Green leaves, white flower covers a yellow center
Yellow center, white flower, green leaves.
Close to mud but never smells as mud.
— Vietnamese folk poem.
The subject of numerous folk songs, odes and poems, the lotus flower is an important symbol in Vietnamese culture, signifying purity, serenity and optimism. The fact that the lotus—which habitually grows in murky waters with fertile alkaline mud—is still able to bear visually dazzling flowers blooming pristinely above the surface, untarnished and incorruptible by earthly impurities is also highly meaningful in Vietnam, and the imagery of the flower is often appropriated to allegorize the resilience and will of the Vietnamese people. Due to the fact that Vietnamese culture has been strongly informed and influenced by Mahayana Buddhism, the lotus flower has also taken on a religious significance in Vietnam. Known as padma in Buddhist literature, it symbolizes purity of body, mind and spirit, as its long-stemmed flowers seemingly float above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. It is for this reason that the bodhisattva of compassion, Quan Âm, is typically depicted as arising from the heart of a lotus and associated with the Lotus Sutra.
This present lot by Le Pho, La cueillette des lotus (Lotus Harvest), marvelously showcases the role of the lotus in Vietnamese folk culture. Celebrated for his highly poetic style, the Hà Đông-born painter Le Pho is revered in Southeast Asian art circles as the Vietnamese Master of silk painting. Born into a family of distinguished Tonkinese mandarins, Le Pho was a prodigious artist who began painting at a young age and taught himself oil-painting at 16. One of the most illustrious alumni of the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine, Le Pho studied under the renowned pioneering artists Victor Tardieu and Joseph Inguimberty and developed his signature style of synthesizing Western representational techniques and Vietnamese motifs. The present lot, La cueillette des lotus (Lotus Harvest) ranks among Le Pho’s most evocative works, evincing an expressive lyrical style and exemplifying the artist’s unmatched talent in handling silk as a medium. The lotus motif employed in this work is a consistent theme throughout Le Pho’s oeuvre, present in other works such as Portrait de Jeune Femme à La Branche de Lotus (1939). Far from incidental, this reflects Le Pho’s keen engagement with his Vietnamese roots.
The work is a tender depiction of two Vietnamese lotus harvesters gathering the season’s yield of flowers. Exemplary of Le Pho’s elegiac flair, the portrait exudes a sense of grace and tranquility owing to the artist’s harmonious use of colors and composition. The two women are depicted with the artist’s characteristic finesse—clad in flowing áo dàis, the harvesters are intently focused on their tasks: the woman in the foreground gently raises a blossom to her nose, as though to inhale its intoxicating scent; the other woman, seated with her back facing the audience, gingerly draws the stem of a lotus plant to retrieve its root, a highly prized ingredient in East and Southeast Asia. In this work, customary figurations of form are replaced by Le Pho’s masterful execution of flows and curves: both slender figures are tastefully rendered with supple frames, willowy limbs and silky hair, creating a portrait that is at once demure and sensual. The women’s lithe arms and fingers, in particular, bend and arch with extraordinary fluidity and grace, complementing the watery setting in which they are situated . Similarly, Le Pho depicts the surface of the pond with exceptional care: by detailing the smallest of ripples and the luminous effects of sunlight, the artist stages a captivating interplay between water, light and wind in this work.
Le Pho’s works are also known for their subtle use of colors, which imbues them with a soothing and placid sensibility. Despite the chromatic economy of the present lot, the artist is able to convey light, shadow and movement simply by relying on various hues of browns, greens, beiges and blues. The surface of the pond is expertly bathed in faded tints of teal and cerulean, seemingly to convey the uneven depths of the pool; the folded creases of the lotus leaves are suffused with various hues of viridian to capture the effects of sunlight. The lotus flowers themselves are colored in a shade of pink, almost appearing as white, as though to underscore their connotations of purity. By relying on mostly muted tones for the backdrop of the work, Le Pho is able to emphasize the presence of his two central figures that are decked in colors that are markedly more vivid. By choosing maroon and azure as the colors of the women’s áo dàis, Le Pho balances the use of warm and cool tones in this work, producing a harmonious and undeniably visually pleasing effect. There is ultimately a sense of lyrical melancholy in the work, manifest in the sense of tender longing and admiration both for the flowers that populate the fresh waters of Vietnam and the laborers who bring their beauty to light.
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