Choosing to be An Artist
by Nguyen Dinh Dang
It is alwaysdifficult for me to give a short answer on why I became both physicistand painter. Hence I will give below a long answer.
I was born in Hanoi (Vietnam) in 1958. My father was a high-school teacher of mathematics and my mother was apediatrician. My parents were both graduated from universities in Paris. They returned to Vietnam in 1954, just after the end of the war with France.
I started to draw very young, at around five years old. My parents still keep my first drawings. There had been no artist so far in my family or among my relatives. However I remember that my father drew very well, just for fun. He was a school teacher. Therefore his favorite drawing media was a piece of chalk and a large blackboard, which was always on the wall in one of rooms in our house in Hanoi. He drew Hercules fighting with the lion Neme, and other classical themes. My father was my first art teacher. He was also my first teacher in maths, French and English. But the most important thing, probably, was that he gave me the way to look into the life of an artist. I was sent to drawing classes, art clubs, etc. I was told that I was gifted in drawing and I believed in my artistic talent. My parents and friends of my family recalled that they used to see me standing in front of the blackboard and drawing with chalk for hours...
The US started to bomb North Vietnam. I lived for five years in evacuation in the countryside, far away from Hanoi, with my father, elder brother and sister. My mother had to go with her hospital to a mountainous area. During all these years we met with my mother only from time to time. We were very poor at that time. Even white paper for students was in shortage. I used for my drawings a lot of paper, which luckily my father could get from his school. My dream was to have a good 6B drawing pencil. However, we had a pile of old books, which my father took along from Hanoi and a gramophone, which could play a lot of records of French songs and classical music. I read a number of books during that time, including 13 volumes of the "Three Kingdoms", which I read from cover to cover twice, and four thick volumes of "Les Miserables" translated into Vietnamese.
When the Americans stopped bombarding North Vietnam in 1969, we returned to Hanoi. I was 11 years old. My home town was dark during the nights because of a lack of electricity. The Central Railway Station, about 500 meters from my house, was completely destroyed later on in 1972 when the Americans resumed bombing, but my house was intact except for some broken window glass. Now, when everything was over, I thank God that all the members of my family and my relatives remained unharmed during the war. Only once, in 1972, some jet aircrafts suddenly appeared and dropped bombs on a small town at a distance of about 400 meters from where I was. This was the only time I saw the death approaching so close to me. I was about to stop by in a small restaurant in this town, with my mother and sister, on the way to visit my father in evacuation. But my mother decided to postpone the lunch until we would meet my father. About five minutes after we left this place the US F4 jet crafts arrived. This town disappeared after the bombing.
My first painting in oil color was aportrait of an European lady, which I painted on a piece of rough materialcut from bag for keeping rice in around 1970. It darkened quickly afterward because I did not know how to prime the support. Also, the white paint was in deficit so I replaced it with yellow. After finishing this painting I showed it to an artist, a friend of my family, who laughed and said: "Oh! A tuberculosisdame!"
Oil colors were extremely expensive. I bought my first set of oil color (a box with 12 tubes made in China) with 10 Vietnamese dongs, which my mother gave me. My father's monthly salary was 70 dongs at that time. I also studied music, playing piano and cello under the guidance of music teachers. Well, I never became a musicia nor composer, but music remains the source for my relaxation. I do my paintings listening to some classical music. I also practice playing the piano everyday.
There were two events which influenced my artistic pursuit decisively at that time. The first event was my visit to my art teacher. Her house was also destroyed by US bombs. She moved to live with her son in a very simple place surrounded by banana trees. The day when I visited her, I met her posing for her son to draw her portrait by charcoal pencil. I was impressed by how the young man skillfully caught her character without using any rubber eraser. Returning home, I put the goal for myself to draw portraits without erasing any lines like him. After many sessions of practice I achieved this skill. I was around 15 years old when I realized that I could achieve the drawing skill of Leonardoda Vinci. Once a classmate lent me a new album of works by Leonardo. I was impressed very much as this was the first time I saw such a rich collection of Leonardo's drawings. For a few days I copied with a pen on paper all the drawings in this album. I was surprised when I saw that my copies were quite good and I achieved this rather easily.
The second event consciously affected my future career. Once I had a teacher of cello, who gave me a lot of lectures on philosophy and literature rather than on music. One evening, when walking through dark streets of the post-war Hanoi, he told me: "In order to study art seriously, you had better go abroad." At that time being a creative painter was not a profession in Vietnam. Painting was considered as an instrument for political propaganda like the mass media, press etc. Somepainters, who believed in pure art, lived miserably trying trading art for food. I was a good student in my school, especially in mathematics and physics. In ten years at school I was always first in my classes. At the entrance exams to national universities, I was among those who got highest scores in the country. Together with other best students I was sent by the Vietnamese government to study abroad. I was asked which subject I wanted to study and which university I wanted to go to. I chose physics and the Moscow State University. My wish was approved. In autumn 1976 I arrived in Moscow.
Moscow gave me the possibility to visit some wordl-class museums such as the Pushkin Fine-Arts Museum and the Tretchiakov's Gallery. Later on I also visited the Hermitage and Russian Museum in Saint-Petersburg, which was called Leningrad at that time. I also discovered that art supplies were relatively cheap for the student stipend. All my winter and summer vacations were devoted to painting. I painted directly from nature, still-lifes, portraits of my classmates and other people whom I met in my everyday life. After one year of painting in this way, I showed my works to a professor of the Moscow Surikov Art University, the most prestigious fine-arts institution in the former Soviet union. She told me that if I abandoned physics and joined her class she would make me "a great painter". Since I couldn't abandon physics, the major I was chosen to study, I decided to become a painter by myself. I didn't care much that I should become great in order to follow my self-studying in painting since I just found a great pleasure in it. I came to the Pushkin Fine-Arts Museum at weekends to make pencil copies from the paintings of great masters. There I also discovered for myself the impressionists and post-impressionists. I spent almost 10 years following their method of making masterpieces en plein-air. I discovered through my own experience all the merits and limitations of this way of thinking and painting.
I finished the Moscow State university with a distinguished master diploma in 1982 and then got my PhD in 1985. I also held some solo exhibitions of my paintings in Moscow and Dubna (Moscowregion).
I came back to Vietnam in 1985 and got married. This was a rather long period of my stay in my home country (almosttwo years before I went back to Moscow again in 1987 and got in 1990 the highest academic degree in the Soviet union, the so-called Soviet Doctor-of-Sciences degree), so I had time to make friends with a number of fine artists in Hanoi. The first painters I visited were Mai Van Hien and Bui Xuan Phai. They heard about me from some Russian journals, where I was represented as a scientist who loved to paint. Later on they both nominated me to the membership of the Fine-Arts Association of Vietnam (VFAA), one of the most prestigious professional artistic organizations in my home country. I became a member of VFAA in 1987. Another artist-friend, painter Le Huy Tiep, whom I considered the most experienced in oil painting technique in Vietnamat that time, recommended me to seriously study classical painting technique, and to find for myself a teacher from world masters. I spent days long sitting in the National Library to read books on classical oil painting technique in French and Russian and took notes carefully from what I read.
It is impossible to find those books translated in Vietnamese even nowadays. I'm now thinking to write my own book on this subject for young artists in my home country. I practiced what I had read by copying from the reproductions of Vermeer de Delf, Boticelli, Velasquez, etc. By the end of this period of practice I even gave a lecture on classical oil painting technique in a fine-arts club at the Culture Palace in Hanoi. Hence I realized that many of ourfine-arts students even didn't know properly how to prime a canvas, how to distinguish colors for glazing and for covering, etc. without speaking about multicoating technique of ancient masters. Just in this time I discovered for myself the surrealists. I found the way, in which I could express myself and my ability best, the way which combines harmoniously fantasy with hyperealistic drawing. I havebeen keeping this style of painting during the last 10 years until now.
In 1987 there was an International Exhibition of Paintings and Graphics of artists from 12 countries of the Eastern Bloc, which was held in Hanoi. Artists over all Vietnam were requested to submit their works to the exhibition. Fifty works will be finally selected by a National Art Jury to be shown at the exhibition as representative artworks of Vietnam. I sent two of my paintings, "Apparition of Image in Desert"and "Spring Inspiration" to the jury. Both paintings contained nude models. Until that time arts had been severely censored in Vietnam. Paintings were allowed as long as they served as illustration of the political propaganda. All kinds of nude image were considered obscene and was prohibited to be shown openly at art exhibitions in Vietnam. The policy of "doi moi" (renovation) in Vietnam took place in around 1985, which put this taboo under debates. In the first round of confidential voting among 13 members of the jury, both of my paintings were turned down. However the first round of voting was not able to collect 50 works for the show. Therefore the second voting was held. I heard later that the late painter Tran Van Can, chair-man of the jury, who had the privilege of casting an extra vote for the work he liked most, had cast his additional vote for my "Spring Inspiration". In this way one of my paintings was selected by 7 over 13 votes. On this painting there was an artist sitting in front of an easel. A nude model was standing next to the artist. Both were looking at a virgin canvas on the easel.
At the inauguration ceremony of this exhibition there had been many distinguished guests and diplomats, including the cultural attaches of foreign embassies in Hanoi, whose countries participated in the show. The cultural attache of Csechoslovakia studied my painting and noticed a small book entitled "What to do?" with the portrait of Lenin on the cover under the artist's desk. The desk was at the level of the knees of the standing nude model. He shared his observation with the cultural attache of the Soviet Union, who didn't see it at all. The latter went to the organizing committee of the show and complained that the book with Lenin's portrait on the cover was left too low below the level of the nude model in my painting. One of my artists colleagues later on ran to my home and asked me to wash out the Lenin portrait from the cover of the book on my painting to avoid troubles for them. In order to keep my good relationship with my artists-colleagues, I covered Lenin by a thick layer of water color. After the exhibition I washed out this layer and Lenin reappeared 'undamaged'. Should this event have happened few years before, my work would not have been juried, or I would have been in trouble with the authorities.
Time has changed. The once paradise of communist block is now one of the most troublesome countries, where people cannot receive their wage for months or even years. From the WWW I've learned recently that, in 1998, in Moscow they just made a sculpture of Lenin in a form of a two-meter cake. In few minutes Lenin was cut into pieces and distributed to the mouths of hungry Moscovites. Everywhere throughout the world the statues of Lenin were removed, including in Russia. But if you come to Hanoi you still find a bronze statue of Lenin in the center of a park, which is not far from my house. I don't know if it is the last copy in the world.
In 1991 I had a big one-man exhibition of about 70 paintings at the new exhibition hall of VFAA in Hanoi and sold a number of works just before I left for Germany. One Dutch man from Bangkok became the owner of a major chunk of this sold collection. Later I met him once again at his Bangkok house on my way to and back from the USA in May 1994. I was delighted to see my paintings in luxury frames hanging over all the walls of his residence and in his office. Starting from 1992, I spent the major part of my life abroad in different countries, where I was invited according to some scientific research contracts or fellowships. Just I had been living with my wife and son in Germany, Italy and since 1994 we have been living in Japan. I also traveled to USA and China for the conferences. Before we had settled in Japan, I could not have an equilibrated life to do my paintings. I resumed painting in 1995 after a four-year break. I would say that only in Japan I could establish a regular life for my artistic activity.
I realize now very well that for my dilemma : "Tobe a physicist or to be an artist", I had made my choice. I am both. This is the only solution for me. My work as physicist - researcher takes all the day time at the institute from around 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM. I paint in the evenings after dinner and over all the weekends. My apartment in Japan is not as large as my house in Hanoi. I don't have here a separate studio. I use my small working cabinet or even our bedroom as my art studio. My wife and my son are my models, art critics and first visitors.
In 1997 I showed ten oil paintings at a joint exhibition with a Japanese colleague, who made drawings using computer, at the Central Citizen Hall of Wako city. In 2001, during a business trip to the US I was invited to give a lecture on my art at three univerities, the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), the Michigan State University (MSU), and the University of Notre-Dame.The UTD News wrote about me and my lectures as follows: "Nguyen Dinh Dang, a self-taught painter from Vietnam who has two doctoral degrees in the sciences, will present two lectures next month at The University of Texas at Dallas on topics as dissimilar as his dual careers." and "...Given his wide range of interests and talents, he certainly is qualified for the title Renaissance man."
In October 2001 the Center of Cultural Promotion of Wako city, where I'm living, kindly agreed to arrange an exhibition of my paintings, which was my first solo show held in Japan. It took place at the Sun Azalea Exhibition Hall of Wako city on October 5 - 11. This was the first time in my life that I had such a state-of-the-art hall to display my works. The hall was equipped with a modern light and air conditioning system. It has a huge lobby to receive guests and hold the opening party. Twenty eight paintings were shown. About 100 guests came to the vernissage. Among them there were Mr. Vu Dzung - ambassador of Vietnam in Japan and his wife, Prof.Akito Arima - member of the House of Councilors and former minister of education, science and technology of Japan. Mrs. Oota Phan Thuc Anh - a friend of our family - flew from Saigon to Tokyo the same day to join the opening. In his speech at the opening ceremony, Professor Arima said: "Mr. Dang is a genius". Professor Arima is the top figure in the Japanese nuclear physics society. His name in the international physics community is related with the famous interacting boson model. He is also known in Japan as a leading figure in haiku poetry. I have been collaborating with him since 1995 and we published more than30 papers together. The news about the exhibition was reported in the two big Japanese newspapers - the Asahi Shimbun and Mainichi Shimbun as well as in the Tokyo Metropolis. After that, the chief of the Tokyo bureau of Vietnam News sent the information to Hanoi, and the news appeared in the Vietnamese press including Nhan Dan (People), Hanoi Moi (New Hanoi), VietNam News, VietNam Express, Tuoi tre Chu nhat (Sunday Youth), The thao & Van hoa (Sport & Culture), and the Voice of VietNam. In particular, the news in Tuoi tre Chu nhat took a whole page to report on my show including three color reproductions of my paintings. Many friends and colleagues of mine from far away, who could not join the opening, sent their congratulations to me by e-mail. To my knowledge, with this exhibition, I became the first artist from Vietnam who ever had a solo show of paintings in Japan.
The Tokyo debut of my paintings took place in spring of 2002 at the Shiramizu Gallery in Ginza with 13 oil paintings and 13 nude drawings. From 2002 I started to participate in the painting shows , the the 70th Independent Exhibitionin 2002, and 39th Individual Artists' Exhibition in 2003 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. In the latter I was selected as one of 16 "Fine-Work Artists" from around 300 participants. In the same year 2003, together with other 21 painters selected form more than 260 artists, I was invited by the Nichido Gallery in Ginza to join the Showa Exhibition. In 2005 after I won the title "Fine-Work Artist" for the second time, I was elected to be a member of the Individual Artists' Association (Shutai Bijutsu Kyokai). From October to November of the same year I held my solo show "The joy of imagination" at BiCE Tokyo, the fourth solo show of mine in Japan.
Albert Einstein once said: "I don't think much about my future. It comes soon enough." This has actually been my living style so far. I just think that if we all were born with nothing and will not be able to take anything with us when we die, I wish to paint so long as I'm still able to paint, as I had had never been allowed to painted before, and as I would paint the last work of my life.
I just started a new painting. I don't know what title I will give to it yet.