From the first day the École opened its doors in 1925, the Joseph Inguimberty proved an indispensable asset and visionary. Among the many European artists who settled in Southeast Asia, Inguimberty is a rare revolutionary whose art and legacy reflect his passionate admiration for Vietnam. His tenure at the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine not only sparked a revival in lacquer painting, it cemented his role as a mentor to generations of Vietnamese artists including Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Nguyen Phan Chanh, To Ngoc Van, and Vu Cao Dam and Nguyen Gia Tri among others.
Over the course of the twenty years he spent in Vietnam, the Marseille born Inguimberty completed some of the most inspired works in his career; the present lot is an exceptionally rare example. Far from just a traveler’s interpretation of a foreign land, Inguimberty’s paintings are products of an in depth engagement with the beautiful complexities of Vietnamese society, bucolic landscape and diverse people. Immense in scale and allure, Le Hamac (The Hammock) reveals Inguimberty’s gift for capturing the spirit of his surrounding environment and distilling the essential qualities of his subjects with his signature lucidly radiant style. This three-meter long painting attests for Joseph Inguimberty’s standing as one of Vietnam’s most significant modern artists.
Inguimberty’s commanding artistry was recognized early on his career as a young man admitted into the Ecole des beaux-arts de Marseille (Marseille School of Fine Art) at the tender age of fourteen. The artist sought to further his passion for art and architecture at the renowned Ecole Nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Paris (Paris Higher School of Decorative Art) in 1913. His years in Paris laid the foundational training for his pursuits in painting and allowed him to forge lifelong friendships with artists such as Maurice Brianchon, Raymond Legeult and Roland Oudot, under the close guidance of Eugène Morand, the director of the Ecole Nationale at the time. However Inguimberty’s education was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War when he served in the infantry corps until he was wounded in the Reims. Perhaps the traumatic effects of war stirred in Inguimberty a fervent desire to evoke in his work the simple joys of life, labor and unscathed nature.
Propelled by the sprawling activity of the European art scene, Inguimberty was awarded with several travel bursaries that allowed him to visit the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy and Greece during the early 1920s. During his journeys, Inguimberty produced an impressive body of work. He documented idyllic scenes and architectural marvels, while cultivating a preoccupation with the daily lives of working people. Unlike other post-war artists who were exploring new trends of abstraction, Inguimberty preferred to draw inspiration from reality and developed a distinct candid style. Le Hamac indicates the artist’s maturity and confident grasp of his modus, unabated by contemporaneous commercial demands. Inguimberty’s vision gained him the attention of the art world, and he was awarded the Blumenthal Prize in 1922 and the Prix National de Pienture (National Prize for Painting) at the Salon 1924.
Yet the 29-year-old Inguimberty was still in search of inspiration beyond the European continent. An opportunity arose when Inguimberty was appointed the professor of decorative arts at the new school in Vietnam, the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine. In 1924 the school’s founder Victor Tardieu, who had also trained at the Ecole Nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, travelled to Paris with his co-founder Nam Son (Nguyen Van Tho) in search of his first intake of instructors. They envisioned that the school would train local artisans to become ‘professional’ artists, offering an environment in which the encounter between East and West would operate. Joseph Inguimberty soon joined the founders as the third pillar of this pioneering triumvirate.
Moving to Hanoi was a turning point in Inguimberty’s artistic career as he immediately delved into the rich landscape of his adopted home. Captivated by the new scenery, the artist explored the Tonkin Delta, Bay of Halong and Upper Tonkin to find stunning vistas like the one depicted in Le Hamac. While Tardieu preferred studio teaching, Inguimberty took nature as his model and encouraged students to paint directly from life, introducing them to the practice of en plein air, or painting outdoors. Leading by example, he was often seen cycling into the countryside to paint the undergrowth and glades surrounding the bustling capital city. A testament to the artist’s acute sense of colour and space, Le Hamac is a product of Inguimberty’s time spent among village folk. The artist’s Indochinese portraits are outstanding because they stray from exotic ethnographic types, portraying Vietnamese people as they are. He wanted to illustrate the daily lives of the people who shaped the very landscapes he loved to paint, whether in the midst of labor or rest. The present lot is one of Inguimberty’s most sophisticated and expansive interpretations of the later.
Le Hamac (The Hammock) poignantly captures the intimate ease of the Vietnamese lifestyle that moved Inguimberty so deeply. Viewers are drawn into a charming scene where a group of Vietnamese women bask under the cool tropical shade, enjoying the strummed melodies of the dan day instrument. It is an idyllic masterpiece that demonstrates Inguimberty’s affinity for figuration and skillful use of colour.
Elegantly dressed in traditional tunics or ao dais, the maidens are one of Inguimberty’s most beloved and iconic subjects as he captures their graceful demeanor with an inviting sense of integrity. Sensual yet inaccessible, these Vietnamese beauties in their long flowing tunics of various hues stride in like Grecian goddesses, almost monumental yet charmingly humble. An acute observer, Inguimberty composes each figure with curious individualism in this moment of repose. The maidens in Le Hamac lay on a rattan mat, sit cross-legged in boyish fashion or laze in the comforts of a swinging hammock; perfectly at home in the thick enclave.
The present work displays Inguimberty’s acute sense of space and heralds his regard for the community he found in Vietnam. The ‘neck’ of the dan day instrument pierces through the painting’s curving lines and leads the eye diagonally towards the woman lying in the hammock. As the title suggests, the maiden fashioned in a vivid salmon pink ao dai is a main character in Le Hamac and embodies the values of modern Vietnamese feminism during Inguimberty’s time. She lets her arm hang freely as her friend swings her gently to the dan day lullaby. Unlike most Western interpretations of the same motif that compose figures in isolation, Inguimberty’s Le Hamac (The Hammock) is the focus of communal recreation. Moreover music playing centers the composition and underscores Inguimberty’s imaginative play with sight, touch and sound. As the only male figure, the musician plucks his dan day strings and heightens the sensory experience of the present painting.
Earlier versions of Le Hamac reveal that Inguimberty played with various compositions and changed the colours of the ao dais. Viewers are especially struck by the charismatic maiden at the forefront of the picture wearing a grey ao dai with floral patterns. Not only is it unusual to find Inguimberty depicting the textile details of his subject’s attire, her gaze also demands attention as she nearly walks out of the picture frame towards the viewer, pulling her friend along. This daring technique elevates the subject-viewer relationship while magnifying the liveliness of the painting. Such powerful methods employed in Le Hamac are evidence of the artist’s confidence in modern concepts of representation at the height of his career.
Another striking feature of Inguimberty’s painting is his sophisticated approach to capturing the lively yet stark qualities of natural light - the product of his scientific study of lush indigenous vegetation. Inguimberty unapologetically rendered a picture lifted by the brightness of the artist’s generous use of white paint. Vivid yet implacable, the patches of light hitting the warm earthen ground emphasize the shifting nature of the sun’s cast and are reminiscent of Claude Monet’s treatment of light and shadow in works like Women in the Garden Inguimberty’s brushstrokes are animated by the feast of light filtering through dense tropical leaves and imbue the leisurely gathering with a flickering atmosphere. It is as if the dazzle of rays dances to the undulating rhythms of the dan day. The artist’s romantic zeal and understanding of Vietnam culminates in this stunning painting.
Although highly occupied by his new role, the artist managed to exhibit several times in Hanoi and France. In 1929, some thirty works he painted since his arrival in Hanoi were exhibited at the Far East Printing Office. This was followed by a Paris Colonial Exhibition in Vincennes which presented three large paintings showing aspects of rural Vietnamese life. In 1936, a private exhibition entitled “Inguimberty, Tonkin-Marseille” was held at the Charpentier Gallery in Paris and showcased paintings he created previously in France alongside his Indochinese works. Soon after Inguimberty was awarded the gold medal at the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology in Modern Life and was also made a Chevalier of the Légion.
All this time Inguimberty was also a student of Vietnam. It was the artist’s daring foresight that spurred a new flourishing in lacquer techniques, elevating a Chinese imported craft into a hallmark of Vietnamese fine art. With the help of Alix Ayme, he arranged for the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine curriculum to include lacquer painting as an elective class, and even mastered the tedious process himself. Under Inguiberty’s guidance lacquer was established as a stand-alone academic department in 1928 and revolutionized into a modern-day medium, highly revered till today.
Students remember Inguimberty to have been sincerely interested in Vietnamese people and life, a trait that naturally materialized in his painting. Ngyen Quang Phong describes Inguimberty as being “just like a Vietnamese painter who understands and loves his homeland.”1 Le Hamac is indeed a remarkable testament to this very sentiment.
Inguimberty’s legacy is seen in the success of Vietnam’s leading artists and their unique approach to Western and Eastern styles. Well respected as one of Vietnam’s most important visionaries, mentors and artists, Inguimberty helped transform the country’s artistic landscape by giving a whole new impetus to painting. Eventually the artist was forced to leave Indochina with his wife and two children in 1946 when war broke out again and Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese. Many of his works were plundered during this time, making the present painting, Le Hamac (The Hammock) an exceptional rarity.
1 Nora Taylor, "Orientalism/Occidentalism: The founding of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts d’indochine and the politics of painting in colonial Vietnam 1925-1945", Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 11:2, Northern Illinois University, 1997, p.11.
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