Nine Carps in the Water by Vietnamese master, Pham Hau, is a masterfully conceived lacquer panel, showcasing the artist’s technical proficiency and artistry through a medium that has long been notoriously difficult to manipulate. The process of lacquer painting begins by the creation and visualization of multiple layers that are worked from a flat wooden board known as vóc. The artist then proceeds with inlays of eggshell or mother of pearl, followed by layers upon layers of colored lacquer which are individually dried and sanded until the composition is complete. After this laborious process, the end results, especially in the hands of a master like Pham Hau, are some of the most stunning and delightful works of art ever produced.
Presented in four exquisite vertical format panels, the present lot depicts an ethereal lagoon featuring nine majestic carps swimming playfully. Nine Carps in the Water is an outstanding example of the very finest of lacquer works, produced with a ‘black mirror effect’. It is rich in color; from the decadent gold and silver accents, to the woody auburns, ochre, and eggshell whites, Pham Hau pays meticulous attention to the minutiae of details, creating a divine aquatic landscape in resplendent colors that almost seem larger than life. The carps, the tree branch, and the overhanging of leaves cascading over the water are executed in a realistic manner, giving the piece a sense of presence and corporeality against the flat background of the panel.
The scales of the carps are delicately painted in shimmering gold and silver amidst the deep black river. Pham Hau captures various textures and movements of the underwater scape; from the intricate twist of the spire-shaped seashells inlayed using eggshell, to the luxuriant aquatic plants that sway gently along with the ebb and flow of the currents. Pebbles are delineated by small hemispheres that stretch from the foreground and into the background of the panels, creating a depth to the work that draws the viewer’s gaze through the enigmatic landscape. The schools of carps are animated with bubbles streaming from their mouths, creating a sense of playfulness and rhythm to the work, while simultaneously alluding to notions of vitality and abundance.
Pham Hau’s magnificent composition of nine carps swimming in the water is a testimony to both Chinese and Vietnamese culture. Fish have long been synonymous with prosperity in Eastern traditions as the word “fish” or yu sound similar to “abundance” and “affluence” in the Chinese language. Carps (liyu in Chinese), however, hold special significance in the canon of Chinese mythology.
Famous for their exceptional ability to jump high into the air, Liyu or carps, symbolize a sudden uplift or elevation in one’s status. A common idiom and saying liyuelongmen 鲤跃龙门, alludes to the carp’s ability to swim upstream against a waterfall called the Dragon Gate at the Yellow River in Henan. Providing both visual and metaphorical implications, carps in Eastern traditional art is emblematic of a swift and, oftentimes, well-earned success in life.
Pham Hau’s symbolic description of carps in water extends to the number of fish depicted in the composition. As the number nine, jiu (Chinese) or chin (Vietnamese) has the same homophone as “long” in both languages, it signifies longevity and endurance. The grandeur of this elaborate composition lies not only in the complexity and thoughtfulness of the artist’s plays with space and perspective, but also in the layered symbolism of the selected subject matter. In crafting this wonderful masterpiece, Pham Hau presents to viewers a reflection of a long life, brimming with success – perhaps with his own artistic legacy in mind.
Rarely does one come across a Pham Hau lacquer of this particular auspicious subject, let alone have the opportunity to acquire such a rarity. In fact, this event marks the first time in history that a lacquer work of carps has been offered in the international auction market in Asia. Nine Carps in the Water truly captures the splendor and precision of lacquer paintings from the Vietnamese golden age. The work is luxuriously composed; a bravura display of Pham Hau’s technical and artistic ability, showcased on one of the finest lacquer works by a master to ever be offered at auction.
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