Vietnamese art has undergone a rather long and rich history with seven main turning points including Neolithic Art; Bronze Age Art; Chinese Domination from 111 BC to 939 AD; Ngo to Tran Dynasty; the Fourth Chinese Domination and Le Dynasty; Nguyen Dynasty, and Modern Art.
During its long process of development, numerous works of art have been found in archeological sites throughout the country, such as sculpture, ceramic, painting which used a variety of materials such as clay, stone, bronze, steel, wood, and paper. Some processes involved in making artifact like ceramics were similar to those still used in the Vietnamese countryside today. Besides, other art forms: architecture, calligraphy, music, visual arts, literature and material arts have been developed to satisfy Vietnamese demand for enjoying art and entertainment.
The oldest artifact hailing from the Stone Age around 8,000 BCE was primitive clay pottery which showed little signs of decoration and was discovered in archaeological sites of Bac Son, Vietnam. Entering Neolithic era, the techniques for making stone objects had reached a high level of sophistication. Some kinds of ceramic products, such as Hoa Loc were endowed with rhythmic designs reflecting original geometric thinking. The process involved in making ancient jars comprised of covering woven objects with clay and putting them in to a kiln. High temperature would heat the woven exterior until it was burnt, which leaves small traces on the ceramic jars. These decorative motifs were popular among Vietnamese ceramic products of the Stone Age and possibly explained how the decoration on the outer surface of pottery came into being.
Bronze Age art
There are three major stages in the development of ceramic art on the Bronze Age namely Phung Nguyen (4,000 years ago), Dong Dau (3,300 years ago) and Go Mun (3,000 years ago). The decorating techniques used to decorate ceramics during these stages became the early models of decorative motifs ornamented on the bronze objects of the Dong Son civilization. The flourishing period of Dong Son culture in North Vietnam (from about 1,000 BC to the 4th century BC) was marked with the emergence of the world-famous Dong Son drums which were elaborately incised with bands of geometric or circular patterns and most importantly depicted scenes of daily life and war, animals, warriors, musicians, etc. These products not only represented advanced bronze-casting skills of Vietnamese people but also gave an interesting insight into their life in primitive stages.
Chinese Domination from 111 BC to 939 AD
During one thousand year of Chinese domination, Vietnamese combined their traditional methods with newly adapted techniques from Chinese in making ceramics. This could be seen in ceramics excavated from Chinese tombs including vessel-shaped bowls, tall vases with slender necks, large mid-sections and bell-shaped bases, tall cups with large mouths and terracotta house models. Products in this period reached a high level of technical sophistication with the introduction of potter’s wheel and the use of a thin yellow or white glaze to cover thick-walled ceramics.
From the Ngo to Tran Dynasty
This period of national independence was considered to be a thriving stage for Vietnamese art and ceramics. Both ancient Vietnamese styles, the Celadon porcelain tradition of the Song from China and the style of Tam Thai (three colors) ceramics under Tang Dynasty exerted a significant influence on Vietnamese ceramics. What is more, philosophies influenced from Chinese, such as Confucianism, Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism also left a long-lasting impression on Vietnamese art.
Under Ly Dynasty (1010 to 1225), Vietnamese ceramics underwent a highly creative period with dramatically changes in the design of numerous ceramics. Those products were slender in shape and covered with an emerald glaze in different colors: pale grayish green, violet green, etc. White and black and iron-brown glazed ceramics were also produced in very eye-pleasing manner. This thriving stage also saw the dramatically development of Vietnamese architecture with the construction of numerous Vietnam’s landmarks, including One-pillar pagoda, the Temple of Literature and Quynh Lam pagoda. During Tran Dynasty (1226-1400), a large number of pottery villages with their specialized products were found in Bat Trang (Ha Noi city), Tho Ha (Bac Giang province) and Phu Lang (Bac Ninh province).
The Fourth Chinese Domination and Le Dynasty
Despite lasting for a few years, the fourth Chinese domination viewed as the harshest dominating period to Vietnamese people. Almost all of classical Vietnamese books were burnt, and thousands of artifacts were taken to China. Many art forms in this period consequently suffered a heavy influence by the Ming artistic tradition.
This last ruling dynasty of Vietnam revived interest in ceramics and porcelain. Besides, this period also saw the powerful presence of the performing arts, such as imperial court music and dance. However, other forms of arts experienced a catastrophic decline during the latter part of the Nguyen dynasty.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Vietnamese arts were considerably influenced by French artistic style which mostly thrived in big cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. By the early part of 20th century, many French art institutions such as the Fine Arts College of Indochina were established in Vietnam. Afterwards, French techniques started to be utilized by modern Vietnamese artists in many traditional materials like silk, lacquer, etc., which creates a unique blend of eastern and western elements.