Art in Hanoi

July 8, 2012 | 6 minute read | By Kevin Read

The Vietnam National Museum of Fine Art in Hanoi has quite a unique problem: nobody knows how many of its thousands of paintings and sculptures are genuine.

During the war with the United States, the government in North Vietnam took the precaution of moving most of the important art from the museums in Hanoi into the countryside where it would be safer if the city was bombed. In order to have something to put on the walls, they also commissioned copies of the removed works, some from the original artist or their apprentices, some by skilled copy artists, and installed these replicas in place of the originals. When the war was over, the original art could be restored to the museums and the copies destroyed if the museums remained intact or when they were rebuilt. That seemed like a great idea. Except this was a very poor country, in the 1960’s, during a war, and the project was run by a government bureaucracy. The result was chaos for Vietnamese art.

The important factor in the confusion was the copy artists themselves. They weren’t just good at what they did, they were incredibly, ridiculously, deceivingly good. When they were given valuable paintings to take home and copy, it was impossible to tell which of the two they gave back was the original. Or if it was neither of them. Even if they did give back the original and one copy, the museums often mixed them up and wasn’t always certain that they had sent the original out of the city for protection or accidentally sent the copy instead. Sometimes, unexpectedly, more than one copy was retrieved after the war as well as the one still hanging on the wall of the museum. Sometimes the two versions got jumbled up when the original was brought back, even if everything had been done correctly in the first place.

Now add two more factors to this recipe for artistic disaster.

Firstly, Communist North Vietnam won the war in 1975 and was not at the time a free and democratic place where this kind of mess can be dealt with. The museums kept quiet about it. Worse than that, some even started selling high-quality reproductions endorsed by the museum itself to cope with the difficult economic times, and so a culture of copying developed. Only years later, after more shuffling and confusing of the different versions of the art, did the management of the museums start to open up about what had happened and allow researchers to begin the process of trying to tell the originals and copies apart.

Secondly, after free market reforms in the 1990’s allowed Vietnamese art to become available and popular overseas, even the original artists started copying themselves. Vietnamese artists realized that they could make the most money by churning out different copies of their more popular pictures and selling each of them as unique (this works for a while, before everyone who buys one realizes that they have the same picture in their living room as many other people). Creating new images is more time-consuming and difficult, and there’s no guarantee that they will be well received. Some even had a group of students all producing the same image to sell as genuine work by the artist.

After all this confusion, the museums are in a state of chaos. Some have up to 7 copies of the same painting and no idea which one is the original. In some cases, even that concept of real and fake is hard to define: if a painter copies his own painting, can the second one be even considered a ‘fake’? In those instances it’s certainly hard to discover now which was the one originally hanging in the museum because even the copies were done by the same artist. Internationally, the Vietnamese art industry has a terrible reputation. Foreign institutions rarely trust Vietnamese museums to loan them art (and thus increase its exposure) due to the risk of not receiving an original (even with the best of intentions from the Vietnamese). And Vietnamese artists have the same problem selling their work on the international market, which is reluctant to trust them after the years of copying and selling of multiple images.

And this isn’t some obscure topic which does not affect anyone outside the art world, it defines the old city and tourist areas of Hanoi, and a section of its economy. There you’ll find streets of galleries, literally hundreds of them, all selling the same set of pictures but each done by their own in-house artists. You can buy a perfect replica, almost indistinguishable from the original to the untrained eye, of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers or Monet’s Water lilies. I’ve seen at least 50 copies of the Mona Lisa for sale and entire galleries just of Jack Vettriano. This is where those copy artists ended up: proliferating this unusual profession through family members and friends, who have trained themselves into expert painters, now using their skill to knock out amazing replicas of Starry Night to sell for as little as $5.

I asked one artist if he had any paintings of his own: genuine originals which he created. “Yes”, he told me, “I love to paint my own pictures. But problem is: nobody want to buy”. He didn’t have any of his own paintings in the store because his copies of famous works sell so much better. Whatever your feelings on buying knock-off brand goods and stolen copyright (and I’m going to remain conservatively unopinionated on that here), what’s disappointing is how close Hanoi is to an amazing art scene and yet how impossible it would be to convert it to a real one.

Given how well the artists in this city can reproduce paintings (and most will paint a superb copy of any photograph you give them for $10 too) it surely wouldn’t be hard for them to create excellent paintings of their own. They wouldn’t all be breaking new ground in the world of art or even necessarily be particularly unique, but I suspect most would thrive at examining the copies they already produce (some of which are from well-known Vietnamese artists) and absorbing their influences into something fairly original. More talent from the artists is not what is needed. Instead it would take the visitors in Hanoi to spend just as much on local paintings as they currently do (clearly they are managing to support the plethora of galleries) but choose what they buy based on their own feelings about the art instead of the international consensus on which paintings are good. And that’s what’s impossible

There’s a place for professional art criticism, and anyone with years of experience in any field is entitled to an influential view on it, but I don’t think that influence should extend to the streets of Hanoi. If someone didn’t know that Picasso was famous, or hadn’t seen anything by Van Gogh on TV, I’m not convinced that they would choose one of their replica paintings over something the same replica artist had produced themselves, especially given how much more genuine a souvenir it would be. There are hundreds of thousands of painters in the world producing millions of different pieces of art – it can’t be the case that everyone, given no outside opinions to guide them, would instinctively like the same couple of hundred above the vast numbers of others.

But people are guided by outside opinions and do defer their own to people with greater perceived authority. So many painters could not survive in Hanoi if they weren’t producing replicas because instead of buying local art if these fakes weren’t available, people wouldn’t buy any paintings at all. That’s a shame for the artists of Vietnam who have all the skills and talent to earn their living through genuine art and a shame for all the people going home with such a poor, yet close, alternative to a truly meaningful souvenir. There are complicated reasons, years of study and research behind why Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Pisarro and others are renowned artists (plus a little luck and politics – I’m not completely naive about that) but that shouldn’t make any difference to how people choose the art they bring home from Vietnam.

Everyone, both the buyers and artists, would benefit from a little more original thinking.

ENDNOTE: This article doesn’t have any pictures, because anything that would be relevant would likely be infringing copyright laws. It’s not the illegality of this that bothers me so much as the irony.

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2 responses to “Art in Hanoi”

  1. Matt R says:

    Did you get any of your pictures painted for $10?

    That would be a pretty cool thing to have.

    • Kevin Read says:

      I thought about that too – it would be awesome. Unfortunately there was nowhere I could find to get things printed in Hanoi so I did not have a physical print on me which I could leave with them for copying. Next time I’m in Vietnam.

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