Vann Nath, a Cambodian who painted to stay alive, died on September 5th, aged 65
Sep 17th 2011 | from the print edition
WHEN he was 52, with a hand that still trembled, Vann Nath produced a painting of a young man lying under a blossoming tree. He was playing a pipe while, in the background, cattle grazed by green palms in some bucolic corner of Cambodia. It was meant to be a self-portrait, he said, a beautiful memory from his childhood. He wanted only to paint idyllic landscapes now, in the style of temple murals or the French Impressionists who had first inspired him to take up art.
That was because, in 1978-79, he had been made to paint quite different pictures. In those months he was interned in S-21 prison, a former French lycée in Phnom Penh which had been converted into a torture-compound for alleged enemies of the Khmer Rouge regime. Perhaps 14,000 people were sent to S-21 for a daily routine of electrocution, water-boarding and flagellation before being carted off for execution—a shovel or spade to the head—at the nearby “killing fields”. Mr Vann Nath was one of only six or seven prisoners to make it out alive.
He never expected to. Like almost all the others, he had no idea why he had been sent there. He was not an intellectual; his family was poor and provincial, and he just a painter in a small business making signs and billboards. In 1975, obedient to the Khmers Rouges, he had joined a peasant commune and worked hard there. When he first saw the wasted prisoners in S-21, he thought it was all over for him. But after withering away for a month, fed so sparely on rice gruel that he felt an urge to consume the flesh of the dead, he was asked to paint portraits of the regime’s leader, Pol Pot.
At first he thought he could not do it. The shocks and beatings meant that he could barely stand. Besides, he had no idea what Pol Pot looked like, and only a black-and-white photograph to copy. All the time he painted, day and night, the screams of the tortured echoed from other rooms. He hoped, with every brush-stroke, that his jailers would like his work and let him live. He focused by thinking how much he would like to kill the man he drew.