Art schools and the influence of French artists in Vietnam

Lecture by Loan de Fontbrune, Art Historian, Member of the Overseas Academy of Sciences.

The influence of French artists was felt in Vietnam between the 1920s and 1950s. With the establishment of the first schools of fine arts by the French government in the early 20th century, the notion of artist in the Western sense established itself in Vietnam. Previously, pictorial representations were mainly intended for the worship of Ancestors and religious devotion.

Between 1902 and 1913, the “Professional School” in Hanoi, the “School of Cambodian Arts” as well as other schools in Cochinchina were intended for the training of craftsmen (working on wood, lacquer, ceramics, etc. .), Thủ Dầu Một (1901) for woodworking, cabinetmaking, sculpture, mother-of-pearl inlay and marquetry, lacquer, Biên-Hoà (1903) for ceramics.

Thủ Dầu Một School of Art. Wood carving workshop.

Bien Hoà School of Art. One of the workshops in the bronze section.

It was in Biên Hoà that the first professional training school in ceramics in Indochina was founded, in 1903. In 1923, the couple Robert Balick, director, (1894-1979)) and Mariettee Balick (1895-1985) takes charge of the school. Robert Balick teaches bronze casting and the works produced are covered with a beautiful black or brown patina. As head of the school's Ceramics Section, Mariette Balick designed a plan for the development of local crafts with an emphasis on different colors, delicate patterns and unique glazes. With the arrival of the Balicks, it was art deco that influenced the production of Biên Hòa. Students at the school produce richly colored wall decorations, reproducing local scenes. Next, Mariette Balick and her Vietnamese colleagues created famous glazes, such as the speckled blue copper and celadon glaze from natural materials including rice, sand, and laterite from Da Nang. A corporate association of potters and founders of Biên Hòa was created in 1932 which was responsible for taking orders and distributing them to members, thus providing them with material support. The association brings together former students and local artisans. On the other hand, working on reconstituted Angkor stone allows copies of ancient works to be made. An exhibition and sales room was opened and pieces were sent for the colonial exhibitions (1926, 1931, 1937) where they enjoyed certain success.

Head of a young Laotian woman. Biên Hòa School of Applied Art. 1950. Bronze, lost wax casting. © Christian Murtin.

Vase decorated with stylized dragons. Sandstone. Biên Hòa School of Applied Art.

Big Buddha on Khmer naga. Bien Hoà School. Angkor stone reconstructed by a craftsman from the Biên Hoà Corporate Association.

André Joyeux (1871-1929), French artist, was appointed principal inspector of the Decorative Art Schools of Cochinchina and he founded in 1913, the Gia Dinh School of Applied Arts (Trường Mỹ nghţ thực hành Gia Định), no far from Saigon. This school teaches decorative arts, drawing, decoration, engraving and lithography. These schools were founded with the aim of encouraging traditional Vietnamese craftsmanship, while avoiding the pitfall of repetitive production which would only respond to the demand of a growing European clientele, more eager for exoticism than aesthetics. In 1917, education allowed Vietnamese students to come into contact with Western art. However, the idea of ​​making them artists was only born in reaction to the creation of the School of Fine Arts of Indochina in Hanoi, in 1925. Teaching also included work on the spot and observation of the local environment. Students are invited to reproduce daily scenes: fishing in the rice fields, harvest, etc. In 1925, the new director of the school, Jules-Gustave Besson (1868-1942), then modified the curriculum to increase the share of academic instruction. In 1933, the Gia Dinh Corporate Association was created and important works were carried out, posters, illustrations, etc. To support the creation of his students, Jules-Gustave Besson undertook, in 1935, the publication of an ambitious project, La Indochina drawn monograph, a set of more than 700 plates printed from a selection of work by the school's students. The Monograph is therefore a collective work in which each plate is drawn in nature by a young Vietnamese designer, then engraved in the workshop, and printed under press. Each step is carried out by a member of this corporate group. The landscapes, the scenes of daily life, the different agricultural cultures, the different craft trades illustrate a vision of a traditional Vietnam where the modern world and the West are practically absent.

Publications of the Gia Dinh School of Art. Cartoon monograph of Indochina. Paris, Librairie Orientaliste-Paul Geuthner, 1935.

Lithography. Cartoon monograph of Indochina, 1935.

Victor Tardieu in 1925. Victor Tardieu catalog. 1870 – 1937. Jonas Gallery, 1977.

Exhibitions are also organized in Vietnam, Europe and Japan to promote the work of artists graduating from these schools and their teachers.
Victor Tardieu (1870-1937) received the Indochina Prize in 1920. The prize was accompanied by a scholarship which allowed him to stay in Indochina. There, he received the order for a large decor for the amphitheater of the University of Hanoi which led him to extend his stay. He then met Nam Sơn (1890–1973) and together, they set about creating a real higher school dedicated to the teaching of Fine Arts, based on the model of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Teaching combines the academic principles of drawing, perspective, modeling, composition, according to Western codes, and an opening to Far Eastern techniques such as silk painting 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, a free individual in his creation and his ideas. The teachers of the School of Fine Arts of Indochina (EBAI) are the winners of the Indochina Prize, appointed for one year in Hanoi. The teaching is structured over a cycle of three years, then five years and, after the painting section, begins sculpture, decorative arts and architecture. Students work in the workshop in the morning and take theoretical lessons in the afternoon. Tardieu requires the study of the history of Western art during the first year and the history of Far Eastern art for the following two.
Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971), a less academic teacher than Tardieu, encouraged his students to experiment with lacquer painting. Following his teaching, artists like Trần Văn Cẩn (1910-1994) or Nguyễn Gia Trí (1908-1993), both graduates of the EBAI, became recognized artists and the latter, in particular, sought the same effects as those obtained with oil paint.
Lê Phổ (1907-2001), Vũ Cao Đàm (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” of Hanoi, decided to leave Vietnam in 1937, on the occasion of the Universal Exhibition in Paris, and pursued an international career.

Hanoi 1920-1929 – Indochinese University – School of Fine Arts A corner of the museum with Nam Sơn on the right. © Manhhai, Flickr.

Young peasant women among banana trees (detail). Six-leaf screen. Nguyễn Gia Trí. Polychrome lacquer and gold leaf. 1937. ©LaGazetteDrouot.

Évariste Jonchère (1892-1956) was appointed director of the EBAI in 1938. His action within the school created a symbiosis between Western art and its techniques and that of the Far East. Under his leadership, the Cooperative of Indochinese Artists was created in 1938 by a group of former students of the EBAI to develop popular arts in Indochina. The Cooperative organizes exhibitions both in Vietnam and abroad. The colonial government, not being outdone, also organized exhibitions in 1940 and 1943.

After the bombing of Hanoi in 1943 by the Americans, the EBAI moved to three different sites and, from 1945, the program was reduced. On September 2, 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed by Hồ Chí Minh and, on October 8 of the same year, the École des Beaux-Arts de la Résistance replaced the EBAI. After the defeat of Điện Biên Phủ in 1954, the Hanoi Higher School of Fine Arts offered a two or three-year course which increased to seven years from 1960 and Trần Văn Cẩn became its director.

Poster for an exhibition by Lê Phổ at the Galerie Romanet. 1956.

Two young girls. Mai Trung Thứ. 1942. Colors on silk. © Christian Murtin.

Farmers. Trần Văn Cẩn. 1941. Ink and colors on silk. ©sothebys.

In 1946, when the art school was moved to the hills of Việt Bắc, seat of the revolutionary government, Hồ Chí Minh declared that “art as seen by the French died in 1945 and was reborn in 1946.”

The fact remains that the heritage of Vietnamese artists is indeed one which mixes tradition and modernism, ancestral and contemporary techniques, East and West.


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