagoda in size and in ornamentation. Beams, joists, lintels and façades were smothered in carvings of highly varied themes, ranging from fabulous animals to seasonal flowers and scenes of daily life and fairy-tales and myths. Those communal houses still standing after the ravages of the war have been brought back into service, such as Dong Khang Dinh at Dinh Bang or Hang Khen Dinh at Haiphong.

The den is a national or regional temple, the layout of which varies greatly; built in honour of a king, a spirit or a famous person. These cults emerged under the Trinh family (1533-1789) and they contributed to developing a “national” style of architecture which abandoned Chinese themes in favour of a more distinctly Vietnamese style. One of the characteristics of a den is that many house a simple tablet on which the donor’s name or the person’s insignia of office (crown, mandarin cap) is inscribed, based on the model of the ancestors’ altars. When it contains an effigy, this is placed in the back of the shrine, hidden by a carved wooden screen.


20C hybrid art

Colonial influences

From 1860 to 1945, the whole country was subjected to a new influence introduced by colonial France. This initially gave rise to identical reproductions of styles prevalent in France at the time, but little by little an unusual combination of styles was to emerge. This phenomenon was furthered in the early 19C by the work carried out by French engineers in the building of the Gia Long citadels at Hue, Hanoi and Haiphong.

Cochinchina was the first land conquered and the first to witness Western architecture with the building of the Customs’ House in Saigon in 1862. Saigon and Hanoi were to become home to France’s administrative and municipal institutions (town hall, law courts, governor’s residence, post office and customs house), cultural bodies (theatres) and religious edifices (cathedrals), all of which were built in a style which can only be described as eclectic neo-Classicism.

Dating from the late 19C, Phat Diem Cathedral, whose construction and decoration are reminiscent of Vietnamese temples, augurs the birth of the hybrid 1920s style, a cross between new international movements and local architectural currents. This “Indochinese” style was employed in institutions of a cultural nature, such as the Louis Finot Museum (1925) or the University of Indochina (1926) in Hanoi. Legitimately rejected by the nationalist movement and neglected for a long time by historians, this colonial legacy has recently come back into fashion and is now accepted as an integral aspect of Vietnam’s artistic heritage.

From socialist realism to contemporary creations

Contemporary Vietnamese art, released from its ties with religion and royal patronage, took root in the foundation of the Indochinese School of Fine Arts, created in 1925 in Hanoi. Trained in the major Western art trends, a generation of painters and sculptors born in the early 20C was, for the first time ever, to acquire the status of artist and to discover a freedom of expression unhampered by the bonds of patronage.

From 1945, artistic expression was required to reflect daily life and to faithfully reproduce Ho Chi Minh’s theories. Vietnam’s presence within the sphere of Soviet influence in 1975 effectively ruled out any possibility of individual creativity in favour of a pompous Socialist realism and the glorification of Leninist-Marxist thinkers. Cut off from the rest of the world, Vietnam was to delve into its own past to unearth the foundations of an original art, exhibited in galleries which opened in Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Da Nang, as part of the Doi Moi policy. A new artistic language developed, reinforced by a rekindling of traditional village arts. This interest in traditional crafts was to revive dormant skills such as lacquer-work.

Since the end of the 1990s, the regime has slightly slackened its censorship policy, thus giving rise to the emergence of forms of contemporary expression. Exhibitions of the work of Vietnamese artists have been held in London, New York and Paris.

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