The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, January 12, 2003
'Art and Soul

Art in the times of war
B. N. Goswamy

Le Thanh Nhon: model for the projected 25 metres high statue of the Buddha
Le Thanh Nhon: model for the projected 25 metres high statue of the Buddha.

WHAT happens to art, and to the soul of artists, in the times of war is not always easy to fathom. Frequently, nothing seems to happen on the surface, but ideas keep simmering; thoughts keep on getting embedded in the mind. Only to re-emerge, sometimes with strengthened force, at another time. Or in another form. There is no death: only hibernation.

I was put in mind of this when I came upon the work and the career, recently, of an artist from Vietnam: Le Thanh Nhon. I had never heard the name earlier but, as I read about him, I found something quite moving about the man. Sculptor, painter, printmaker, and ceramic artist, Le Thanh Nhon belongs to a land that has seen the most terrifying face of war: death and devastation, pillage, hunger, on a scale that we here cannot even begin to imagine. Anyone who has seen that film classic, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, might have got a glimpse of what it must have been like to be caught in the theatre of carnage that Vietnam was. And for art, any kind of art, to survive in that situation must have been utterly unthinkable. And yet it did.

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The entire American incursion was not a part of Nhon’s own, personal experience, for he left his homeland in 1975 to settle in Australia, but the bitter, and protracted, struggle of his people against the French was. Themes of patriotism, courage, endurance, seem to have been imprinted therefore on his mind, as much as images of destruction and deceit were. He was not a professional artist all his life - he worked as a spray painter in an automobile factory, and as a tram conductor, for some time - but a sculpture that he produced in 1974 was astonishing in its power. It was a bust of the great Vietnamese hero, Phan Boi Chou, more than ten feet in height and cast in bronze, which stands now in Hue, the city which came on the World Heritage list of Unesco not long ago. In that enormous bust - furrowed brow, keen screwed eyes, wrinkled cheeks, firm set of the mouth - Nhon caught something of the agony and the fortitude of his own people’s struggle against colonialism. There is wonderful thoughtfulness in the face, and pride, but also signs of inner cogitation, as if conflicts were being resolved. The front of the sculpture - it is like the prow of a gigantic boat -, showing the face, is all smooth and finished, but the head, or something like that, to which the face is attached, is rough and craggy, like the matrix of some unhewn rock from which the face is continually emerging. Embedded and ensconced in those rough surfaces are scenes taken from the history of the struggle, as if these were the raw material from which that firm face was fashioned. The giant sculpture is something of a symbol, and a statement, as it stands weathering the elements.

But, with time, things change. The raw energy and the sense of embedded bitterness have yielded to other things, although the shadow of war has never lifted from Nhon’s thoughts. He is an older man now, who has had brushes with death in his own way. He has suffered infection from lead leaking from a bullet in his body; now he is wasting away, struck with liver cancer. And all those images of war are being sublimated into images of peace. Principally, through his turning his attention to that embodiment of peace, and peaceful thoughts: the Buddha. A strikingly beautiful statue of the Buddha made by him, some four and a half meters high, stands now in a pagoda in Saigon. Another one, even more ambitious - when finished, it will measure 25 meters in height - is planned. The model, or maquette, alone of this new sculpture of his is 2.5 meters high, and the sculpture, when finished, will be put up in the open in the Blue Mountains in New South Wales in Australia. The Buddha sits here, cross-legged, in meditation: head very slightly inclined, spine erect, hands resting lightly upon the knees. The body is swathed in a large mendicant’s robe, making for a wonderfully smooth and broad plane across the chest, and flat, shallow layers that cover the lap and the knees. There is simplicity in the treatment of the form, and great elegance.

The viewer’s gaze glides gently over the broad planes of the robes and the body, and comes to rest upon the gentle face, immersed in thought, gaze turned inwards. Like in Nhon’s celebrated bust of the Vietnamese hero, there is power in this image, too. But it is the power of a message. The sculptor seems to have found peace after wading through the sanguine memories of war in his mind. "Buddhism embraces me now", he says. "It takes me through the ups and downs of life."

Interestingly, Le Thanh Nhon is currently engaged in making four large canvases, titled Birth, Aging, Sickness and Death. They are based probably on his own journey through life; but one remembers that these are the very four sights that had led a prince once to renounce the world. That prince became, later, the Buddha. A long, long time ago.

The sands of time

Le Thanh Nhon’s work has found wide recognition in the land that he has adopted, or that has adopted him: Australia. Some of his works are on view in the National Museum of Australia, and by their side are on display the coat and the belt that Nhon used to wear when working as a tram conductor. But to hang these objects alongside his work, hinting at times past, is a decision taken by some curator, not the artist himself. On his own part, he is busy doing other things, among them a series of paintings titled, Earth, Water, Fire and Wind. There are references here again to philosophical thought, for these - together with Space - are the elements of which the physical world is made.