Phan Cam Thuong – Writing And Drawing Have Only One Way

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For those who come from a research background, their artistic practice is very different. It can be said that they go in the opposite direction from artists. Researcher and artist Phan Cam Thuong is such a person. 

A consistent life

Up to now, there have not been many researchers of ancient Vietnamese fine arts, perhaps because ancient art is a difficult major. Young generations not only need many years of study but also need a deep oriental cultural foundation along with “distinct qualities.” 

Researcher/artist Phan Cam Thuong fully meets those conditions. Born in 1957, he is the youngest child in a family of 9 brothers, living on Ly Quoc Su Street, Hanoi. Phan Cam Thuong grew up in an environment influenced by many Confucian ideas. He is good at Chinese and eager to study Eastern philosophy. His cultural and linguistic background, love of drawing, and a number of opportunities led him to enter the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, Faculty of Art Theory and History.

Phan Cam Thuong’s whole life was attached to communal houses and pagodas: studying at pagodas, then staying at pagodas! When he was young, Phan Cam Thuong was evacuated to the old Ha Tay area. Because of the war, there was no school, so he always studied in communal houses and pagodas. He said: “Even though I went to school, I honestly didn’t learn any subjects, but just liked Buddha statues…”. During his studies and teaching at the Vietnam University of Fine Arts, he often went on field trips to communal houses and pagodas for research: “It wasn’t until 1994 that I got a motorbike. It took me a whole year to go from village to village, often doing research like that. Just going and drawing took 18 years.” 

Having stayed at But Thap Pagoda for many years, Phan Cam Thuong said he chose But Thap Pagoda for two main reasons. Firstly, this is an ancient temple from the 17th century that still retains its unique Buddhist architectural sculptures. Second, But Thap Pagoda is located in the center of Kinh Bac village, so from there, he can walk all over the surrounding areas.

The Buddhist spirit permeates his thinking and is expressed in Phan Cam Thuong’s research. As he shared: “It is true that I learned from Buddhism. In Buddhism, it is often said that in the past, right and wrong were not necessarily discussed. Buddhism only promotes goodness, and criticism of hatred is not discussed. I find this to be consistent with my research perspective: researching humanity’s steps in peace. As a researcher, once I go, I can only go one way, and I only have that ability…”

Phan Cam Thuong’s quiet and slow personality, along with his simple and calm demeanor, has brought him many achievements. Important ancient art documents for students of Vietnam University of Fine Arts are his research works from the above-mentioned period.

Besides writing research on ancient culture/art, drawing is a parallel job. Phan Cam Thuong paints on Do paper, silk, and lacquer, makes black and white graphic paintings, writes calligraphy (Chinese characters), and paints ink paintings.

In 2008, the exhibition “Painter Phan Cam Thuong and his students” held in New York (USA) included six artists: Le Quoc Viet, Nguyen Bach Dan, Trinh Quoc Chien, and Dinh Thi Tham Poong. To date, the Phan Cam Thuong 2022 exhibition is his first solo exhibition. The 20 works in this exhibition are a very small part of his past works. However, the works in the exhibition also have all the characteristics that represent the uniqueness of the researcher/artist Phan Cam Thuong to the public.

In the strange, there is the familiar

The exhibition “Paintings by Phan Cam Thuong” is strange. Strange because it mentions a topic and stories that not many audiences know: Vietnamese noble women in the 17th century during the Le-Trinh period, inspired by costumes and royal customs. Furthermore, this is a difficult topic. If there is any, it only appears in illustration/research form. Here, the artist’s talent is to both draw creatively and borrow old stories as inspiration, but at the same time, exploit elements of heritage and ensure a part of its authenticity, captivating the viewer. 

Another strange thing is that the artist persistently researched and used natural colors to paint on traditional Do paper. Natural colors are color systems processed from plants and minerals. Although it is durable, colorful, has a pristine appearance, and has been used by painting masters since ancient times, to this day, few artists have carefully researched and used it. It is sophisticated and limited because there are many convenient and diverse types of pre-processed imported colors available. Therefore, the artist’s feats and efforts must be admired for his “playfulness” and this color.

Through the creation of the work, even without understanding the exact motif, viewers can still feel some of the images of Vietnamese women in special contexts. Dong Ho’s paintings depict women in the countryside with their graceful beauty through funny stories. Nguyen Phan Chanh paints silk paintings of rustic and loving rural women. Then there are the women of Hanoi in makeup and radio in the early 20th century through the paintings of many famous Indochinese artists such as Mai Trung Thu, To Ngoc Van, Nguyen Tuong Lan, Duong Bich Lien, and now the public is returned to the image of Vietnamese women of the aristocratic class in the 17th century or the image of women transformed into Holy Mothers in Vietnamese folk through the paintings of Phan Cam Thuong. It would be a mistake not to have Phan Cam Thuong add to the image of women throughout the history of Vietnamese painting.

Regarding shaping, it can be said that Phan Cam Thuong stands outside the boundaries of traditional and modern Vietnamese painting. His paintings do not follow the Western academic visual style in proportion/composition/perspective law. He uses conventional rendering, close to the art of Vietnamese communal house sculpture. The boldness of the image of women in Phan Cam Thuong’s paintings seems to come from the humorous boldness of women in Dong Ho folk paintings or Vietnamese village communal house carvings and also carries echoes of the Western influence, specifically the Fauvist style in the works of Matisse (French painter 1869-1954).

However, the stretched, naked female bodies in this series of paintings by Phan Cam Thuong are not humorous. It carries the color of emotions, stretching alongside other historical identities. These are maids, monks, and kings in a complex historical period of the 17th-century court. In the works, there are real characters such as Princess Le Thi Ngoc Duyen, Trinh Thi Ngoc Co, and Queen Trinh Thi Ngoc Truc of the Le-Trinh royal family worshiped at But Thap Pagoda. The stories about them in Phan Cam Thuong’s paintings seem to reveal hidden, very “life” aspects, like the characters’ own experiences. 

Phan Cam Thuong, along with many other generations of independent researchers of modern art, promptly recorded precious images of Vietnamese art/cultural heritage before it was changed. And the special thing is that he recorded it in both written and visual language in a consistent manner. To do this, dedication and sacrifice are required. Another valuable thing is that his life and career have inspired the next young generations about the beauty of Vietnamese culture/art.