Modern & Contemporary Southeast Asian Art

Vietnam Through the Eyes of 5 Artists

By Sotheby's
Vietnamese artists have been having a moment in the modern and contemporary art scene. In recent years, the Vietnamese fine art market has been enjoying more of the spotlight, paintings have commanded higher prices, and talented artists have emerged on the global stage in greater numbers.

A rtworks by Vietnamese artists had begun to attract an international audience since 1986, when the country opened its economy. Since then, Sotheby’s has played a big part in increasing recognition to some of the nation’s greatest artists, bringing to world attention the gems of Vietnamese art. In the past, many of the finest works came from French private collections. While interest in Vietnamese Art during the past three decades had been sustained initially by international collectors, such appreciation has increased significantly in recent years, driven in large part by the enthusiasm of art collectors in Vietnam.

Vietnam celebrates National Day on Sept. 2, commemorating its independence from France in 1945. Owing to the country’s colonial past, foreign influences are discernible in the art, especially as many pioneers of Vietnamese modern art had been based in France or had studied at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine. Reinterpreting French post-Impressionist trends, many prominent artists mastered European techniques and media to express traditional Asian subjects and ideas, thus creating a new and distinctive style. In honor of the holiday, we look at Vietnam through the eyes of five of its artists. These works are among the highlights in the upcoming Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art Day Sale and Evening Sale.

Mai Trung Thu (1906–1980)

Mai Trung Thu, Les enfants au bain (Children Bathing), 1971, Ink and gouache on silk, 54.5 by 46 cm; 21 1/4 by 18 in. estimate: hk$500,000-700,000.

Childhood in An Duong had been an endless source of inspiration for Mai Trung Thu, who is known for his enchanting illustrations of the Vietnamese people and dynamic culture. Mai Trung Thu developed his acclaimed style of silk painting under the tutelage of French artists Joseph Inguimberty and Victor Tardieu. The brushwork and bright colors are reminiscent of post-Impressionist artists, like Matisse, as he often lined the supple features of subjects in his paintings, imbuing them with a soft structural elegance. Although he lived in Paris as of 1937, Mai Thu was still guided by patriotic sentiment, which influenced his experimentation with multicultural artistic traditions, such as blending traditional Vietnamese painting techniques with the Fauvists sensibilities toward color.

Les Enfants Au Bain is the apotheosis of Mai Trung Thu’s creative opus. This scene of children frolicking by a riverbed shows an idyllic paradise. Charmingly emotive, Mai Trung Thu takes care to decorate each child’s face with expressions that tell a story. These are the carefree days of wide-eyed innocence, perfectly expressed by the artist with detailed illustrations of the childhood mischief, romanticism and nostalgia. It is with this radiant piece, a perfect blend of meticulous silk painting technique and fond memories of a bucolic childhood, that the artist conveys his everlasting love for Vietnam.

To Ngoc Van (1906–1954)

To Ngoc Van, The Letter, ink and gouache on silk, 69 by 69 cm; 27 1/4 by 27 1/4 in. Estimate: HK$800,000-1,500,000.

An exquisite treasure of modern Vietnamese art, La Thu (The Letter) by To Ngoc Van is a masterpiece that puts the maestro’s visual acuity on full display. To was part of the first generation of modern Vietnamese artists, propelling a style underpinned by a consciousness of European realism yet rooted in quintessential Vietnamese character. La Thu opens to an intimate domestic scene; a baby is surrounded by two women, one reading the titular letter from, perhaps, a loved one who is far away. In the distance, a cherry blossom tree is in full bloom, heralding the arrival of spring, fortuitously timed with the baby’s birth.

The painting is a rare work from To Ngoc Van’s oeuvre, retaining a classical European integrity found only in his earlier works. La Thu is thus a culmination of the artist’s diverse training, depicting a poetic vignette of Vietnamese domestic life from a Western perspective. One of La Thu’s most salient features is its arresting, unique composition. To’s paintings are typically distinguished by an unconventional asymmetry that attests to the artist’s flair and individuality. Across rapid modernization and an increasing exposure to Western traditions, To’s incorporation of Eastern iconography in his works testifies to the artist’s ardent loyalty for his Vietnamese roots. A rare, sentimental piece, La Thu is a nostalgic recollection of a child’s unadulterated innocence and a maternal desire to protect it.

Le Pho (1907–2001)

Le Pho, Nature morte (Still Life), Circa 1960, Oil on canvas, 81 by 54 cm; 31 3/4 by 21 1/4 in. estimate: hk$300,000-500,000.

Nature Morte (Still Life) by Le Pho marks the pinnacle of his artistic flair, as well as his pursuit of capturing pure beauty in the natural world. Born in 1907, Le Pho moved to France in 1937, and it was there that the works of Pierre Bonnard opened up a new realm of light and color for Le Pho. This lit a fire under the artist to experiment with the iridescent qualities of light and color. His works were a radical departure from tradition, and he became a pioneer in establishing a new stream of modern Vietnamese art.

This work is a testament to Le Pho’s fascination with French Impressionist notions of form, texture and chromatic allure. The canvas exudes golden warmth, as the artist’s spontaneous brush caresses the soft silhouettes of the fruits and vegetables. With the white floral-pattern cloth, Le Pho subverts the conventions of perspective, elevating the intricacies of color and composition by flattening the depicted objects. This distinctive method of exploring nature in all its vitality takes from from both European and Vietnamese visual techniques. In this magnificent still life, the enchantment of oil paint becomes an infinitely malleable medium in the artist’s masterful hands, as his paintbrush traverses every inch of the canvas with passion.

“Draw your pleasure, paint your pleasure, and express your pleasure strongly.”
- Pierre Bonnard

Nguyen Gia Tri (1909–1993)

Nguyen Gia Tri, Landscape,1944, Lacquer on wood, 58 by 120 cm; 22 3/4 by 47 in. Estimate: HK$1,200,000-1,800,000.

Intricate yet understated, the allure of Nguyen Gia Tri’s lacquer paintings lies within his tender and masterful experimentation with traditional art forms. By the mid-1930s, Gia Tri had established himself as one of the country’s greatest artists, particularly for his revolutionary synthesis of French and Vietnamese approaches to lacquer painting. During the first half of the 20th century, waves of liberal nationalism spread across Vietnam, and artists joined the resistance in greater numbers. Heralded as Gia Tri’s golden period, the works made during 1937-1945 are indicative of the artist’s patriotic spirit and ineffable love for his country. His golden period bore works depicting picturesque scenes of the landscapes, villages and families of Vietnam, all of which hold the boundless ability to transport viewers to moments of provincial peace.

This present work is a mesmerizing and emotionally powerful masterpiece from Nguyen Gia Tri's golden period. It shows the banks of a river, hills hidden behind wispy clouds, and a dreamy idyllic countryside. There are no traces of civilization, no complications brought on by society, and no tumult of war. The artist's distinctive strokes of pigments paint the sky with an iridescent gold hue, conjuring a masterpiece of transcendental fluidity. Undeterred by its dark surroundings, a tree basks in an incandescent ring of light – perhaps an emblem of resilience or a symbol for the artist’s unwavering love for his homeland. This rare masterpiece of the lustrous landscape is truly a love letter to the Vietnam of Nguyen Gia Tri’s idyllic youth, immortalizing its beauty.

Pham Hau (1903–1995)

Pham Hau, A wooden cabinet with lacquered doors, Doors: Lacquer on wood panel; Cabinet: wood, 180 by 125 by 51 cm; 70 3/4 by 49 1/4 by 20 in. estimate: hk$300,000-500,000.

Pham Hau was a master of lacquer art, exemplified by this exceptional cabinet, taking the medium to the height of poetic expression. Scenes of everyday life in Vietnam provided ample inspiration for Pham Hau. He was one of the first among Vietnamese artists to incorporate lacquer painting onto furniture, and was known to display these works in his workshop in Dong Ngac village. His work would inspire Alix Aymé and younger Vietnamese artists to follow in his footsteps.

In these panels, banana leaves frame the scenery, parting open to unveil a faraway landscape, so ethereal that it tiptoes on the borders of perfect fantasy. Pham Hau’s synthesis of Western techniques and Vietnamese principles is evident here, crafting a dynamic narrative while also creating a sense of depth and spatiality within the landscape to provide the viewers with an unparalleled perspective. Pham Hau’s exquisite attention to detail and technical skill permits us this moment of solitude, taking in the bucolic countryside of Vietnam in all its splendor.

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