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Post-War Vietnamese Art from the Albert I. Goodman Collection

This exhibition is a display of works that belonged to an American who, prior to his death in 2015, lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Before he died, he donated his collection to his longtime friend Albert Goodman, trusting that Albert would show it to a public in Chicago. Bruce Blowitz was very fortunate to have acquired masterpieces by the first generation of Vietnamese modern artists, many of whom graduated from the national colonial-period art school and then survived revolution and poverty when the country was divided by politics and foreign occupation.

Bruce began buying art there when Vietnam was just opening up to foreign tourism after a decades-long economic embargo, and this exhibition showcases the highlights of his collection, which include some of the most important artists in modern Vietnamese history.

Vietnamese art historians generally credit the advent of modern art in the country to the establishment of the first art academy there in 1925, by the French painter Victor Tardieu (1870-1937) and the Vietnamese artist trained in France, Nguyen Nam Son (1890-1973). The Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine based its curriculum partly based on the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris and combined classes in local art forms such as lacquer and silk painting with lessons in oil, portraiture, life drawing, and still life. After the school closed in 1945 and moved further north, to the seat of the resistance movement, artists began making naturalistic paintings of their countrymen to promote the spirit of nationalism. When the country split into two political halves in 1954, the Republic of Vietnam in the south and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north, the artists who ended up in Saigon continued in the tradition of landscape painting, with idyllic scenes of the countryside. But the artists in the north were recruited to return to Hanoi to help promote communism, and while some embraced the state ideology wholeheartedly, others advocated for more freedom of expression and the creation of art for its own sake. Many of them refused to join state-sponsored exhibitions and artists’ unions and were therefore ignored by official arbiters of taste.

But after the period of economic renovation in the mid-1980s, under the policy known as Doi Moi, and bans on certain styles and techniques were lifted in 1991, artists gradually began to work publicly in forms such as nudity and abstraction. Most of the works in Bruce’s collection date to the early 1990s, when work by seminal artists was readily available. At that time, it was possible to meet artists in cafes, and without galleries or middlemen, visit their homes and buy work from them directly or from friends and colleagues of the modern masters who had saved their works. The works in this exhibition were produced by artists who had no access to modern technology or international art movements, but who worked in a time and place rich with historical and political significance. They also reflect a time in Vietnam when art was an important part of everyday life and modernism was a major influence on it.

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