BY Philip Genochio
I’ve been writing this column for a few months now and spoken a lot about some of the personalities behind Ho Chi Minh City’s burgeoning art scene. Whether it be painters, gallery owners, graffiti artists or photographers, there’s really no shortage of young talent giving the city a new lease of life for purveyors of visual art. However, as much as it always needs to be progressive and forward-looking, art would be nothing if it weren’t for the past. Without history we have no reference points, our influences are limited and we have much less with which to shape our creativity.
It would be amiss, therefore, if in extolling the virtues of Saigon’s Bright Young Things, as I did in a previous column, I didn’t acknowledge the role played by the city’s elder statesperson – the grand old lady, if you will – of the art scene: The Fine Arts Museum. Or, as I like to call her, Madam FAM. To some a dour old spinster sitting unloved and alone, slowly being engulfed by a modernity that she doesn’t really understand but tolerates in a this-wouldn’t-have-happened-in-my-day kind of way, accompanied by a tut and a shrug of the shoulders that says ‘What can you do?’ while she strokes her cat from the comfort of her rocking chair. To me though, she’s a wise, characterful old lady whose charms only reveal themselves after repeated visits.
She sits quietly, minding her own business, just a wrecking ball’s swing from the latest installment of Saigon’s infrastructural development that is the Ben Thanh metro terminus construction site.
Venture away from the blue steel walls masking the fruits of delayed decisions and the questionable spending of foreign investment, down Pho Duc Chinh a little way, and there sits Madam FAM. She’s not so brazen as to sit right on the road but, as becoming a lady of her years and status, a little way back in a slightly aloof manner.
As befits this almost regal confidence, she’s perhaps not the most welcoming of hosts initially. However, grace her gatekeepers with the princely sum of VND10,000 and you’ll be gladly waved inside.
Whilst the museum has been operating since 1987, Madam FAM came into existence in the very early 1930’s with the three villa buildings that make up the museum today. You’ll more than likely be ushered into the main building to start with. A rather drab and poorly lit interior awaits here, which shouldn’t come as a surprise – Madam FAM doesn’t do showy; a bit like an aged relative who refuses to modernise their home because it’s been “perfectly good enough all this time”. You can expect The grand old lady’s humble servants to bark some directions at you (Madam FAM’s a bit long in the tooth for anything as modern as customer service training; “We didn’t need it back in my day”, she mutters while adjusting the blanket over her legs.) but then you’re free to explore. And explore you should.
With over 20,000 artworks on display throughout the three villas, just a cursory glance around the main building wouldn’t be showing Madam FAM the respect she deserves. These pieces are spread out over a total of nine floors so prepare to lose a few hours meandering through the corridors and galleries. Admittedly, some of these galleries sit a little forlorn, lacking in affection.
I think of them as a neglected nephew whose name Madam FAM can vaguely recall but can’t remember the last time she saw him. But worry not, because for the couple of rather sad lonely galleries, there are many more brimming with stimulating and evocative pieces that range from dark, industrial depictions of machinery and labour to light, optimistic work with messages of joy and hope.
From an artistic point of view, this is the real beauty of the Fine Arts Museum for me. A breadth of artwork taking in modernist art, abstract pieces, sculptures, lacquer work, wartime sketchings and much much more, it offers something for everyone and stands up to repeated viewing.
However, it’s not just the art that makes the museum worthy of your time. Visit in the week and you’re likely to have sections of the place to yourself; the peace, quiet and serenity – words seldom used when talking about Saigon – is the perfect antidote to the chaos outside.
Wandering around in your little haven of tranquility, you’ll spot beautiful little architectural details above doorways, on railings and in windows in all three villas. And the afternoon light streaming through the shutters may well have you imagining you’re back in Indochina’s halcyon days, with slatted wooden window shutters and ceiling fans whirring overhead.
If you’re someone who appreciates art in its wider forms then I think you’ll be charmed by Madam FAM’s quirks and foibles. It might take a few visits but spend a bit of time in her company and she’ll win you over before too long; and at VND10,000 a time it’s not going to break the bank.
You’ll come away feeling wiser and happier, and perhaps with a fresh perspective, having spent time in the company of such an esteemed elder of the city.
The Museum of Fine Arts is located very close to Ben Thanh market at 97 Phó Đức Chính, District 1, HCMC; and is open 9am to 6pm, Tuesdays to Sundays.
Madam FAM hasn’t fully embraced the digital age yet (she’s nearly 90 – give her a break) but there is a Vietnamese language Facebook page and she has her own website: www.baotangmythuattphcm.com which, in her addled state, she has simply linked back to the Facebook page. God bless you, Madam FAM!