A decade after modern Vietnamese painting made a splash on the world scene, critics and galleries say rampant commercialization and a glut of cheap copies are threatening the young art movement.
The original works of Vietnam's best-known artists are fetching small fortunes in Hanoi, Hong Kong and Singapore. But for each authentic work, hundreds of reproductions are being churned out by craftsmen who have almost perfected a tradition of faithfully copying their masters.
Some of Vietnam's top artists themselves have added to the problem by mass-producing works that originally won them critical acclaim, leading to a creative stagnation and drop in art prices, say some galleries.
“Many painters turned to the commercial production of their work solely for the marketplace and managed to make a good living doing this,” says Suzanne Lecht, director at Art Vietnam, one of the main galleries in Hanoi.
“Sometimes the influence of money weighs more heavily than the desire to produce a singular work of art.”
Vietnamese visual art, influenced by ancient Chinese and modern French styles, awoke in the 1990s from a long slumber during which the communist regime allowed only socialist realism, art for political purposes.
As Vietnam's doi moi (renewal) reforms kicked in and the country reopened its doors to the outside world, a wave of painters emerged to the delight of art lovers who hailed the works as both fresh and uniquely Vietnamese.
The vibrant and abstract landscapes of Le Thiet Cuong, Thanh Bien's dreamlike depictions of women in traditional ao dai dresses, and the Cubist-influenced lacquer works of Thanh Chuong all earned praise from foreign collectors.
In 1995, a canvas by Do Quang Em sold for more than US$50,000 at Hong Kong's Galerie La Vong, one of a number of galleries devoted to Vietnamese art that sprang up around the Asian region.
The commercial success of Em, whose naturalistic still-lives are said to recall the old Dutch masters, was the spark that led collectors and critics to take the movement seriously, say some experts.
It showed that “Vietnamese art is unique and different from that of other Asian countries,” says Shirley Hui of Galerie La Vong. “It combines local culture and traditions, the French legacy and ancient Chinese philosophy.”
Many Vietnamese artists have continued to explore new creative avenues, dabbling in new styles, motifs and media — but for others the overnight success has amounted to a creative kiss of death, say critics.
“We have some great artists who are doing well and don't produce too much,” says Hui. “But a number of others become commercial and then just keep copying their own work. They will ruin their future in the market.”
Today the tourist areas of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City abound with hundreds of galleries that mostly specialize in detailed reproductions of famous Western artists, from Leonardo da Vinci to Vincent Van Gogh to Andy Warhol.
Equally popular, and some say equally kitsch, are the Vietnamese paintings that depict a romanticized vision of a land of lotus flowers, conical hats and flooded rice paddies, of water buffalo and colorful ethnic minority markets.
Some top-end galleries sell original masters, typically for US$3,000 to US$5,000 apiece — but for each original artwork, a gallery down the street will likely sell a cheap imitation, leaving many potential buyers baffled.