The Vietnamese Spirit: A Royal Collection and an Enduring Friendship

The Vietnamese Spirit: A Royal Collection and an Enduring Friendship

A descendant of the Emperor Minh Mạng, Nguyễn-Phưc Bửu Lộc (1914-1990) held high political responsibilities, including the preparation of the Geneva Accords in 1954 for the independence of Vietnam. He came to Paris and assembled an exceptional collection of art from his country and works by the pioneers of Vietnamese modern art. His son, Jean-Francois Nguyen, brings some of these masterpieces to auction on 7 November. Among them are paintings by Lê Phô (1907-2001), who was a friend of the prince.

Annick Colonna-Césari: Do you know when your fathers met?

Alain Le Kim: In the 1930s, in Hanoi, probably at the Lycée Albert-Sarraut, where Prince Bửu Lộc studied and where my father – who was seven years older than him – taught classes after graduating from the École des beaux-arts d’Indochine. Family ties might also have brought them together, too, since the prince was part of the imperial family, and since my grandfather was the son of a mandarin who was viceroy of Tonkin.

Prince Buu Lôc and Lê Phô à Nice in 1940.

Jean-François Nguyen: In any case, they met while they were young, and their friendship lasted throughout their lives. They continued to correspond when my father went to secondary school in Montpellier in the 1940s. They met again in Paris. Lê Phô moved there in 1937. My father arrived in 1950 when he was appointed ambassador, before going on to contribute – as President of the Conseil du Vietnam – to the Geneva Accords in 1954, which aimed to negotiate the country’s independence. After that, faced with how the situation developed, he left politics. My father was a pacifist. And he definitively moved to Paris, where he married.

Lê Phô, project drawings for the interior decoration of Prince Bửu Lộc's apartment in Paris, circa 1950.

At that time, he asked Lê Phô to decorate his apartment on Rue Copernic. And so the painter designed furniture and armchairs of Vietnamese inspiration and had them made by Parisian craftsmen. He even planned out their arrangement in the various rooms. By chance, Alain discovered a series of plans and gouache paintings representing those projects. One thing is certain: the two met up frequently in Paris.

They would have lunch together and browse the antiques shops for objects to decorate the apartment. They frequented Vũ Cao Đàm, an artist who also attended the École des beaux-arts of Hanoi. They all belonged to the Vietnamese expatriate community that had formed in France. Later, they also visited the French Riviera, staying at my father’s apartment in Cannes or the home of Lê Phô’s parents in Nice. There – probably at Colombe d’Or in Saint-Paul-de-Vence – my father would play poker with Vũ Cao Đàm and Yves Montand.

Lê Phô, project drawing for the interior decoration of Prince Bửu Lộc's apartment in Paris, circa 1950.

How did Lê Phô’s career unfold?

A. L. K.: He made a name for himself as soon as he graduated from the École des beaux-arts. The instruction he received at that establishment – founded by its director, the French painter Victor Tardieu – was solid. The teaching combined Asian traditions with Western art, and indeed it formed the foundation of Vietnamese modernism. My father was quickly able to sell his paintings to colonial administrators who were interested in the Vietnamese culture. Perhaps that is why, for the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931, he was offered the position of assistant to Victor Tardieu, who was artistic director of the Angkor Pavilion. He prolonged his trip to visit museums before going back to Vietnam. For two years, he travelled through Belgium, Holland, and Italy. Those were very edifying travels. You can see the influence of the Flemish and Italian Primitives in his work, mingled with the Vietnamese culture.

In 1937, he came back to France for the Exposition Internationale. That time, he was entrusted with the artistic direction of the Indochina Pavilion. And, in the end, he remained in Paris. Then WWII occurred. After the war, he married a Frenchwoman, and two children were born: myself, in 1947, and my brother, Pierre Le Tan, in 1950. But it was a difficult period. During the Reconstruction, paintings were difficult to sell. Fortunately, it was at that time that Prince Bửu Lộc commissioned my father to decorate his apartment. Lê Phô’s career truly began to soar in the 1960s. He signed a contract with the American gallery Findlay, located on Avenue Matignon, which had several branches in the United States. Through time, his style evolved. He always loved portraying ethereal female figures and family scenes, perhaps because he had never known his mother, who had died when he was two years old. However, his palette became paler, under the influence of the Impressionists and other painters that he met, Nabis such as Bonnard and Fauvists such as Matisse. Probably under the effects of the sunshine in the South of France, too.

Prince Buu Lôc and his son Jean-François Nguyen, circa 1960.

Did Prince Bửu Lộc begin his collection with Mr Lê Phô’s paintings? 

J.-F. N.: He first took an interest in Vietnamese objects of art in the 1940s, when he was around thirty. He developed his collection over the next decade in Paris, and was particularly drawn to the work of Vũ Cao Đàm and Lê Phô, to whom he was closest. He loved coming to Lê Phô’s workshop. The Sotheby’s auction presents an important piece, La Femme au voile, painted in the 1940s. The piece illustrates the artist’s favourite theme: that of an Asian woman wearing the traditional áo dàï. An examination of the palette reveals that he executed this painting when he had already been living in France for a certain time, since the colours are livelier than those of his previous pieces on the same subject. The hues of Les Iris bleus, dating from 1960, are nearly Fauvist. They show the Impressionist influence, or that of Matisse. L’Heure du thé was painted around the end of the decade.

Portrait of Prince Bửu Lộc by Alain Le Kim.

One day, my father told me that he had traded a drawing by Matisse for that painting. The fact that he preferred the work of a still little-known painter to a famous Western artist shows how attached he was to the Vietnamese spirit. In any case, we lived our life surrounded by artwork. My father did not collect art just to deposit it in a safe. Canard et lotus – a piece from the 1930s that Lê Phô considered major – hung in the centre of the dining room of our Parisian apartment. He painted very few animals, but a great harmony emanates from this work through the presence of the lotus, the national flower of Vietnam and a symbol of purity in Buddhism, which was my father’s religion. We contemplated it during mealtimes, seated in the chairs that Lê Phô designed. La Femme au voile hung in the office/living room. Works from later in his career – L’Heure du thé and Les Iris bleus – hung at our house in Nice, since their bright colour schemes were more suited to the atmosphere of the French Riviera. Those works have never left the private sphere. They will only be revealed for this Sotheby’s event. For Alain and myself, this is an opportunity to pay tribute to our parents and to reminisce together. In the very last photo taken of him, my father is shown seated in one of the chairs designed by Lê Phô. And it is his son, Alain, who took the picture. That’s quite symbolic!

Impressionist & Modern Art

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