Vietnamese painting in the 20th century

Lecture by Anne Fort, Heritage Curator in charge of Vietnam and Central Asia.

The pictorial tradition before the 20st century.

 With the establishment of the first fine arts schools by the French government at the beginning of the 20st century, the notion of artist in the Western sense is essential in Vietnam. Previously, pictorial representations were primarily intended for Ancestor worship and religious devotion. A large panel depicting King Lý Nam Đế and the Queen, dating from the end of the 17thst s. or from the beginning of the 18thst s. illustrates the devotion around the monarch who founded an independent kingdom in the 6st century. Representations of deities or national heroes were performed for the temples. The portraits of the deceased were intended for the temples of the ancestors. Decorative painting in the Chinese tradition also existed, as did poem calligraphy. For smaller grants, popular prints took up the themes of heroes and wishes for happiness.

 A taste for modernity at the turn of the 20st century.

 While interest in Western culture gained in Japan and China, some Vietnamese, driven by curiosity, tried their hand at oil painting, a completely new technique. Lê Văn Miến (1873-1943), son of a Mandarin, was sent by the court of Huế to the Colonial School in Paris to study administration. At the same time, he will take courses at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Back in Vietnam, he left a few rare paintings.

At the beginning of 20st s., there were applied arts schools in Cochinchina: Thủ Dầu Một (1901), Biên-Hoà (1903) or Gia Ðịnh (1913). These three schools were founded with the aim of encouraging traditional Vietnamese craftsmanship, while avoiding the pitfall of repetitive production which would no longer obey the demand of a growing European clientele, more eager for exoticism than aestheticism.

Thang Trần Phềnh (1895-1973) trained as an autodidact in oil painting. He painted historical scenes, scenes from everyday life, theatrical sets.

Nguyễn Nam Sơn (1890–1973) was a curious mind who learned drawing at school from his French teachers. On his own, he studied Chinese, Japanese and Western painting. He began his career by illustrating newspaper articles and textbooks. In 1921, he met Victor Tardieu (1870-1937) and with him founded the School of Fine Arts in Hanoi in 1925.

King Lý Nam Đế (detail). Pigments on wood. Later Le Dynasty. 17th-18th c. Hanoi Museum of Fine Arts.

Portrait of a scholar. Nam Sơn. 1923. Oil on canvas. Khai Trí Tiến Đức.

The card game. Thang Trần Phềnh. 1950. Colors on silk. Collection of National Heritage Board, Singapore.

A new educational system: the Schools of Fine Arts (1925-1945).

 Victor Tardieu, French painter to whom we owe some great academic decorations in the town halls of Lilas and Montrouge, received the Indochine Prize in 1920. The prize was accompanied by a grant which allowed him to stay in Indochina. There, he received the order for a large set for the amphitheater at the University of Hanoi, which led him to extend his stay. He then met Nam Sơn and together, they set about creating a true higher school dedicated to the teaching of Fine Arts, on the model of the School of Fine Arts in Paris. The teaching combines the academic principles of drawing, perspective, modeling, composition, according to Western codes, and an openness to Far Eastern techniques such as painting on silk and lacquer. Victor Tardieu wants to allow his students to create a new style, synthesizing the French contribution and the local contribution. This new Indochinese style, born in a colonial context, will be the crucible for the emergence of the figure of the artist, an individual free in his creation and his ideas.
The School of Applied Art of Gia nh was founded in 1913 by the architect André Joyeux (1871-?) Not far from Saigon. The aim of this practical school is to train future professionals in the fields of cartography or technical drawing or illustration. The idea of ​​making artists of them only arose in reaction to the creation of the School of Fine Arts of Indochina in Hanoi in 1925. The new director of the school, Jules-Gustave Besson (1868 -1942), then modifies the course to increase the share of academic instruction.
Opportunities are rare for artists trained in fine arts schools because this type of very new work only affects Western customers and is of little interest to wealthy Vietnamese.
To support the creation of his students, Jules-Gustave Besson undertook in 1935 the edition of an ambitious project, La Indochina drawn monograph, a set of more than 700 plates printed from a selection of the work of the school's students.
Exhibitions are also organized in Vietnam, Europe and Japan to promote the work of artists graduating from these schools and their teachers.

Woman in black pants. Trần Duy Liêm. 1937. Charcoal, watercolor and gouache on paper. © Cernuschi Museum.

Maternity. Lê Phổ. 1937. Ink and colors on silk. © Aguttes

Bathing. Mai Trung Thứ. 1962. Colors on silk. © Cernuschi Museum.

Trần Duy Liêm (1914-1994) is an artist who continued his career in the south of Vietnam, in the illustration of books, in particular, and has regularly exhibited there. Several of his works are in the collections of the Cernuschi Museum.

The quest for independence: 1930s-1940s.

 The artists flourish in new themes, landscapes, popular scenes. The figure of the young girl, largely predominant, conveys not only the exaltation of beauty, but also the new status granted to the artist, who can now express in a portrait the states of mind of her subject, or her own. reflections in his compositions. The individualism of the artist flourishes, despite works in a still wise style. At the same time, among the intellectual elite, nationalist thought movements are born which work for the independence of Vietnam. These literary movements are known to artists who are very often sensitive to them: they find themselves torn between the recognition they have for their French teachers and their teaching, and their aspiration for the sovereignty of their country.
A choice among many artists allows to have an overview of their different trajectories.
Lê Phổ (1907-2001), Vu Cao Dam (-1908 2000) and Mai Trung Thứ (1906-1980), all three graduates of the first and second promotion of the School of Fine Arts of Indochina in Hanoi, decided to leave Vietnam in 1937, on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Like most of the EBAI graduates, they held positions as drawing teachers, but wanting to broaden their artistic horizons, they settled permanently in France to make a living from their art. They will endeavor to paint scenes of an ideal Vietnam, where the figure of the young girl will always be predominant, whether on silk or in oil, or even sculpted, in the case of Vũ Cao Đàm who was also sculptor.

The war years: 1945-1954-1975: socialist realism.

After the bombardment of Hanoi in 1943 by the Americans, the EBAI moved to three different sites and, from 1945, the program was lightened. On September 2, 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed by Hồ Chí Minh and, on October 8 of the same year, the School of Fine Arts of the Resistance replaced the EBAI. After the defeat of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts du Vietnam offered a two or three-year course which would increase to seven years from 1960.

Fall. Trần Văn Cẩn. Painting on lacquer. 1960. © Singapore Art Museum.

Young woman combing her hair. Nguyễn Phan Chánh. 1933. Colors on silk. © Cernuschi Museum.

The villagers. Nguyễn Gia Trí. 1938. Detail of a screen. Lacquered wood. © La Gazette Drouot.

Tô Ngọc Vân (1906-1954), graduated in 1931 from the EBAI, will direct the school from 1945. During the Indochina War (1946-1954), the school will become the School of Fine Arts of Việt Bắc. The shortage of material is constant in this school of resistance. Small drawings evoke the lives of soldiers. Lacquer painting and printmaking are favored because the techniques are traditional and the raw material available. Tô Ngọc Vân will be killed in 1954 during the battle of Điện Biên Phủ.
Tran Van Can (1910-1994), graduated from EBAI in 1936, took over from Tô Ngọc Vân and directed the school reestablished in Hanoi from 1954 to 1964. Tô Ngọc Vân and Trần Văn Cẩn embrace the Vietnamese independence cause and welcome the new ideology of socialist realism imposed by the Party. Themes should now show heroic figures chosen from among peasants, soldiers or workers. The frail young girl with her gaze lost in her reveries disappears.
Nguyễn Phan Chánh (1892-1984), graduated from EBAI in 1930, was inspired by the rural world and favored painting on silk. His work is characterized by an ocher tone and the application of color in large flat areas. Unlike Tô Ngọc Vân and Trần Văn Cẩn, he does not change his style with the advent of the norm of socialist realism. From the Indochinese era, his genre scenes have focused on soberly depicting simple people. This will allow him to get through the years of turmoil and become one of Vietnam's most sought-after painters.
Diệp Minh Châu (1919-2002) will go from South to North in 1945 to join the anti-French resistance. In 1950, he spent six months with President Hồ Chí Minh, which he staged in several oils on canvas. The portraits of Hồ Chí Minh are a subject widely covered by artists from Việt Bắc.
Nguyen Gia Tri (1908-1993), a graduate of the EBAI, is considered the master of lacquer painting, a new pictorial genre, born in the 1930s, synthesis of artisan lacquer ornamentation with easel painting. the western one. Nguyễn Gia Trí left Hanoi in 1954, during the partition of Vietnam, to take refuge in the South, in the Republic of Vietnam.
Lê Văn Đệ (1906-1966) will also flee the communist regime in 1954 and will found the School of Fine Arts in Saigon. To the south, the artists' style and their themes extend the Indochinese era: the light scenes still portray the lightness and the joy of living.

Disenchantment: the four pillars "Nghiêm - Connectionsáng - Phhave".

 Some artists have been officially recognized as major and have been given the title of "pillar", in reference to the "four pillars that support the house", a way of designating the four most important advisers to the court, traditionally. Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm (1922-2016), Dương Bích Liên (1924-1988), Nguyễn Sáng (-1923 1988) and Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988) are the four artists of the second generation of Vietnamese artists who best embody the disenchantment that won certain artists who rejected the ideology of socialist realism, after having embraced it in their youth. We owe Nguyễn Sáng large lacquered panels where he fervently exalts soldiers, workers and peasants. These patriotic artists, however, suffer more and more from the shackles imposed by the government. Their creativity runs out of steam to respect the many prohibitions. In the XNUMXs, a wind of protest arose among intellectuals and artists. But he will be repressed. The artists withdraw from the state apparatus and lose all status. They live poorly, supported by their friends, painting on bad cardboard. Bùi Xuân Phái is known for his figures of actors and his deserted streets of Hanoi, painted with a rough material forming impasto. Dương Bích Liên mainly paints female figures, as does Nguyễn Sáng, also famous for his cats vigorously brushed with a thick black ring. These three friends will all die in the same year. Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, he, while abandoning socialist realism, does not give in to despair. It offers themes inspired by popular legends treated in a cubist style made of blocks structured by internal lines.

Hanoi Houses. Bùi Xuân Phái. Oil on canvas. © Sotheby's.

Cats. Nguyễn Sáng. Watercolor on paper. © Sotheby's.

Le Đổi Mới: economic opening from 1986 - creative outpouring.

After the 1975 reunification, the government began reforms, but it was around 1986 that economic opening announced the relaxation of control over artistic productions. The artists are then won by a kind of creative frenzy to exorcise the years of war. Art books are eagerly sought after and artists adopt styles inspired by the most diverse trends in the art of the 20st century in the West. With sometimes half a century of delay, we see the flowering of cubist, abstract, expressionist, hyperrealist trends ... The quality is uneven and some artists give in to the tastes of a new foreign clientele. Galleries were few in the 90s, and the state apparatus still firmly controlled artistic productions. Censorship lies in wait for artists deemed irreverent, both in state exhibitions and in private events. The opening is thus done little by little, bringing with it a certain dispersion of styles and the temptation to please a new international clientele, at the same time as freedom and a renewed creativity.

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