Mộng: The Shared Dreams of a Remarkable Era

Mộng: The Shared Dreams of a Remarkable Era

Mộng Viễn Đông | The Faraway East: of Dreams and Pursuits, Sotheby’s latest non-selling exhibition in Vietnam, traces the roots of modern Vietnamese art through shared ambitions of French and Indochinese artists.
Mộng Viễn Đông | The Faraway East: of Dreams and Pursuits, Sotheby’s latest non-selling exhibition in Vietnam, traces the roots of modern Vietnamese art through shared ambitions of French and Indochinese artists.

T he presence of European artists in French Indochina led to a cultural exchange that resulted in remarkable hybrid styles and forms. The many artists who visited Vietnam between late 19th century through to the mid-20th century found their art revitalised by contact with verdant landscapes and a vibrant local culture. Indochinese artists who studied with French teachers were exposed to European styles and methods – both traditional and modern – which they rapidly absorbed and made their own.

Vietnamese modern art has its roots in this formative period when oil painting was introduced by the French instructors of the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (EBAI). It was also during this period that lacquer, which had long been used in the creation of Vietnamese cultural objects and architecture, was embraced by EBAI instructors and students as a fine art medium. Painting on silk also emerged as a significant genre, fusing western compositional principles with the fluidity of Asian calligraphy and brushwork. It was a period of shared dreams and ambitions, which left a legacy of romantic works of art that demonstrate the affection and artistic affinities developed between French and Indochinese artists.

Left to Right: Paul Gauguin, photographer unknown; Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès

Beginning in the late 19th century, innumerable artists followed the example of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who first traveled to Tahiti in 1891, in search of inspiration in ‘exotic’ locations including French colonies in the West Indies, the Pacific islands, northern and central Africa and Indochina. It was a period of vitalising interchanges between European and Asian artists which was beneficial to both. For example, the Belgian aristocrat Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès (1880-1958) lived and worked in Bali, Indonesia, painting Balinese subjects in a style derived from French Impressionism. The Philippine artist Fernando Cueto Amorsolo (1892-1972) studied for three years at the Academia de San Fernando in Madrid, Spain, where he was exposed to the works of both traditional and modern Spanish painters, bringing new colour and luminosity to his depictions of Filipino subjects after his return.


Additionally, many French artists made voyages east as part of their military service, to take part in educational missions, or to execute government sponsored commissions. One such artist was André Maire (1898-1984), a Beaux-Arts graduate who joined the colonial infantry in 1917 on the advice of his friend and future father-in-law Émile Bernard. Maire made his first trip to Vietnam in 1919-20 where he taught drawing at the Lycée Chasseloup-Laubat in Saigon. After other travels to Italy, Spain, Egypt, India and Africa, he returned to France in 1948 to briefly become a professor at the École Supérieure d’Architecture. Drawn back soon after to Indochina, he lived in Da Lat through 1950, then in Saigon where he remained until 1958. Maire’s many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings of Vietnamese scenes and subjects are characterised by strong linear elements and a Post-Impressionist palette.

Another artist who came to Vietnam on official business was the sculptor Paul Ducuing (1867-1949), the director of sculpture at the Manufacture nationale de Sèvres and a friend of Albert Sarraut, then Governor of Indochina. Beginning in 1921, Ducuing spent three years in Vietnam where he modeled a bust of H.M. Emperor Khai Dinh (1885-1925), a reformer who was sympathetic to France’s attempts to modernise Vietnam. An edition of the bust, in gilded cast bronze, was produced in Paris to accompany the emperor’s historic 1922 visit to France where he attended a colonial exhibition in Marseille.


Meanwhile, the Prix de l’Indochine, established in 1910 to foster cultural exchange, drew a stream of notable French artists to Indochina. Established by Antony Klobukowski (1855-1934), then Governor General of Indochina, the prize was overseen by the Colonial Society of French Artists, founded in 1908 by Louis-Jules Dumoulin (1860-1924), the society’s founder and president, and a noted Orientalist painter. The prize included free passage to Asia, a drawcard at a time when most recipients had never visited the region.

One of the early recipients of the Prix de l’Indochine was Charles Dominique Fouqueray (1869-1956), the son of a naval officer who had followed in his father’s footsteps. Fouqueray was a graduate of the École des Beaux Arts and a realist best known for his depictions of French maritime history. In Vietnam in the early 1920s, Fouqueray painted vivid watercolours including studies of junks and sampans, as well as gouaches of labourers and female bathers. After returning to Europe, Fouqueray was commissioned to create paintings for the luxurious home of Bao-Daï (1913-1997) the last reigning emperor of Vietnam, on avenue de Lamballe in Paris.


Following the disruptions of World War I, the Prix de l’Indochine was offered again in 1920 and awarded to Victor Tardieu (1870-1937). When he arrived in Vietnam in February 1921, Tardieu was already a well-known muralist and designer of stained glass. Although his original intention was to paint in Indochina for six months then return to exhibit in France, Tardieu fell in love with his new surroundings and never returned to Europe. His first major project was a large fresco mural for the University of Indochina which depicted the life of the Vietnamese people. In 1924 with the aid and inspiration of his friend and painter Nguyen Nam Son (1890-1973) Tardieu established EBAI in Hanoi with the intention of training artists and teachers a mixture of Western and Far Eastern methods. For the next two decades, Vietnamese art students attending the EBAI learned European practices – including oil painting, en plein air painting, perspective rendering and life drawing – while also being encouraged to work with lacquer and paint on silk.

From this point on, the Prix de l’Indochine became associated with the EBAI and the award included employment at the school. A distinguished list of artists received the award in subsequent years, bringing their varied skills as painters and sculptors to the EBAI and its receptive local students. Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971), who joined the EBAI faculty in 1926 as a professor of Decorative Arts. Inguimberty was trained in both classical and modern styles. He quickly immersed himself in local culture and gained a reputation as a versatile teacher who taught oil painting while also enthusiastically adopting lacquer and silk painting. Many of the EBAI students who showed their work at the landmark Exposition Internationale Coloniale in Paris in 1931, including Mai Trung Thứ, Lê Phổ, Nguyễn Phan Chánh, Tô Ngọc Vân, and Vũ Cao Đàm were students of Inguimberty. Seen by 30 million people, this historic exhibition established the early reputation of Vietnamese modernism in France and led to interest from dealers and collectors. Several early EBAI graduates, including Mai Trung Thứ, Vũ Cao Đàm and Lê Phổ – who came to Paris to help supervise the 1931 EBAI display – later moved to France.


Over time, a number of other notable artists visited or lived in Indochina, leaving their own distinctive legacies. Jean-Louis Paguenaud (1876-1952), who had trained at the School of Decorative Arts in Limoges and at the Académie Julian, was a navy painter who painted in Spain, the West Indies, Africa, Polynesia and Vietnam. A bold colourist, he painted numerous scenes of Vietnam in the 1930s. Alix Aymé (1894-1989) who lived in Hanoi beginning in 1921, travelled extensively in French Indochina, India, and Ceylon, and also painted in China, Japan, and Korea. After a 1930 exhibition at the Galerie Portal in Saigon she moved to Laos where she was commissioned to paint a series of murals depicting Laotian life for the King’s reception room of the royal palace. Living alternately in France and Indochina, she was known for her tender portraits of Indochinese women and children painted with either lacquer on panel (sometimes including eggshells or gold leaf) and watercolour on silk.

ALIX AYMÉ, Le goûter

Although the French Indochinese war, which lasted from 1946 to 1954 disrupted the dreams of this remarkable era, its mộng (dream) lives on in the legacy of the art it produced. Looking back at the legacy of Vietnamese modernism – which has a vitality and freshness brought about by the sense of aesthetic discovery felt by a generation of young artists – reminds us of the successes of a cultural exchange that has been overshadowed by war and politics. In a similar fashion, seeing the works of French artists who travelled and taught in Vietnam shows their genuine affection for the people and places they painted. It was a period of hope and affection expressed across cultures through the language of art.

Modern Art | Asia

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