Executed circa 1934-1935, Danseause was listed as number 14 on an original list of 29 Vietnamese artworks presented by La Société Annamite d'Encouragement à l'Art et à l'Industrie (SADEAI), which was participating in The First Salon de la France d’Outre-Mer held at the Grand-Palais, Paris. Completed around the time of his graduation in 1935, this painting was chosen as an exemplar of the flourishing artistic movement in French Indochina and was likely first purchased at this very exhibition. The 1930s further marked the pinnacle of Vietnamese silk painting, during which Western notions of perspective and subject matter influenced artists to create fresh visual idioms. A poetic synthesis of different artistic genres, Danseause presented to its European audience a glimpse of Vietnamese visual arts, music and dance.
Nguyen Khang embraces a modernist almost cinematic approach to depicting the performance, demonstrating how Vietnamese artists pushed the boundaries of traditional art form. The piece offers a glimpse into the trance-like state of a traditional Vietnamese fan dancer whose sleeve is draped over her face, mid-routine. She is dancing to the harmonics of two musicians in the background, one playing the Đàn nhị (Vietnamese two-stringed fiddle) and the other, a đàn nguyệ (a two-stringed instrument). As if caught in a climatic juncture, the protagonist has dramatically turned her face away and dropped her fan onto the stage floor. Although her facial features are hidden by folds of fabric, the dancer expresses deep emotion purely through gesture and movement, conveying an undercurrent of lyrical melancholy.
The work's composition, featuring a central human figure against a stark almost graphic background, was unusual and revolutionary for Vietnamese paintings at the time. The artist’s clever juxtaposition of the dancer’s white against the darker, contrasting background draws the viewer’s attention directly to her form. Her pose, with a leg extended backwards, is composed starkly against the rigid, almost symmetrical positions of the musicians in the background and generates a delightful sense of movement to the work. This feeling of fluidity is further enhanced by the feathery and gossamer sheerness of her belt, as well as the delicate treatment of the drapes and folds in her outfit. By delineating only her ornamental accessories (belt, fan and hairclip) in a distinct, subtle aquamarine, the artist leads the eye across the surface and subliminally indicates a mutual connection between her three personal objects. Furthermore, Nguyen Khang’s intentional placement of the woman in between the two men adds balance to the composition and suggests an underlying notion of communion between the dancer and her musicians.
Danseuse is a striking work that reflects the artistic tradition of silk paintings unique to Vietnam. An ethereal lightness is generated by the translucent effect of gouache on silk, executed with varying opacities and amount of pigment. Throughout the painting, Nguyen Khang befittingly uses soft, subdued colors rendered with feather-like strokes within delicate outlines to complement the dancer who is gracious and refined. The understated beauty of this silk piece speaks to the timeless appeal of the artworks produced in the medium. Indeed Nguyen Khang’s ability to translate movement, drama and emotion all at once in an effortlessly minimalist manner contributes to the enduring elegance of Danseuse.
With its harmonious composition, graceful silhouettes and mellow palette, Danseuse is an exquisite work that appears straightforward at first, but increasingly profound in its details the more it is observed. Subtle yet undeniably charming, the piece is an exceptional example of the maturation of Vietnamese silk painting and of the pioneering talents of artists like Nguyen Khang.
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