Lot 1057
  • 1057

Pham Hau

600,000 - 800,000 HKD
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  • Pham Hau
  • Landscape of the Middle Region in the North of Vietnam
  • Stamped with a seal of the artist
  • Lacquer on wood, in 8 parts
  • Executed circa 1940 - 1945


The work is in overall very good condition. The lacquer is free of chips or discoloration, and the gold paint is intact and bright. There is very minor signs of wear on the top edges. Framed.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Celebrated as one of the few and finest modern lacquer painters in his nation, Pham Hau rendered this poetic landscape during the Golden Age of Vietnam’s aesthetic (1930 – 1945). The present lot offers a rare and exquisite 8-panel lacquer screen, which depicts a single scene in a level of detailing that is truly demonstrative of the artist’s mastery of this demanding medium.


The pedigrees of processed lacquer in Vietnam originated over two thousand years ago when it was utilized to embellish household ware and handicrafts. The lacquer tree, rhus verniciflua, abundant in tropical climates, has always flourished in Vietnam, predominantly in the northern region within the Phu Tho perimeter. Incisions were made in the trunk of the trees in order to obtain milky sap excretions, which would then blacken upon contact with air and light. The material’s durable and watertight qualities were required to protect architectural structures, boat ores and furniture from the effects of weather.


Decorative yet functional, this versatile medium was passed down from generation to generation within isolated guilds that were particular to each family and district. Effectively, lacquering tools, lacquered bowls and boxes have been discovered on the Viet Khe site near Hiphong, dating back to several hundreds of years before the Common Era. Additionally, latticework panels, votive statues and other religious objects with vermilion lacquer and gold leaf dating back to the Ly and Tran eras (11th to 14th centuries) have been remarkably preserved.


Centuries later in 1925, Vietnam experienced a fresh and vital chapter in the arts that would lay the foundations of what would become its ‘Golden Age’. The teachings of French Masters such as Inguimberty, Jonchere and Tardieu gave rise to this classical period, when local artists embraced basic principles of Western Art such as well as their own traditional Asian techniques, such as painting on silk and lacquer. The Fine Arts College of Indochina (L’École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine) provided a staunch platform for indigenous artists to master art forms from their own heritage and to utilize ancient mediums as a means of individual expression. This pioneering academy initiated the first epoch of academic Vietnamese painting, encouraging artists to emphasize on representations of nature, people and landscapes, together with the life, customs and habits of the country.


This European-modelled academy revived and transformed decorative lacquer work to a fine art form by applying it to free standing paintings, separate from the mere decoration of objects. Lacquer painting, or sơn mài, became a new art form fashioned to cater to the demands of the French bourgeoisie, who desired exotic paintings. The founding artists were Pham Hau, Tran Van Can, and Nguyen Gia Tri, who were quite traditional in expressing scenes of natural beauty.


Pham Hau’s lacquer screen in the present lot offers us a glimpse into the lush natural beauty of his nation. The landscape is pristine, with no remnants of human touch other than the patterns of padi fields (ruộng or cánh đồng) outlined in the middle ground. The screen presents a sprawling landscape depicted in multiple layers, drawing a deep, linear perspective inspired by traditional Western landscape painting. Close-up in the foreground are jagged tree branches flowering with mystical, golden leaves. In the darkened center, Pham Hau outlined rice terraces in fine gold lines, creating a design reminiscent of the geometric patterns of nature rendered in Art Nouveau decorative works. The top-most part of the multi-layered composition, signifying what is far into the distance, is densely peppered with small-sized silhouettes of trees and shrubbery lined across sinuous hills. The sky itself is almost obscured by the copious natural formations that command the full space of this eight-paneled picture plane. It is evident that Pham Hau imbues the captivating work with multiple dimensions and a sense of Western three-dimensionality, all the while rendering the painstaking precision of a traditional lacquer work.


Despite the fact that the artist had a limited color palette, the screen undeniably displays his mastery and absolute control of color application. Translucent layers of vermillion, auburn, amber, gold and ochre create a numinous illusion of depth into the scenery, magnificently conveying light and shadow. The work is an aesthetical expression of the highest means: “Dark color as dark as shadows at night... brilliancy as that of a yellow leaf under the sun... and gold that seems to fly up to give the picture balance and unity— one has the feeling of touching velvet, satin, porcelain and precious stones…” (Truong Hanh, Painters of The Fine Arts College of Indochina, Cartographic Mapping Institute, Hanoi, 1993, p. 27.)


Upon viewing this magnificent work, one immediately notices the artist’s penchant for detailing. Soft weeds with light, graceful flowers hang delicately from unfaltering, stronger tree branches. Once can trace various species of flowers and foliage, each living in idealistic harmony with the other. The array of verdure is uniformed with the strict color palette of rich gold, majestic red and deep black, providing a sense of majesty to the work. The large size of the painting allows one to admire the landscape while walking from one panel to the next, until the lush greenery envelops the viewer.


Upon the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, the function of art within the nation rapidly changed, marking the abrupt ending of the munificent Golden Age. Using art as a means to seek an independent socio-political order for his nation, Ho Chi Minh promoted his Socialist and Communist values. The short time frame of this classical period leaves only a limited number of precious lacquers in the hands of private collectors, emphasizing the rarity of the present lot.


The present work is truly exposes Pham Hau’s prowess and artistry in the medium, rendering the grandeur and exactitude of Vietnamese lacquer art in its entirety. Over the past few years, there has been growing evidence that lacquer screens have captured the attention of the most proficient art connoisseurs and collectors. The art market is rapidly appreciating and recognizing exquisite works in this medium, and we have no doubt that in the future, screens of this extraordinary size, rarity and sheer caliber will be coveted even further by collectors in the region and far beyond.