Nguyen Dinh Dang
I painted “The fifth trumpet” in 1990, the same year with “The dream of artist (Portrait of writer Nguyen Huy Thiep)”. They are the fourth and fifth paintings after “The appearance of image in the desert” (1986), “Spring inspiration” (1986), and “The Death of artist” (1987), which were executed in an approach I would follow during three decades.
All five paintings encountered some trouble with the censorship in Hanoi. At the international exhibition of painting and graphics in 1986, “The appearance of image in the desert” was rejected, while “Spring inspiration” was selected only after the second round of voting by the jury. Moreover, at the opening of this show its author was requested to remove Lenin’s portrait from the cover of a book depicted in the painting simply because the cultural attaché of the USSR embassy in Hanoi was unhappy seeing the portrait of the leader of world proletariat at a level well below the knee of the nude model in the painting. “The Death of the artist” was rejected at the Hanoi Fine-Art Exhibition and its author was asked to bring it back immediately so that people would not see it. At the national fine-art exhibition in 1990, it was listed as “problematic”. Although finally selected by the jury, it was displayed in a dark corner of the exhibition hall. This treatment made a veteran art critic so upset that he stood up to express his discontent at a meeting between the exhibition organizing committee and the participants. To get the permission for displaying “The dream of artist (Portrait of writer Nguyen Huy Thiep)” I had to remove the words ‘Portrait of writer Nguyen Huy Thiep’ from the title because in the 1990s Nguyen Huy Thiep’s short stories were classified as “sensitive” in Vietnam. As for “The fifth trumpet”, before its first appearance in public at the “Spring 91” exhibition of the Hanoi Fine Arts, it also went up and down in the jury and finally was also hung in a dark corner of the exhibition hall.
Inspired by Apocalypse of Saint John (Revelation) in the New Testament, “The fifth trumpet” is a composition, which mixes different times and spaces. In the right half of the composition I painted a nude girl driving a “Honda 50” motorbike with a grinning hairy devil sitting behind. The devil grasps the back seat with his right hand, while his left hand holds the girl’s belly. A red apple symbolizing the original sin is floating around the center of the composition with the Crucifixion nearby. The locusts are flying out from chaos at the center after the sound of fifth trumpet played by the fifth angel hovering at the top left corner. In the bottom right corner I painted a Vietnamese traditional wedding where the bride and groom are kneeling in front of the altar, drinking wine from the same glass. On the left hand side is the scene from the funeral of my grandma during the Vietnam War. My father, mother, brother and myself are among those standing around the grave. In the first plan there is a skeleton under a tilted glass cover like a turned over table, above which hover a whisky glass, a can of “333” beer, a can of Coca – Cola and two poker cards. The composition has three horizons. The right-hand side horizon separates the sky and a sea of blood. The horizon on the left beneath the locusts splits the pairing in two halves. The third skyline in the lower part belongs to this world, which runs through the funeral and the wedding, where a fire on the other side of the river is seen. When I was painting this fire, the fire scene of the fuel warehouse at Duc Giang in the suburb of Hanoi hit by the US bombs during the US air-trike war against North Vietnam came to my mind.
November 1991 witnessed my first solo exhibition in Hanoi after I was nominated as a member of Vietnam Fine Arts Association (VFAA). The exhibition took place on the 3rd floor of the VFAA exhibition hall at 16 Ngo Quyen street, which had just been renovated. In the morning of the last day a group of four foreigners including two gentlemen, a lady and a little girl visited the exhibition. One of the two gentlemen was Mr. Johannes Jansing, the Dutch counselor in Bangkok, who was accompanied by his wife and their daughter. The other gentleman was a diplomatic attaché of the Dutch embassy in Bangkok. Mr. Johannes Jansing paid a special attention to “The fifth trumpet”. As they had to leave for Bangkok that afternoon, I gave Mr. Johannes Jansing my home address so that he could come visit me when he would be back in Hanoi next time.
A few days later Mr. Jansing and a Vietnamese interpreter came to my house. He asked the price of some paintings of mine, including “The fifth trumpet”. He said he liked the facial expression of the naked girl riding the Honda motorbike in “The fifth trumpet”. After I told him the price, he said he needed to discuss with his wife in Bangkok. He asked me to keep this picture for him, not selling it to anyone else . The next day, he came with a Dutch colleague. He said he was afraid that someone else may purchase the painting, so he had discussed with his wife over the phone. His colleague asked me:
– How do you set the price of your paintings?
– A right price is the one that makes me satisfied to be separated with my works, – I replied.
In the end Mr. Jansing bought 7 paintings “The fifth trumpet”, “The appearance of image in the desert”, my father’s portrait, portraits of two friends of my father, Mr. Huu Ngoc and Mr. Phan Van Sach, and two paintings of Hanoi streets. He asked me to remove the paintings from the strainers and roll them so that he could easily check-in them on the airplane.
In early 1992, on my way to the Technical University of Munich, I had an almost one-day stop over in Bangkok and was invited by Mr. Johannes Jansing to his home. He lived with his wife and daughter in a luxury villa built in a Thai traditional style, which was guarded by a security doorman and assisted by a housemaid. The house was decorated with paintings on the walls, but my paintings were not there because they were sent to a shop for framing. During my stay in Germany, Mr. Jansing visited my house in Hanoi one more time in the summer of 1992 and bought some landscapes. On that occasion, following my recommendation, he also visited the studio of painter Le Huy Tiep, where he bought the painting “War” and another work depicting a man repairing a boat.
In May 1994 I was invited to the United States for the first time. In that year the U.S. just lifted the embargo so there was no US embassy in Hanoi. I had to go to Bangkok and stay in the guesthouse of the Vietnamese embassy there to wait for the U.S. visa. Knowing the Dutch embassy is located on the same street, I came and requested a meeting with Mr. Jansing. I got the appointment to come in the next morning. Entering Mr. Jansing’s office at the Dutch embassy, I saw my painting “The fifth trumpet” on the wall facing the entrance right behind his desk.
After 3 weeks in the U.S., on the way back from New York to Hanoi, I stopped over again in Bangkok. Mr. Jansing came meet me at the airport and drove me to his new house in a three-bedroom apartment, including a guest room with a private bathroom. I was flattered to see my paintings in golden frames hung on the walls. He proposed me to make two oil portraits, one of him and another of his wife. They sat for me to make several preparatory sketches. He also gave me some photos of him and his wife so that I can used as reference. However, we did not make a clear deal.
In autumn of 1994 I was invited by the Nishina Memorial Foundation to do research in Tokyo. I did not expect that this was the beginning of a long stay for almost 20 years for me and my family in Japan. Settling in Japan and busy research caused a break in my artistic activity for a couple of years. Resuming painting in 1996, I had forgotten the project with two portraits for Mr. Jansing and his wife. I did not bring the preparatory sketches and their photos with me to Tokyo either.
In January 1999 I was invited to the Nuclear Physics Accelerator Institute (KVI) in Groningen (Netherlands ) for one month. Recalling Mr. Jansing, I sent an email to the Dutch foreign ministry asking for information and got his email from Argentina. At that time he was the deputy head of the Dutch mission in Buenos Aires. In the letter he mentioned the abandoned portrait project, and asked me to return their photos if I still kept them. During a visit to Hanoi a year later, I recovered the photos and sketches from my archive and brought them to Tokyo, but funny enough I lost contact with him. All my emails sent to his address in Buenos Aires bounced back.
Twenty years went by since the last time we met in Bangkok.
In January 2014 with my wife and son we made a trip to Europe. The first destination Amsterdam made me think of Mr. Jansing again. I wondered how he is doing. I did some Google search, but my memory lapse made me type Jan Hansing as his name. As the result I found nothing useful. I then sent an email to the Public Information Service of the Netherlands. They passed my email to the Dutch Foreign Ministry in The Hague. A few days later I received his email reply. He said it was a great surprise for him to hear from me through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague and he was really most happy to get in touch with me again. We agreed to meet in Amsterdam after my family and I come back from Belgium.
At 6:00 pm last Tuesday, 21 January 2014, Mr. Jansing and his wife came to the hotel where we were staying. We walked along the canal in Amsterdam, then dropped into a pub to have some drink before going to a restaurant where the Mr. Jansing and his wife had reserved a table to invite us to dinner.
Mr. Johannes Jansing was born on 27 January 1949 in Utrecht. After graduating with master degrees in economic and social history at the University of Utrecht in 1974, he started working at the same university as a scientific staff member of the Institute of Social Sciences. In 1979 he joined the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since the last time we met in Bangkok, he assumed many diplomatic positions representing the Netherlands in various countries in the American continent, Africa, Asia and Europe. After his term in Buenos Aires he returned with his wife to the Netherlands, where they stayed until 2003. This was the reason why I lost contact with him.
He said that, despite many removals and in particular being exposed to sometimes harsh climatological conditions all the paintings are still in good condition. In November 2004, during his tenure as ambassador of the Netherlands in Ivory Coast, a broken out civil war led to a French attack on the Ivorian government forces, and a subsequent mob violence led to foreign nationals being evacuated. Mr. Jansing had to evacuate the Dutch community from Abidjan and in April 2005 he was forced to close the embassy. At the time of evacuation amid violence against French and foreign nationals, Mr. Jansing and his wife were thinking to remove the paintings from the strainers and roll them back to bring along. In a panic, his wife started by removing the painting “War” by Le Huy Tiep from the strainer. However, she stopped shortly realizing this could damage the paintings. Therefore, “The fifth trumpet” and the rest of their collection remained on the strainers as they were. Finally, Mr. Jansing and his wife were able to entrust the collection to an Ivorian neighbour before leaving the country without any certainty that they would ever see the paintings again. Fortunately, the situation changed to a better direction. They went back to Ivory Coast and recovered the collection intact. Except for the painting “War” by Le Huy Tiep, which suffered peeling in some places and some blistering in the upper left corner, other paintings still remained in good condition.
Assuming the post of Dutch ambassador to Singapore and Brunei in 2009, Mr. Jansing hung “The fifth trumpet” in the dining room of the ambassador’s residence in Singapore, where many official receptions and meetings took place. In the beginning of his term, a Dutch citizen, who was invited for a meeting at the ambassador’s residence, was rather upset seeing “The fifth trumpet” in the dining room. This person argued that Singapore and Brunei are countries with many Muslims and Christians and a painting of a nude woman, driving a devil on a motorbike with the Crucifixion on the background displayed in the dining room of the ambassador’s residence can create a misunderstanding from the local people and the local authorities. Needless to say Mr. Jansing felt embarrassed. He explained that the Netherlands is a country of freedom, that he likes this painting certainly also because of its historical value, since it shows many interesting aspects of the history of Vietnam. In short it is a painting that indeed leads to discussion. Later he realized that, as ambassador, he represents his country and the painting could not be seen as only a private matter. So in order to avoid problems, he had to move the painting to another room in the building out of sight of official visitors.
Telling me this story, he said: “What an irony in history, first your paintings had been censored in Hanoi. Twenty years later ‘The Fifth Trumpet’ led to a political discussion and as a consequence had to be removed ‘censored’ again. ‘The Fifth Trumpet’ is truly a painting with an interesting political (hi)story.”
I did not say anything because I had nothing to say. After all, Gustave Flaubert has said once for all of us: “La terre a des limites, mais la bêtise humaine est infinie.” (Earth has its boundaries, but human stupidity is limitless.)
In September 2013, Mr. Jansing finished his tenure as Dutch ambassador to Singapore. “The fifth trumpet” came with him back home in the Netherlands. He sent me a couple of pictures of his new house in a town in the north of the Netherlands. The simple setting draws the attention to “The firth trumpet”, portrait of my father and that of Mr. Phan Van Sach, displayed on the bright painted walls. Mr. Jansing had met and talked with my father when he visited our house in 1991 and 1992. In his opinion, my father portrait painting shows a man with a very expressive face, sitting in the twilight behind the desk. In the pile of books on the desk, “Ce que je crois” by André Maurois is seen, which Mr. Jansing mistakenly remembered as “J’accuse … ! ” by Émile Zola.
As for “War” by Le Huy Tiep, Mr. Jansing decided not to restore it, because it is the evidence of the war in Africa, which he and this painting had witnessed, right as its title and spirit.
I told Mr. Johannes Jansing that in my life I was happy to know only a few art lovers and collectors like him, those who collect paintings based on purely personal preference, finding themselves in the artist’s works, because the way of expressing by the artist has moved them rather than the artist’s name or gallery’s reputation. My late father used to have a high opinion of the art lovers from European countries with hundreds-year tradition in oil painting, including the Netherlands, which is the home country of Van Eyck, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, whose ambassador Mr. Johannes Jansing used to be.
Saying goodbye, I gave him as present a copy of the catalogue of my paintings entitle “The Joy of Imagination” printed in 2003. I did not forget to return him the photos he had lent me 20 years ago. I also gave him two portraits of him and his wife I sketched in Bangkok that year as preparatory drawings to their unrealized portraits. Looking at the two sketches, he asked: “Is it the original? “. And after my reply “Of course,” he said, ” I’ll frame them.”
“Regarding the project of our oil portraits,” – Mr. Johannes Jansing said – “Although we are not as young as twenty years ago, we will continue to think about it and will discuss this later.”
I am grateful to Mr. Johannes Jansing for his kind permission to use some related references including the photo taken at the dinner.
Translated by the author from the Vietnamese original