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Bảo tàng lịch sử Quốc gia

Vietnam National Museum of History

11/02/2010 14:55 2088
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In 1988 the art historian Nancy Tingley, then a curator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, went to Vietnam to talk with museums about borrowing examples of the country’s ancient art for the first major United States exhibition.
In 1988 the art historian Nancy Tingley, then a curator at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, went to Vietnam to talk with museums about borrowing examples of the country’s ancient art for the first major United States exhibition. It was a bold idea. To most Americans, Vietnam still meant little more than the memory of a nightmare war. And who knew it had a great art tradition, never mind museums that preserved it?

A pedestal from Van Trach Hoa village, Phong Dien District, Thua Thein Hue province, in the 8th-9th century.

Librado Romero/The New York Times

The show didn’t happen. The diplomatic situation was volatile; negotiating loans proved impossible. The Asian Art Museum dropped out as a sponsor, and even after new ones signed on, the project remained in limbo. But Ms. Tingley stuck with her original plans, and her persistence, 20 years on, has paid off in “Arts of Ancient Vietnam: From River Plain to Open Sea” at the Asia Society Museum. Is the show worth the wait? It is. It’s fabulous. Perfectly (meaning modestly) scaled, with the kind of Asian art loans — matchless in quality, straight from the source — that we rarely see here anymore.

A stone carving of an imaginary animal, the Gajasimha, from Thap Mam, Binh Dinh province, in the 12th to 13th century.

It absorbed early formative influences from China, evident in metalwork (seen in the show’s first gallery) from the prehistoric Dong Son culture that settled in northern Vietnam in the last half of the first millennium B.C. At the time Vietnam itself was valued for its creative vitality. The bronze ritual drums made by Dong Son artists were sought-after collector items, with examples, some weighing close to 400 pounds, turning up not only in China but across Southeast Asia as well.

Left, a wooden Buddha from the Fu Nan period, about the sixth century. Right, a stone carving of Dvarapala, ninth century.

With the rise of the pre-Angkor state of Fu Nan in the Mekong Delta in the first centuries A.D., Vietnam’s cultural spheres expanded further. We still don’t know much about Fu Nan — there’s a lot of basic archaeological catch-up work to be done — though we do know that its people established harbor cities and experienced a wave of influence from India, which led to adopting Buddhism and Hinduism and their intertwined traditions of religious sculpture.

The Asia Society Museum does itself proud with this show, a collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. And Ms. Tingley, aided in New York by Adriana Proser, an Asia Society curator, is to be commended not just for her scholarship, but also for keeping the faith in an art she believes in and clearly loves, and for delivering it to us, at last, so exquisitely packaged, so historically rich and so fresh with life.

HOLLAND COTTER

The New York Times

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