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'Vietnam Posters' highlights propaganda images

May 2, 2009 | 11:49 am


Collector David Heather found a shop in Hanoi that he considered "an Aladdin's cave of old propaganda posters dating from the 1960s to the present." What he found there appears in the new book "Vietnam Posters" from Prestel Publishing -- see our online gallery.

In a brief introduction, critic Sherry Buchanan writes that "black, red and gold leaf, the traditional colors of lacquer objects in Buddhist temples morphed into the yellow, gold and crimson of the socialist revolution." This is just one of the intersections that combines to make these prapoganda images so compelling: French artistic techniques were absorbed and adapted, brutalist styles were taught in art schools by visiting Soviet and Chinese artists, and Vietnamese folk art traditions were revived.

The North Vietnamese were at war for decades, against the French starting in 1945, and America from 1964-1975. This week marks the 34th anniversary of the fall of Saigon; the posters provide a window into the visual language of the regime that drove two major Western powers away.

For all I'm writing here, there is very little writing and the book. At times I wish there was more information: when exactly a poster was printed, who the artist was, if there was a specific event to which the poster was responding or an action it supported. But it's not a history book, it's an art book, and without that context the art -- which is stunning -- stands on its own.

The posters appear on entirely white pages that provide, along the margin, English and German translations of what the posters say (Prestel is a German publisher). The poster above reads, "The battlefield needs weapons and munitions." Others in our gallery advocate for more shrimp production, fighting against aggressors and celebrating Uncle Ho.

This is the second book from Heather's collection, which must be massive. The first was 2008's "North Korean Posters."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Image: "Vietnam Posters" / Prestel Publishing