Throughout the French occupation of Indochina during the late 19th and early 20th century, the European rule played an integral role in catalysing a paradigm shift in Vietnamese artistic practices. The formation of the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in 1925 stimulated this rapid transformation and production of what was soon to be recognised as Vietnamese modern art. Set-up in Hanoi by French artists Victor Tardieu and Joseph Inguimbery, this art school was founded to teach European methods and classical stylistic principles, using a French modernist approach, while encouraging students to retain the use of Vietnamese mediums and artistic traditions. Mai Trung Thu, also known as Mai Thu, was a notable first-generation graduate of the institution in 1930. Like many students from the academy, Mai Thu’s artistic practice seamlessly fused French techniques with traditional Vietnamese materials and subject matter. Through the harmonious blend of Eastern and Western aesthetics, Mai Thu’s work represented the new identity of Vietnamese modern art.
Known to display his artistic talents on the historically significant Asian medium of silk, Mai Thu’s masterful paintings recapitulated notions of The Orient: through depictions of the quotidian, from doleful, elegant women, to the intimacies of Vietnamese family life. Though he lived in France from 1937 until his passing in 1980, Mai Thu’s devotion and patriotism to Vietnam did not dilute: he continued to celebrate his motherland, with his ever careful, yet visceral vignettes of Vietnam’s upper class.
Rather than exploring the more typical ‘mother and child’ archetype, Mai Thu commemorates the female subject through this depiction a seated grandmother with her two grandchildren. Conceived during his time in France, Grand-mère (Grandmother) perfectly encapsulates the traditional themes of womanhood that have long inspired the artist’s paintings. This piece is dedicated to women, children, and family life, while illuminating key cultural ideologies.
Demonstrating the integral and honourable role of the matriarch in Vietnamese households, this intimate portrait spans generations, to see a grandmother embracing her two grandchildren within a peaceful domestic setting. Whilst one infant is tightly cradled in her arms, the other guileless toddler leans on her lower body in search for support. Bonded through their grandmother’s nurturing touch, and the invisible ties of kinship, her calm and demure demeanour provides a sense of comfort and security to her ingenuous grandchildren. As it is not uncommon to see two or three generations living under the same roof in Vietnam, Mai Thu’s unique representation of this maternal figure is emblematic of the larger nexus of interdependent relationships – outside the nuclear family – rooted in Vietnamese culture.
Combining personal histories with Western painterly techniques, Mai Thu fixates his subjects onto his canvas using a triangular composition reminiscent of classical Western portraiture. Synthesising this with distinctively Vietnamese iconography as seen in Grand-mère, the artist is able to make key references to his native roots in his work. Through the incorporation of the Chinese pellet drum, as well as non-ostentatious but distinctively East Asian interiors, Mai Thu is able to construct a characteristically Vietnamese scene. This is further emphasised symbolically through his inclusion of mandarin oranges, which are displayed on the ornate lacquer table situated behind the three figures. Whilst mandarin oranges are used as a common decorative feature in Chinese Vietnamese households, they are also deemed a highly auspicious symbol of abundance and happiness. Mai Thu’s portrayal of this symbolic fruit makes reference to the class and status of his subjects, which he sought to depict as affluent, urbane, and poised. As the grandmother can also be seen holding an orange towards the child, this is denotative of her desire to pass down these important Vietnamese traditions and values to her grandchildren.
Painted in 1944 during World War II, Grand-mère is a calm and unobtrusive work that created reprieve and escape from the disarray of its prevailing socio-political context: it calls to the warmth of family, and the safety of home. In many regards, Mai Thu’s ethereal silk painting can be viewed as a vessel of his personal sentiments and perhaps representational of the wider ambitions he had for his native land. During a period of economic instability and conflict, Mai Thu sought to depict Vietnamese people as virtuous and pure, capturing a moment when time seemingly stood still. His subjects are imbued with an aura of innocence, yet they are sophisticated and refined. Far from his motherland, Mai Thu’s alluring portrait can be discerned as a nostalgic narration of the ‘Vietnam’, of which he consistently dreamed and reminisced. With the inter-generational relationship between grandmother and grandchild serving as a main focal point of the work, Grand-mère unequivocally acts as a hallmark of maternal feminism that celebrates the central role women play in Vietnamese home and family life. This, for Mai Thu, was a great beauty worth capturing.
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