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Sunday, May 4, 2014

RUNG (Nguyen Tuan Khanh (1941, Phnom Penh, Cambodia)


Born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1941
Graduated from Hue Fine Art College in 1964
Artist-Painter RUNG (Nguyen Tuan Khanh) - Writer KINH DUONG VUONG - Poet DUNG NHAM

In summer 1989, we renovated our house at 142 Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Saigon, intending to open a shop selling lacquer-wares and Vietnamese traditional music instruments. We named the shop Tu Do (Liberty) after the pre-1975 name of this street. However, as our lacquer-ware suppliers delayed delivering our orders, we opened the shop with only a few traditional music instruments consigned by Mr. Vinh Tuan, a former professor at Hue Conservatory of Music. 

MOTHER OF LAND - Oil on canvas - 73cm x 60cm

At that time, a friend of mine, poet Nguyen Phan Thinh, introduced artist Rung to us. Rung would like to hold an exhibition of his recent paintings.

The shop had just been renovated for a different purpose so it wasn’t a good fit for an art exhibition. But considering the difficulties during that time in Vietnam, we could not be too picky. Thus, the exhibition, titled “SUMMER EXHIBITION”, was organized. It was the first privately held art exhibition in Vietnam since 1975. Rung displayed 60 small paintings made with oil on Russian magazine papers, about the size of A4 or A5 papers. Art materials were very scarce and expensive at that time, so Rung painted very thinly and used the existing colors of the magazine papers as the backgrounds for many of his paintings.

UNDER WATER SCENE - Oil on paper - 20cm x 25cm

To brighten up the exhibition room, we added three 150-watt incandescent bulbs. Halogen bulbs were still not available at that time. Yet, at 10 am on June 22, 1989, the opening day of the exhibition. The lights suddenly went out. Rung opened the exhibition by reciting his poem titled "The Blackout Exhibition" in darkness. Firecrackers were set off and curtains pulled up, the lights went on again. Art lovers and invited guests poured in to view Rung's latest artworks. Unfortunately, our gallery was too small for all of them to come in at once. They waited outside of the gallery for their turn to come in, and as a result, both sidewalks of Dong Khoi Street, from the Opera Theater to Le Thanh Ton Street, swarmed with exhibition goers. At least 500 people showed up but many of them couldn't come in to view the paintings on that day. Not only painters but also writers, poets, journalists, music composers, professors and intellectuals came to the exhibition. Everyone was thrilled by such a new cultural event. 

A TEAR - Oil on paper - 34cm x 26cm

On the opening day, two paintings were reserved by Mr. Doan Thanh Liem, a lawyer and a former political activist in Saigon. Those were the first two paintings he collected.  

About 40 out of the 60 displayed paintings were sold during the exhibition, 90 percent of which were purchased by three Taiwanese art collectors. One of Rung’s important paintings, “The War and Me,” was sold on this occasion to Mr. Chen Wen Chung, a Taiwanese architect, for US$400. Mr. Chung was so excited to become the new owner of this piece that he held the painting to his chest and danced around the exhibition room. Rung later recreated a bigger oil-on-canvas painting based on this piece, which he considered as a sketch. 

THE WAR AND ME - Lacquer on wood - 152cm x 160cm

After the success of this first exhibition, we gave up the plan of selling lacquer-wares and traditional music instruments. Thus, Tu Do shop officially became Tu Do Gallery.

Rung, whose real name is Nguyen Tuan Khanh, was born in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1941. At that time, his father worked there as a government officer of the French Protectorate Administration. In 1945, after the French had withdrawn from Vietnam following the Japanese occupation of French Indochina, which comprised of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Rung’s family returned to Hue, the former royal capital of Vietnam. After completing high school in Hue, Rung wanted to study fine arts but his father fiercely opposed. His father preferred Rung to major in either public administration or education so he would become a government officer or a teacher. He said the life of an artist was unstable and even miserable. Unable to budge his father, Rung secretly left Hue for Saigon to attend Gia Dinh Fine Arts College. His father finally agreed to let him pursue art, so he asked Rung to return to Hue and attend the newly opened Hue Fine Arts College to stay close to his family. Rung graduated from Hue Fine Art College in 1964.

Rung was the first South Vietnamese artist who held a solo exhibition after 1975. That exhibition, titled “NEW DAWN,” was organized at Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Association in 1987, one year after “Doi Moi” (New Policy) was passed. The show displayed 63 paintings made with oil on Russian art magazine papers, about the size of A4 or A5 papers. These were expressionist pieces with underlying meanings and suggestions. In the painting “Tree of Tears,” for example, every leaf is depicted as an eye shedding tears.  

TREE OF TEARS - Lacquer on wood - 76cm x 60cm

The works Rung showed in “SUMMER EXHIBITION” at Tu Do Gallery in 1989 touched the viewer’s heart, reflecting the feelings and thoughts of Vietnamese people at that time. They sent a strong message to the public with images of bony women holding their starving babies and emaciated men staring with hollowed eyes into nothingness. Some of these people could be the artist’s friends.

Some of his paintings were selected by Mr. David Thomas, an American veteran of Vietnam War and President of the Indochina Partnership Program, to show in two exhibitions in the US:
-  "As Seen by Both Sides," exhibited at Minnesota Museum of Art and Art Galleries of 11 different Colleges/Universities in the US and 7 Art Museums in Vietnam (Hanoi, Ho Chgi Minh City, Haiphong…) from 1990 to 1995,
- "An Ocean Apart," held at Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC in 1995.

THE WORLD OF HADES - Oil on canvas - 50cm x 60cm

Rung held a second solo exhibition, “SPRING EXHIBITION,” at Tu Do Gallery in December 1989. The show displayed 17 oil-on-canvas paintings of various sizes (60x80cm, 80cmx100cm, etc.). Among the exhibited works was “The War and Me,” an oil-on-canvas piece, 80cmx100cm wide, recreated from a sketch with the same title shown in his previous solo exhibition. The painting depicts a bewildered, gaping face staring at a broken bridge against a devastating landscape background. Another work, “A Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man,” portrays Christ, so kind and simple, wearing a feather hat that reminds us of those drawn on the ancient bronze drums of Lac Viet people. This time, an Austrian businessman from Indonesia bought nearly half of the number of exhibited paintings, including the two above-mentioned pieces. Unfortunately, we have lost contact with this valuable art collector.

THE-TWO-THOUSAND-YEAR-OLD MAN - Oil on canvas - 80cm x 80cm

In 1993, before leaving Vietnam for the US under the HO Program, Rung held an exhibition of his new series of 36 lacquer paintings titled “Wandering in Dreamland – Light and Darkness” at Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. One day, while looking at a photo damaged during the developing process, he noticed how the lighting effects allowed the photo to transform continuously and vividly, creating surreal images. Inspired by this photo, Rung painted this series of lacquer paintings. All of these 36 artworks were sold a few months later to Mr. Shintaku (Taco), a Japanese art collector. 

THE VICTORY OF INTELLIGENCE - Lacquer on wood - 120cm x 180cm

In 1999, Rung returned from the US to hold a new exhibition at Tu Do Gallery. The show, titled “In an Ethereal World,” comprised of 16 paintings sized 100 x 80 cm, 100 x 100 cm and 150 x 100 cm. These works present large areas of bright colors that transform and transcend upon closer look. “I would like to showcase a world unlike the existing one,” Rung said. This series were based on the small collage sketches, about 25 x 35 cm, that he showed in an exhibition at Blue Space Gallery in HCMC Fine Arts Museum in 1997. 

SUNK ICEBERG BLOCK - Oil on canvas - 120cm x 80cm

Coming back to Tu Do Gallery in 2009, Rung held an exhibition titled “Thanks to Women,” comprising of 7 large paintings sized 100 x 170 cm. This series tells the life story of a woman: her birth, her coming of age when she reaches puberty, the periods of time when she falls in love, gets marriage and begins to raise a family. Eventually, all of the mothers depicted in his paintings reunite in “Spring Garden,” the seventh piece in the series, to show a happy ending reminiscent of the joy of life in Eden. 

LOVE MOTHER - Oil on canvas - 122cm x 180cm

This series expresses deep admiration for and gratitude to mothers as they’ve helped preserve and nurture the human species throughout the history of mankind. Unlike the series “Wandering in Dreamland – Light and Darkness” and “In an Ethereal World,” this time Rung returned to figurative art. "A few years ago, I left the earth for the sky. Now I would like descend to the earth again," Rung said.

SPRING GARDEN - Mixed media on canvas - 122cm x 180cm

This series was shown in the US the same year, 2009, with the title “Thanks to Mothers.”

Rung has changed his style continuously. Each of his exhibitions presented a new series with a new style, new ideas, new concepts about lines and colors. A few art collectors complained that they could hardly keep up with his changes. To this, Rung replied, “As a creative artist, I must always renew myself."

Besides drawing and painting, Rung is also a writer with the pen name of Kinh Duong Vuong and a poet with the pen name of Dung Nham.

Rung still works enthusiastically. It’s hard to predict what new ideas will occur to his creative mind and how they will be projected onto his canvases for the next exhibition.

Rung is a talented artist and has made great contributions to Vietnamese contemporary fine art.
MEN OF THE SEA - Oil on canvas (One of Rung's art-work created during the 60's, which had been lost)
San Francisco, March 2014

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