Born in the Tien Bat province of Ha Tinh (Nghë Tinh), Phan Chanh was raised in a family of Confucian scholars and studied calligraphy from his father at a young age. As the only candidate accepted from Central Vietnam, he trained at the Ecole under its founder, the French artist, Victor Tardieu. While many of his younger peers such as Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu and Vu Cao Dam eventually found their way to Paris, Nguyen Phan Chanh, who was nearly forty when he graduated, felt compelled to stay in Vietnam to develop his practice.
Eventually adopting the monogram “Hong Nam”, or South of the mountains of Hong Linh, as his pen name, Phan Chanh often followed literati painting traditions. The elegant calligraphy inscriptions on La lingère and Le jeu des cases gagnantes, harkens back to his classical training - something that he held onto even as he came under French artistic tutelage. Inspired by Chinese painting, Phan Chanh developed a preference for silk as his supportive medium early in his career. He revived the tradition by using a darker, sombre palette and documenting ordinary Vietnamese scenes. His approach was categorically distinct from that of his contemporaries, who tended to depict Vietnamese elite society in brighter, pastel colours in impressionist styles. Instead, Phan Chanh refused to glamorize his subjects, favouring precision drawing and simple forms.
In La lingère and Le jeu des cases gagnantes, Phan Chanh demonstrates a maturity in style by complimenting Western sense of depth and space, with the intricacies of ink and gouache techniques. Both pieces showcase a highly restrained palette and composition, prioritizing stark, clean lines and solid hues above all. Nonetheless, his works are no less evocative for their sparser detail, revealing a setting of great composure. All these contribute towards a greater harmony of theme and image across both works. The paintings perfectly capture the full ordinariness of their subjects as they go about their lives and the quiet dignity they hold because of it, rather than as objects for a gazer’s eye. As such, the viewer’s perspective is made obtrusive, and even voyeuristic, as we witness the small minutiae of their lives from the outside looking in. The posture of Phan Chanh’s figures too set viewers at a natural exclusive distance, as they are framed as looking down and inward towards themselves, oblivious to an outsider’s presence.
The art historian, Nora A Taylor reflects: “He went to the countryside to sketch [labourers] and relied on his own eye, rather than on convention to create his works. In this way, he represents the first stages in the transformation of Vietnamese painting.” (Nora A Taylor, Painters in Hanoi: An Ethnography of Vietnamese Art, 2009, P. 37)
La lingère, the linen maid exemplifies the understated charm of Phan Chanh’s work and his desire to pay homage to the modest activities of Vietnamese lifestyle. Sitting unassumingly in a simple interior, a maiden looks upon the pink fabric she holds delicately between her fingers. The maid’s facial features are delicately outlined and made perfectly placid. Her focus and attention is delineated only by the thin, faint strokes of her furrowed brows. Her left arm wraps around her propped knee and her elbow is angled to lead the viewer’s eye towards the corner of the room. The pale pink of the cloth in the basket and the maiden’s hands, freshens the dominantly earth-toned composition while also bringing out the faint blush in the figure’s lips. In her own quiet way, the seamstress commands the audience’s admiration for the simple yet dignified act of doing laundry.
In Le jeu des cases gagnantes, three figures are similarly facing downward, engrossed with playing a Vietnamese folk game of O an quan or Mandarin’s Box. Fiddling with the small pebbles, the children play amongst themselves with a still tranquility, as if it were a mundane yet necessary activity to pass time. Captivated by the simple game, each participant carries an individualized persona as they sit comfortably in loose clothes and casual hairstyles. While the overall image appears almost monochromatic, Phan Chanh applies brighter colors sparingly but intentionally. Behind the figure in white, the artist uses a light blue wash to suggest a spatial opening or window in the otherwise flat setting. Likewise a small hint of a pink belt or undergarment in the leftmost corner adds detail to the large silhouettes and angularity to the tight composition. Together, the children personify the spirit of family centered community and exemplify the inviting humanism of Phan Chanh’s strongest works.
Significant examples of Nguyen Phan Chanh's sincere depictions of rural Vietnamese lifestyle, La lingère and Le jeu des cases gagnantes are true gems. Created in the infancy of the artist’s professional career, they not only represent a critical period in his oeuvre, and but also in the country’s art history. While Phan Chanh’s approach to perspective reveals his formal training at the Ecole, the earthy, muted tones and elegant calligraphy, establishing his sophisticated understanding of the silk craft.
La lingère and Le jeu des cases gagnantes are elegant yet honest masterworks of a wholly dedicated scholar and artist that insist on the profound beauty of the Vietnamese people.
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