Widely revered as one of the country’s greatest modern artists, Nguyen Gia Tri reached new heights in the lacquer painting medium during a significant time in Vietnam’s history. Born in 1908 to a family of imperial craftsmen in Ha Dong (North Vietnam), he began cultivating his talent at a young age. Gia Tri graduated from the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine in 1936, where the French artists Joseph Inguimberty and Victor Tardieu, encouraged local students to push the boundaries of traditional crafts, transforming what was once decorative into an expressively modern “fine art” medium. This spurred a revolution in lacquer painting which was led by artists such as the likes Pham Hau, Alix Ayme and in particular, Nguyen Gia Tri, who’s characteristic style is exemplified in Les Villageois.
In the first half of the 20th-century, nationalism spread across Vietnam, and Gia Tri joined the anti-French resistance movement. The artist’s work from this period displays his patriotic sentiments by portraying the captivating beauty of the Vietnamese landscape. Significant attributes of Gia Tri’s golden period include lush gold-pigmented vegetation and warm earth tones. In Les Villageois, Gia Tri uses shades of red, black, and eggshell resin lacquer juxtaposed with gold pigments to embody the vibrant, almost heavenly beauty of Vietnam.
The six-panel lacquer screen depicts an idyllic scene of horses and villagers gathered amongst a peaceful landscape. Gilded banana leaves and bamboo branches set against a sprawling landscape skillfully capture the charming daily life of the artist's youth. The delicate golden pigment of the foliage decorating the foreground juxtaposes the backdrop of the bold reddish mountains, establishing pictorial depth. This lot displays Nguyen Gia Tri’s hybridised style of applying Western engraving and inlaying methods with traditional lacquer painting techniques to create large-scale landscapes of rural Vietnam. Notably, Gia Tri moved to incorporate raw materials and elements into his palette, from pearl, gold and silver to eggshell fragments, achieving a greater representation of colour. The accents of white that compose the horse, dog and the delicate blossoms on the tree are constructed entirely of crushed eggshells, precisely placed and burnt onto the lacquer. The diversity of the vegetation is displayed through the amalgamation of types and colours of foliage. Strikingly, the leaves of his palm trees are inlaid with varied shades of gold and red, each leaf strategically shaded to create a dense perspective of layers, overlapping across the panel. The meticulous detailing within this work is distinctive within Gia Tri’s oeuvre, making this work significant in its display of virtuosity.
A group of villagers gather to the left of a meadow, one riding a horse and another carrying water barrels, a dog barking at their feet. On the other side, a horse grazes on an open field next to a seated pair, while a herd of cows settles in the distance.
The figures of the villagers themselves are inconspicuously placed at the foot of the frame, dwarfed in comparison to the overgrowth of flora around them. Perspective and detail are the hallmarks of Gia Tri’s painting, and all these are clearly delineated yet organic at the same time. While the foreground of the work comes in crisp, close detail, right down to each distinct leaf blade, the middle and backgrounds are rendered with a concrete sense of distance – marked by indistinct shapes of buffaloes, and mountains and trees shrouded with ethereal haze. This picturesque scene captures but a brief moment of time, yet eternally represents the harmonious beauty of Vietnam’s countryside.
A rare display of Nguyen Gia Tri’s characteristically intricate and renowned lacquer painting, this lot from his golden period incomparably captures the beauty of the Vietnamese landscape. Les Villageois is a perfectly untouched landscape, without architectural structures, thereby composing an idyllic vision of man coexisting directly within nature. A treasured piece in Pierre Pagès’ family collection, this work bears the signature strengths of a true lacquer master, who lures the viewer into a timeless, tranquil oasis, immortalising the spirit of Vietnam through the peacefulness of its countryside.
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