Vietnam: Behind the Lines

By Brian Dillon, 28 November 2002

The history of war imagery shuttles uneasily between the poles of a limiting dichotomy. So accustomed are we to a governing distinction – between the official, consoling and/or triumphant imagery of a winning war machine and the pathos of subversive, bloody revelation – that we fail to see how the territory has been mapped in advance by traditional categories. Individual vision – whether starkly documentary (Capa) or subject to horrific insight (Picasso, Coppola) – is set romantically against political untruth. The ‘art’ of propaganda proves the rule by exception: private vision smuggled under the wire of official acceptance.

Given that the works collected at the British Museum’s show were produced by Vietnamese artists under the constraints of an officially instituted programme of cultural consolation, it is tempting to go looking for the arrestingly ‘human’ or authentically ‘artistic’ instance. But things are more complex than such a separation allows. More than anything, these images exhibit a complex state of societal and artistic emergency: national, colonial and Soviet traditions conspiring to respond to the demands of war, state and the individual. There are no atrocities here, but the absence of bloodshed (the mark of truth for Western war art) and the apparent sentimentality of rural and childhood scenes are also evidence that more horror was precisely what artist and audience did not want to see. When a poster depicting Ho Chi Minh at the head of his troops reappears in a placid watercolour, or an industrial worker turns her head towards the viewer with classical poise, it is clear that the history recorded here hovers complexly between the individual and the collective.

Vietnam: Behind the lines – Images from the War 1965-75 // British Museum, London // 13 June - 1 December 2002

Brian Dillon <b.g.dillon AT> is a journalist critic whose writing appears in, amongst others, The Independent newspaper