The Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts had an exhibit called, at least in English, “Realism.” The wall poster at the entrance was not inspiring in its English translation. Reading it, my main reaction was that this was a pre-emptive effort to deflect possible criticism. It seemed to say that Realism (and it listed six or eight different types of realism, including both social realism and socialist realism) was a diverse, multiple thing; that each artist has to speak for themselves and paint what they are driven to paint, and that all these artists no matter how different from each other they are nonetheless all follow along in the great traditions and even in the light of love and God. In other words, everything and nothing. For sure, if you read this poster, you would skip the exhibit.
So I didn’t skip it, but it took me well into the second room before I started to think I understood what I was looking at. I also went out and got Joe and walked him through it. He is not sure that he saw what I saw.
The first three paintings were dark, green-blue still lives, as if painted in a room with the shades drawn. No sharp angles of light anywhere. The objects were all household items from the 1950s and earlier: alarm clock, a fan, a portfolio, suitcases, a scooter, a lamp. Stacked up. The paintings were about 24 – 26 inches high, maybe 3 or 4 feet long. A feeling of dust all over everything. The items in the pictures were definitely old. It wasn’t as if they were in an attic, though. It was as if they were present only in memory.
Next came three very frightening but initially cute-seeming paintings. These are big paintings. Standing in front of them, my eyes were about at the level of the grasshopper in the upper painting. In the lower left painting, the image in the child’s eyes is a cracked dry mud desert. The animals moving from left to right are headed toward a deep crevasse. In the upper painting, that bird is feeding one live grasshopper to about 17 baby birds that are all screaming with hunger. The innumerable animals in the lower right painting are all crowding around a small patch of lush green grass that is about enough to feed one of them for one day. Behind them the desert stretches out as far as the eye can see. The tree has been stripped bare.
There were some pictures that were technically extraordinary. I didn’t take photos of everything. I felt a bit conspicuous taking photos, although some other people were doing it too.
Three of these were splendid watercolors about water, or at least that’s what it looked like to begin with. One showed a seacoast, breaking waves, etc. Next to it was a closeup of a small waterfall, water running over shining stones. Here and there were glimpses of golden fish climbing the waterfall. All shiny and transparent and multi-layered. But the third one showed a display of transparent plastic bags, each containing half a dozen small gold fish, pinned up on a rack for sale. Goldfish and the water they live in have become commodities.
This one is a lovely scene of ducks swimming in a quiet river. Behind them n the distance, however, an army of towering apartment buildings is approaching across the field. This is exactly what is happening in the landscape of District 7 in Ho Chi Minh City. We could see it when we went with Mark Nguyen to that restaurant where you could fish from a pavillion and they’d cook the fish right there. In the distance, only nearer than in this painting, were miles and miles of these white buildings getting closer.
And then we get this amazing pair of paintings. How can you make the most expensive object d’art even more expensive? Take Van Gogh’s painting of his bedroom in Arles, when he was waiting for Gaugin to come and visit him. How can you make that painting even more desireable than it is? Well, one way to do it is to add something else desirable — just paint it right on top!!
And if you still want to add something more, you can put in an apple. This is probably the same apple Eve used, even though we’re in Vietnam and Judeo-Christian legends aren’t well-known to everyone.
And while we’re at it, how about this? We can do it with a Matisse, also a famous painting. Let’s have the same lovely girl in this painting, too. Now nothing is missing! Can you see the cupcake?
I feel as if John Berger is laughing over my shoulder. He explains how paintings, once they came off the walls of churches and could be carried around and put into people’s houses, could be used as sort of catalogs of what one possessed — one’s wife, children, horses, mansions. And of course all the things that you might want but don’t actually possess now, like beautiful girls.
Then there was this painting, probably the most horrible, relentless, fearsome painting I have ever seen. What do you suppose this is about? Who are these four guys? This painting is about 3 feet high and 5 feet long. It’s not a miniature.
And now this: a boy holding a plastic action figure toy. The boy himself is held by someone who may be his father, whose hands and feet are visible: bare feet, blue work pants, lots of veins and muscle in both hands and feet. It’s three generations: the worker father, the precious son, the action figure. And behind is a turbulent sky full of clouds circling a bright moon.
And finally, this, that sticks in my mind:
The tool is a plow. Women used to pull plows like this. In the lower right of the painting we’re looking at a map, a seacoast. Behind the post in the lower right is a shadow that continues even when the thing that should cast the shadow is gone. There are layers of writing on the wall, one on top of the other. The woman seems to have one breast; that can’t be an accident. And what is that frog behind her right foot?