Mai Trung Thu, also known as Mai Thu, was one of the most prominent artists educated during the French occupation of Indochina. Alongside Le Pho, Vu Cuo Dam and Le Thi Luu, he graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine in Hanoi and moved to Paris. Trained in the style of French oil painting and learned in the tradition of Vietnamese crafts, he carved himself a permanent place in the development of Vietnamese modernism with his experiments in marrying both influences.
This painting was completed in 1942, at the height of the Second World War after Vichy France had ceded control of Vietnam to Japan. It depicts two women in ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese costume. One stares directly at the viewer with her hand on her conical farmer’s hat, tied to her chin with a silk cloth, while a younger girl looks on to the distance with her hand raised to her chest.
This piece could realistically be interpreted as a nostalgic depiction of feminine beauty. Mai Thu’s brushstrokes are incredibly delicate: not only are his figures finely outlined, but also, details such as each strand of hair are painstakingly rendered one by one. Furthermore, his lines are economical and minimal, taking cue from the work of French post-Impressionists artists such as Matisse, allowing the faces and bodies of these women to take on a soft, volumetric character, idealized in the eyes of the artist. The softness of their features is also reflected in the gentle wind that permeates the piece. To paint on silk, some artists chose to dilute their pigments with tea, producing a translucent quality to any ink applied on paper: this technique have been used to depict the background of the work, with the lightness of the pigmentation reflecting the calm atmosphere that envelops the natural motifs of bamboo, grass and perhaps even the materialization of wind itself.
But, perhaps, we could also read this Mai Thu piece as a work that contained within it sociopolitical themes. The ao dai as we know it today was only firmly created in the twentieth century, where the fit of the ao dai was tightened to become more flattering to the female body. It was used by painters and sculptors alike to depict historical women, such as the statue of Virgin Mary in ao dai that can be found in Phat Diem Cathedral, Ninh Binh. The dress itself was politicized: although its history can be traced to the eighteenth century, it never reached the levels of popularity that allowed it to be elevated to the costume of an entire nation or peoples. In this light, we might read the cool look in the eyes of the taller woman as a steady affirmation to her agency and identity as a Vietnamese, and in the expression of the shorter girl, a hope and expectation of a brighter future to come.
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