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VIETNAM! VIETNAM!
Artists & America's Longest War

Written by Mark Vallen on the 30th anniversary
of the end of the Vietnam War

(Right- "Vietnam" Drawing by Mark Vallen 1975)

April 30th, 2005, marks the 30th anniversary of the US defeat in Vietnam. As a twenty two year old in 1975, I commemorated the end of the war by creating a large oil painting simply titled, Vietnam! The preliminary sketch for that painting is reproduced to the right of this text. The Vietnamese peasant woman portrayed in my artwork glances at you with cold regard, her stare is not celebratory but accusatory. J'accuse!

In observing the 30th anniversary of the end of what the Vietnamese called, "The American War", I have to mention that the conflict, and the world-wide opposition to it, were defining factors in my early artistic development.

 

"Vietnam" Drawing by Mark Vallen 1975  "Vietnam" Drawing by Mark Vallen 1975
"Vietnam" Drawing by Mark Vallen 1975  "Vietnam" Drawing by Mark Vallen 1975

When I created my Vietnam painting at the close of the war 30 years ago, I could not have imagined that America would have so quickly forgotten the tragic lessons of that misbegotten imperial adventure. Yet memories of Vietnam still haunt Americans as the US conducts a brutal occupation of Iraq. Up to 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the war, with 1,573 American soldiers killed and an estimated 20,000 wounded as of this writing - causing some to call Iraq, "America's new Vietnam." It is in this context that I make an appeal to all artists, and offer my commentary as a challenge. There's a war going on. Leave behind the isolation of your studios and your focus on pure aesthetics, and instead become engaged in the world around you. Now is the time to confront the deadly realities that plague humanity. and art is the best means we have to envision and implement a new, just, and peaceful world.

"Moratorium" by Jasper Johns 1969 "Moratorium" by Jasper Johns 1969

(Left- "Moratorium" by Jasper Johns 1969)

In 1969 a network of antiwar activists across the US planned the National Vietnam Moratorium, a nationwide coordinated protest against the war on Vietnam. Activist and student groups set Wednesday October 5th, 1969 as the target date for mass demonstrations. The Leo Castelli Gallery of Los Angeles commissioned Jasper Johns to create a poster for the Moratorium. The artist was famous for his pop art renditions of the American flag -works that were iconic celebrations of patriotism equally enjoyed by all citizens. But his poster for the Moratorium was a departure from his red, white, and blue paintings.

Johns painted a toxic flag, a national symbol poisoned by war. The stripes in his flag were black and green, with the sickly green looking vaguely like jungle camouflage. The nauseating orange field was filled with blackened stars. In the center of the painted flag was a single white dot - representing a bullet hole. The design was the perfect banner for an ailing America in the throes of an unpopular imperial war. Johns' painting was published as a poster with the single word "Moratorium" stenciled beneath the flag. The mechanically printed poster was distributed far and wide, and according to Deborah Wye, Chief Curator of Prints at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the poster "became one of the most well known images of the Vietnam period." Johns also signed a special edition of the poster to raise much needed funds for the antiwar movement. On the actual day of the Moratorium, university campuses across the nation either canceled classes or were paralyzed by student strikes, and some 30 million Americans participated in some type of protest against US engagement in South East Asia.

(Right- "Vietnam!" Antonio Frasconi 1967)

The woodcuts of Antonio Frasconi (1919 - ) are the perfect example of how art can address social issues. His print, Vietnam!, depicts a US B-52 bomber engaged in what was called "carpet bombing", the methodical bombing of broad areas with unguided gravity bombs.

B-52s flew in groups of three, with each plane carrying 54,000 pounds of high explosives. Flying at high altitudes, the bombers released their deadly payload upon the unsuspecting people on the ground. Such an operation was called "rolling thunder", and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese perished under the onslaught. Frasconi represents those victims with the double image of an anguished human face.

"Vietnam!" Antonio Frasconi 1967
"Vietnam!" Antonio Frasconi 1967
"Vietnam!" Antonio Frasconi 1967
"Vietnam!" Antonio Frasconi 1967
"Vietnam Scene" Duane Hanson 1969
"Vietnam Scene" Duane Hanson 1969
"Vietnam Scene" Duane Hanson 1969
"Vietnam Scene" Duane Hanson 1969

(Left- "Vietnam Scene" Duane Hanson 1969)

American Photorealist Sculptor, Duane Hanson (1925 - 1996), created realistic human figures in polyvinyl that would then be painted and dressed in accessories for the ultimate in realistic statuary. His Vietnam Scene was a tableau of dead and dying US soldiers positioned on a gallery floor as if a grenade had detonated in their midst.

Hanson's hyper-realistic figures often couched a biting social critique of the excesses of American consumerism, racism, and other social ills.

(Right- "Napalm 1" Leon Golub 1969)

Leon Golub (1950 - 2000), created political artworks for most of his career, and a good number of them were devoted to the horrors of the Vietnam war. His Napalm series of paintings are unforgettable condemnations of one of the most horrendous weapons used by the US in Vietnam -napalm. The jellied gasoline was dropped from planes in bombs, and upon exploding they'd scatter the flaming substance to stick to anything within the target area.

"Napalm 1" Painting by Leon Golub 1969 "Napalm 1" Painting by Leon Golub 1969
"Napalm 1" Painting by Leon Golub 1969 "Napalm 1" Painting by Leon Golub 1969

The widespread use of napalm by the US army against the Vietnamese civilian population horrified the world, and the photos of its victims were successfully used by the international antiwar movement to turn people against the war. Perhaps the most infamous use of napalm occurred on June 8th, 1972, when it was dropped on the village of Trang Bang. Associated Press cameraman Nick Ut, photographed nine year old Phan Thi Kim Phuc, as she ran out of her napalmed village with her clothes burned off and her skin on fire. Ut's shocking photo exposed the brutality of the war, won the Pulitzer Prize, and became one of the most famous photos of the 20th century. But hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who were napalmed never received any press attention.

Golub not only sought to draw attention to the depredations of the US in Vietnam, he focused on militarism and injustice wherever it was to be found. He said of his works, "There was World War II, Korea, Vietnam. How are you going to connect with those fantastic numbers of slaughters? You can't do it by making pretty pictures about it. You have to create these kinds of stylized forms which are so brutal that they jump beyond the stylization." Golub's technique in painting conveyed a sense of violence. He would apply and then scrap off the paint over and over again, until the painting's surface texture was as disfigured as the war victims he painted.

"Strive to Train Soldiers - Defend the Nation" Vietnamese Poster "Strive to Train Soldiers - Defend the Nation" Vietnamese Poster
"Strive to Train Soldiers - Defend the Nation" Vietnamese Poster "Strive to Train Soldiers - Defend the Nation" Vietnamese Poster

Left- Strive to Train Soldiers to be in a position to Defend the Nation!
Poster by Vietnamese artist, H. Hoan 1971

This Vietnamese poster exhorted the people of Vietnam to ready themselves for combat against the Americans in the "great patriotic war." The figures portrayed in the artwork show a male regular from the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), along with two female guerrillas of the National Liberation Front (or what the French and then the Americans called the "Viet Cong" - for Vietnamese Communists).

Images of Vietnamese women carrying guns, commanding guerilla troops, and taking leadership roles in the revolution, had an enormous impact upon the burgeoning women's liberation movement in the US. A well-known feminist slogan in the early 1970's was, Vietnamese Women Carry Guns.

Right- The U.S. Imperialists will be defeated!
Chinese Solidarity Poster 1966

Solidarity posters with Vietnam were produced all around the world, and their messages ranged from pacifist calls to militant declarations of unity with the National Liberation Front. In the US there was a torrent of posters created by individuals and organizations expressing opposition to the war, some of which became famous both home and abroad. In the socialist world a huge number of posters condeming imperialist war were produced and distributed. Cuban posters about "Heroic Vietnam" could be found in just about every corner of the globe. The silkscreen posters of Cuban artist, Rene Mederos (1933 - 1996) who had visited Vietnam and spent time with the Viet Cong guerrillas on the battlefield, were printed in the pages of the radical US magazine Ramparts in the early 1970s.

"The U.S. Imperialists will be defeated!" Chinese Poster 1966 "The U.S. Imperialists will be defeated!" Chinese Poster 1966
"The U.S. Imperialists will be defeated!" Chinese Poster 1966 "The U.S. Imperialists will be defeated!" Chinese Poster 1966

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