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Remarks on the first anniversary of the Realist Artists’ Group


Nguyen Dinh Dang

Realistic description was perhaps the first way of expression at the dawn of painting, when the prehistoric artist depicted on the cave walls images of animals, whose strikingly truthful and alive rendition still keeps amazing us after tens of thousands of years.



Outline of a bear on a wall of Chauvet cave, southern France (32,000 – 30,000 BP)

Leonardo da Vinci considered painting the sole imitator of all the visible works of nature [1]. Even after the birth of photography, the words of the Renaissance genius still hold. The reason is that the linear perspective projection by means of the photo camera is not the same as that obtained following the perceptive perspective. The grandiose mountain scenery seen though the artist´s eye looks miserably disproportionate when captured by the photo camera. A photograph is an imitation by the lens and reflected light, not by the vision and mind of the artist.

It is through the eyes and brain, i.e. the artist’s perception, that the images of the objective world are projected onto the canvas. This mechanism requires a truthful representation of the real world in a painting so that it can be called realistic.

But what is a truthful representation in painting? This issue was debated during several centuries without reaching a conclusion. The majority of us believe in the world as an objective reality that exists independently of us. However our interpretation and description of this world completely depend on the constructions built by us.

More than three centuries ago, French artist and art critic Roger de Piles pointed out that man, however much given to lying, hates nothing so much as a lie, and the surest way to gain his confidence is to treat him with sincerity. Everyone loves truth and feels the beauty of it; nothing is good, nothing pleases without truth [2].

According to De Piles, there are three kinds of truth in painting, namely, the simple truth, the ideal truth, and the perfect truth. The simple truth, shortly speaking, is a plain and faithful imitation of nature as seen by the artist. The ideal truth is the choice of various perfections, which do not meet in any single copy, but taken from several copies, and commonly from those of the antique. The perfect truth combines the first two, which no artist has ever achieved.

Giorgione, Titian and the whole Venetian school, in De Piles’ opinion, have no other merit but that of possessing the simple truth. Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio, Poussin and some other masters have gained their greatest reputation by the ideal truth. Among them Raphael came closer to the perfect truth than anyone else because his works, besides the beauties of ideal, contain also a considerable part of the simple truth.


La donna velata (1514 – 1515)
oil on canvas, 82 x 60.5 cm, Palazzo Pitti, Florence Palazzo Pitti, Florence

This is to say that the end of the story of realist painting has yet to be reached.

Unfortunately, the professors of the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris in 17th – 19th centuries seemed to emphasize only the pragmatical aspect of the classification by Roger de Piles. Taking the antique and Renaissance arts as ideals, they established a rigid academic dogma in fine-art teaching, which they used as a tool to maintain their supreme power in the Parisian as well as French fine-art circles. Oppression in any field, including sciences and arts, where freedom of thought and expression is vital as air to breathe, inevitably leads to opposition, which may reach a climax in a revolution.


Claude Monet
Impression, soleil levant (1872)
oil on canvas, 48 x 63 cm, Musée Marmottant Monet, Paris

The revolution that was ignited by the French Impressionists at the end of 19th century has broken the academism chains, but ironically, it also signaled the beginning of a decline of standards, when arts, especially fine arts, are no longer expressions of truth. From the summits of antique, Flemish, Renaissance, Baroque ideals, art in 20th and 21st centuries has fallen to such a level, where an individual without any skill could also become an artist because virtually anything could become art. In the lecture entitled “Why is modern art so bad?” Robert Florczak bitterly admitted: “The profound, the inspiring and the beautiful were replaced by the new, the different, and the ugly. Today the silly, the pointless, and the purely offensive are held up as the best of modern art.” [3]

In Vietnam, where painting was imported from Europe less than a century ago, many people still recourse to emotion, or what they call “gut feeling”, to deny the importance of reason and knowledge, of skills and techniques. They forgot that wisdom is the highest expression of the soul, as Ingres has pointed out [4]. This is not surprising, taking into account the fact that the methods and techniques of realist arts from the Renaissance to the 18th – 19th century academism had never been systematically taught in the art schools in Vietnam.

In these circumstances one should recognize that the initiative of forming a realist artists’ group is not merely a burst of passion but also a manifestation of courage. Indeed, how can you not be courageous, if you still follow and promote a painting philosophy, whose ancestors such as Jan Van Eyck and Leonardo da Vinci, in the eyes of the (literate or illiterate) “esthetes” in this country, are merely artisans or even craftsmen? The majority of them consider the crossed-eye whores, twisted figures, random splashes of colors in many modern paintings as the highest achievements of entrancing emotion. Every man to his taste, but it is also necessary to restore the aesthetic standards. It is misleading to say there is neither right nor wrong in arts. If beauty and truth are right then their opposites, namely ugliness and lies are wrong. Unfortunately, this seemingly simple and so obvious fact has become an elephant in the salon, to which many turn a blind eye. One of the fundamental reasons is that arts have become commodities, material goods, capable of being marketable, sellable, and collected. Once the artist gives in to the power of money, which makes “the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves, and give them title, knee and approbation”, as Shakespeare wrote [5], mixing the transcendent with the trashy seems to be a natural consequence.

Nonetheless, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has pointed out, “art is not defiled by our efforts, neither does it thereby depart from its true nature, but on each occasion and in each application it gives us a part of its secret inner light.” [6]

Try to paint an apple in such a way that, by looking at your painting, the observer would see not only an ordinary apple, but something that would make him wonder, cause his anxiety or even fear, that, returning home after seeing hundreds of paintings at the exhibition, he would become obsessed with the mysterious feeling radiating from your apple. If you succeeded in doing so, you could consider yourself to have reached the source of the true art.

May the members of Realist Artist group be strong and tough in the difficult but attractive journey toward the true values of fine arts.

Pham Binh Chuong

Pham Binh Chuong
Deserted tavern (2012)
oil on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

English version completed on December 1st, 2015
Bản tiếng Việt


[1] Leonardo da Vinci, Treatise on painting (Rome, 1817)
[2] Roger de Piles, Cours de peinture par principes (1708).
[3] Robert Florczak, Why is modern art so bad?
[4] Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Notes et pensées d’Ingres sur la peinture et le dessin.
[5] William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens (1623).
[6] Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Nobel lecture (1970).

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