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VIETNAMESE MODERN PAINTING – RINGING THE BELL...

By Huu Ngoc

Until the middle of the 20th century, Vietnamese rarely left their home village for another place. An analogy was drawn with the pagoda bell which was rarely taken out of the village: when someone left the village to try out his talent in another land, the person was then considered "ringing the bell in the others' land." The number of Vietnamese painters who were able to travel overseas and "ring the bell" there can be counted on one's fingers, mostly because the French put a strict restriction on overseas travel of Vietnamese during their 80-year rule in Vietnam. This was followed by a long period of war for national independence. Nearly all of the Vietnamese painters who are well-known abroad are now in their 70s and 80s or are dead. They came from a well-to-do background, had the opportunity to go to France and made their careers mostly there. During their extensive careers they made important contributions to the development of Vietnamese modem painting.

LE THI LUU
Among these Vietnamese artists, two names immediately spring to my mind. These are Le Thi Luu and Le Pho. They were my painting teachers 70 years ago. I was then a 13-year-old boy who had just entered the French-run Buoi School in Hanoi. I remember Le Thi Luu the best, as she was then only 20 and very beautiful. She had an oval face, dreamy eyes, white skin, and a fine figure made more prominent by the modernized ao dai dress.

During our weekly painting lessons, we students would spend more time admiring her beauty from behind the drawing boards than doing our painting assignments. Some students even secretly painted pictures of her.

Ms. Luu is already in heaven. She died twelve years ago at the age of 77 in Antibes, France. She was bom in Bac Ninh Province. Her father was a civil servant with a French education. The family was rather well-off, but not wealthy. Le Thi Luu was the first Vietnamese woman to become a professional painter. She grew up during a time when French culture was beginning to exert its influence in Vietnam, but Confucianism still remained the social norm. The fact that she was able to persuade her family to allow her to study at the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l'indochine was an achievement in itself, as students at the Ecole were expected to paint nudes, while Vietnamese women then still lacquered their teeth black and wore dark-coloured trousers. Luu passed the entrance exam with the highest score. After she graduated she taught painting for seven years, until 1939. In 1940, she followed her husband to France when he was sent there as an agriculturalist. When the Germans invaded France, the couple got stuck there. They later spent three years in Guinee, as her husband was responsible for a plantation there. After the Second World War, the couple returned to Paris where they took part in the movement of the overseas Vietnamese for Vietnam's independence. After Vietnam's war victory in 1954, Luu abandoned trading to resume her career. As she was not very healthy (once she almost died of a heart attack), she could not paint as much as she would have liked to. Consequently she had a bit of an inferiority complex because she had not practised the art for some time. She managed, however, to overcome her ill heath and self-doubts. Her first three paintings were exhibited at an exhibition of the Union of Women Painters, Sculptors and Woodcut Artists. She won the first prize at the exhibition and was immediately admitted to the Union.

Luu's paintings are imbued with the character of Vietnamese and Asian women. She loved themes involving family and expressed her love by depicting women and children. Her artistic style was classic, but she could express emotions with gentle colours and smooth lines. That is why she was better at silk painting, even though her oil painting technique was also quite strong. Victor Tardieu, Principal of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine, compared her painting style with Cezanne's. In silk painting, at first she followed the Chinese style, using even patches of colour with outlines and some contrast between highlights and shadows. She was then briefly influenced by Modigliani before she was able to develop her own style similar to post-impressionism and suggestive of Renoir, but Vietnamese to the core.

LE PHO
Le Pho was another of my painting teachers at the Buoi School. I can still recall his thin, tall figure. He always wore glasses and a well-kept suit. He did not talk much and was very gentle with the students. When a student produced a good painting, he often complimented, "C'est pas mal." (That's not bad).

Le Pho, bom in l907, graduated from the first class (1925-1930) of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l'indochine. According to Le Thi Luu's husband Ngo The Tan, Le Pho once represented Indochina in an exhibition in France. After that he won a grant to continue to perfect his artistic skills. Since 1937 he has settled in France. He is the tenth child of the twenty children of the senior mandarin Le Hoan, who was considered a henchman of the French colonialists, especially in suppressing the uprising of the peasant leader De Tham. According to Prof Chuong Thau, however, Le Pho and his family are "more or less relieved" from their anguish of guilt as historians have recently made public some documents which vindicated their case (Fine Arts Today - No. 25/2000). In spite of his family background, Le Pho showed his loyalty to the Vietnamese people with practical activities. In 1946, together with Tran Duc Thao and Tran Huu Tuoc, he provided much help to the mission of President Ho Chi Minh and Pharn Van Dong during their stay in Paris. Le Pho's paintings were highly rated in France, worth USD30,000-40,000 each. He gave 20 of his paintings to the Vietnam Museum of Fine Arts. He likes Asian themes such as young women, flowers and birds: each of his paintings is a poem in itself, quietly graceful. He employed both oil and silk media.

MAI TRUNG THU
Mai Trung Thu (Mai Thu) was born in 1906. He graduated from the same class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine as Le Pho. I have been familiar with his paintings for decades, as my overseas Vietnamese friends often send me New Year's cards with prints of his paintings including children and women. His art is typical of folk art: simple strokes and colours, sometimes not respecting rules of perspective. His paintings exude love and nostalgia for the past and the innocent. His three exhibitions over the past 16 years have borne names suggestive of this attitude: Children of MT (1964), Women in the Eyes of MT (1967) and The Poetic World of MT (I 980). Mai Trung Thu liked to employ the silk medium.

According to Ngo The Tan, the painters Mai Trung Thu, Le Thi Luu and Nguyen Phan Chanh each used the silk medium differently. Le Thi Luu was inclined towards the Western approach, emphasizing the richness of colour. Mai Trung Thu also liked to use many lively colours but he organized them into outlined patches, highlights and shadows, which is different from the Chinese technique. Nguyen Phan Chanh strictly followed the traditional Chinese technique.

On the occasion of an international exhibition in 1937, Mai Trung Mu went to France and settled there until he died in 1980. He also played well the one-string musical instrument Bau and made a valuable documentary film on the activities of President Ho Chi Minh's and Pham Van Dong's delegation in Paris.

LE VAN DE
Le Van De, born in 1906, graduated from the first class of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l'indochine. He introduced Christianity into Vietnamese painting. He said, "Since 1934, after I saw art masterpieces in Rome, in addition to silk painting, I have tried to develop an approach of sacred art. I believe that art must aim at a goal more sacred than 'art for art's sake'." In 1935, he was given a grant to study art in Rome and Athens. His private exhibition in Rome received a warm welcome. After that he created many works for the Vatican and for churches such as the Virgin Mary and Saint Madeleche.

In addition to oil painting, Le Van De also painted on silk, using a neoclassic approach and relying on the national tradition. According to him, silk painting is "elegant, gentle and rhythmic... When painting on silk the painter should select natural colours that can soak into the fibre of the silk .... and should avoid using artificial colours as much as possible." (interview with the review Bach Khoa, 1963).

LE BA DANG
Le Ba Dang, bom in 1921, is much younger than the other painters in this review. He is an exception among Vietnamese painters known abroad: he was not a graduate of the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine. Le Ba Dang mostly studied on his own, even though he attended the Toulouse College of Fine Arts in France for a period (beginning 1945). At that time, applicants were not required to possess identity cards or academic qualifications for enrolment. According to A. Jason, Le Ba Dang made his adventure to France when he was 18 years old. He joined the French army and was captured as a prisoner of war until the war finished. He became famous after he held his first private exhibition in 1950. His works are imbued with Vietnamese spirit. In his later period, Le Ba Dang wanted to reach a higher level of thinking. "His dream of Vietnam was a step leading to his philosophical views and concepts about art. He described the universe as ‘overflowing and empty' suiting Nirvana, the goal of Quietude." He always experimented with new approaches such as specially made paper, high relief, and ceramics.

PHAM TANG
Pham Tang, born in 1921, is a very special case. He also graduated from the Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine. He was the painter that enjoyed the longest period of formal training after college. He went to Europe where he attended almost all the courses at Accademia de Belle Arti di Roma (Roma Academy of Fine Arts). In 1967, he was awarded the first prize of UNESCO in Rome.

When Western art got into a dead alley, with the conflict between the pictoraphic and abstract art following the emergence of a technocratic society, he tried to address the issue by combining dreams with reality, decoration and reality, the concrete with the abstract, East and West, man and nature, and the macro and the micro.

Pham Tang looked at the universe as rhythmic and rhythm as a form of movement, so the painter tried to develop an artistic sense to penetrate the soul of materials to re-create the rhythm of the universe.

Pham Tang employed the oil medium, but integrated into it the technique of lacquer painting such as applying egg-shell. His paintings look like a collage suggesting abstract but pictoraphic images including flowers and clouds of various fresh colours or pictures in a kaleidoscope.

In Italy, Pham Tang is well respected by a world leading art figure Mr. G.C. Argan, chairman of the International Association of Art Critics and Mayor of Rome. Argan assesses Pham Tang as "having re-found the rhythm and structure of reality and the universe."

The Vietnamese painters reviewed in this article, dead or alive, have formed part of the development of Vietnamese modern art even though they have not lived inside the country for the greater part of their lives. Through their work they have helped to make the world appreciate the uniqueness and value of Vietnamese modem art.

From: Viet Nam Cultural Window, No 29 - August 2000



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