Lifting Hazy Veils From Centuries of Vietnamese Art





Art brings out unresolved enigmas with a directness that no historian can hope to match.

The “Arts of Ancient Viet Nam” show at Asia Society, and the book written by Nancy Tingley who spent the better part of the last two decades putting it together, lay bare some of the avatars that led to the formation of the country now called Vietnam....

Some pieces, like the molds for casting ax heads that came to light on a site called Dong Dau and may date from as early as about 1500 B.C., are only of documentary interest. The sophistication of others like the bronzes associated with another site, Dong Son in the central province of Thanh Hoa, reveals a powerful culture that started around the 5th century B.C. and lasted for at least 600 years. Frustratingly, nothing is known about the people who made them, not even their name. If they ever had a system of writing, it left no trace....

Large bronze drums, of a type also found in Malaysia and Indonesia, played a considerable role for centuries. When Chinese troops led by General Ma Yuan occupied northern Vietnam in A.D. 42, the invaders carried off the drums, underlining their perceived importance, perhaps as symbols linked with sovereignty....

Further south, another enigmatic culture thrived. A jade ear pendant, excavated in 1994 in the area of Ho Chi Minh City, offers a bold example of animal stylization leaning toward abstraction. Pottery from the site reveals a similar aesthetic orientation, as for example, a red clay jar with an angular geometrical pattern....

Ironically, the birth of the most original aspect of Vietnamese art is also poorly understood. The ceramics related to the Song Dynasty wares of 12th-to-13th century China that have come out of Thanh Hoa Province as a result of massive commercial digging and of recent archaeological excavations greatly differ from the wares of Chinese potters. Vietnamese preference went to different shapes. Their colors, which are rarely truly similar to those of Chinese wares, included exquisite nuances of ivory, honey or lilac. Regrettably, the ceramics in the show are not the greatest.

Next to nothing is known about individual workshops or the evolution of the art over time and our understanding of the blue and white wares of the 15th and 16th centuries is hardly more advanced.

Bedeviled by the destruction of entire cultures, but fraught with marvelous creativity, the Indochinese peninsula has yielded few of its cultural secrets. The day competent archaeological work is carried out on a systematic scale, a hugely complex picture will emerge, with many more gems than we know.

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