At a time when Vietnamese art was reaching its golden age (1930-1945), Pham Hau was a pioneering voice in the burgeoning medium of lacquer painting, giving lacquer art its first true recognition as an important art medium. Under the esteemed tutelage of French artists Victor Tardieu and Joseph Inguimberty, founders of the Fine Arts College of Indochina (L’Ecole des Beaux Arts de L’Indochine), Pham Hau was strongly encouraged to assimilate and experiment with traditional Vietnamese crafts in tandem with the techniques of classical Western paintings. Overcome with a newfound impetus to revive the notions of Vietnamese decorative art, Pham Hau dedicated his artistic career to the revolution of lacquer painting as a modern-day medium, and consequently changed the course of Vietnamese art history forever more. With an unparalleled grasp of both Eastern and Western artistic principles and philosophies, Pham Hau’s poetic landscape compositions are characteristic of an artist whose technical virtuosity and supreme craftsmanship are grounded in his sheer admiration for the multi-facets of beauty and nature. Depicting one of Pham Hau’s most famous and coveted subject matter, deer, this present lot is a mesmerizing rarity, and is indicative of the artist’s profound understanding of Vietnam’s natural phenomena.
Set in the dream-like seclusion of Vietnam’s lustrous landscapes, a herd of deer, some resting in repose, and others grazing in idyll, pepper an iridescent lacquer screen by Pham Hau. Occupying six vertical panels, the present lot is a paragon of Pham Hau’s use of symbolic subject matter and his dexterity in utilizing challenging medium. Lacquer painting has always been a medium that is notoriously difficult to manipulate and master, as it involves the organization and visualization of multiple layers that are worked from a flat wooden board, known as vóc. The artist then proceeds with inlays of egg shell or mother and pearl, and continues the process with layers upon layers of coloured lacquer, which are individually dried and shaded until the composition is complete. Pham Hau’s complete proficiency in this demanding and laborious process is demonstrated beautifully in his paintings, as his romantic and tranquil illustrations provide us with a glimpse into the rich vegetation and cultural philosophies of Vietnam.
With pearlescent layers of vermillion, auburn, amber and gold, Pham Hau crafts an ethereal haven of pastoral peace, and conveys an illusion of dimensionality through his attentive brushwork. Pham Hau takes care to depict each of the deer in different sizes in order to relate each deer to their individual spatial positions, as one deer recedes into the distance, while the others stretch out, as to invite us into their world of quiet elegance. This subtle layering and manipulation of size altogether permeating the work with a sense of depth. He delineates the musculature of their bodies with soft strokes of ochre, as to imbue their silhouettes with movement and liveliness. Pham Hau’s depictions of his subjects were never hyper-realistic, as he sought to portray their essences; in the background, mountains are simplified to graceful undulations, while the swaying banana trees of the tropics are rendered in their delicate outlines.
Pham Hau articulates the subtleties of his divine color palette, as gold accents and woody auburns illustrate the most minutiae details of this picturesque scene. With a subdued interplay of color and shade, Pham Hau carefully unveils the varied textures of the scene – from the crinkled leaves of the trees, to the rounded pebbles on the grass, and the misty edges of the clouds. An outpouring of light seems to dominate the panels, as Pham Hau’s luxurious brushwork washes over the landscape with a dynamic profusion of golden hues, which illuminates the piece with a sense of divine corporeality.
Pham Hau’s acute sensitivity towards the complex cultures of Vietnam is brought to light here, as the subject matter of deer holds immense importance within the spiritual beliefs of Buddhist mythology. Not only do they symbolize harmony, compassion, peace and longevity, but they also represent an idealized utopia where peace and serenity reign. As such, Pham Hau presents us with a deeper metaphorical understanding of the work, and constructs a loving testimony to the special magnitude that deer hold in the canon of Vietnamese culture and beliefs.
In effect, Pham Hau’s depictions of deer stand as some of his most coveted pieces. Standing as an outstanding exemplar in the fine medium of lacquer painting, this present lot captures perfectly the unique splendor and enchantment of Vietnam’s golden age, and is a bravura display of Pham Hau’s technical and artistic excellence.
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