Nguyen Gia Trí was born in 1908 in Hadong, near Hanoi, and spent the end of his days in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The artist was educated in northern Vietnam but established himself as an artist in the south. While he adopted Western techniques, he applied these in the uniquely Oriental medium of lacquer. As a patriot, he was a militant nationalist but was also honoured by the People's Committee in Ho Chi Minh City. Thus, he was at once an embodiment of Vietnam and all that it wasn't. At first, these dichotomies co-existed uneasily, but just as the nation was searching for and establishing its identity, so did these contradictions come together to personify the Vietnamese people of the new millennia.
Women in the Garden (Lot 2025) by Nguyen Gia Trí is extraordinary for at least four reasons: one, for its technique, perfectly complex and accomplished, of a master at the peak of his career in the 1980s; for another, for its impressive size, measuring 120by 185.5 cm, borne of careful conception and execution; but also for its subject, distinctively Vietnamese and elegantly realized, with the women especially graceful and dreamlike painted into a landscape that, while appearing otherworldly, is painted with an attention to detail of a keen observer of the physical world. Given the length of time required to complete a lacquer painting, Nguyen Gia Trí was an artist who produced few works, attesting to the rarity of the present work, Women in the Garden.
The leading artist in Vietnamese lacquer, Nguyen Gia Trí is not only a perfect practitioner of the art, but also an exacting theorist. His life epitomizes the artistic and political story of 20th-century Vietnam, and to admire a work of Gia Trí is to immerse in the enduring elegance and beauty of Vietnam, and be absorbed by the country's inspiring history.
After graduating from the Indochinese College of Fine Arts, Nguyen Gia Trí became part of the Tu Luc Van Doàn, or the Self-Reliance Literary Group, a literary movement that produced poetry and prose shaped by nationalist and anticolonial sentiments. Gia Trí contributed to two magazines, Phong Hóa (Customs) and Ngày Nay (Today), both of which attracted a wide readership. In the first art exhibition organized by the Société Annamite d'Encouragement à l'Art et à l'Industrie (SADEAI), the Annamese Society for the Support of Art and Industry, founded in 1935, his works were second to none. He met quickly with success: a local French collector, Madam Drouin, became a patron, and in 1938, he obtained his first official commission from the Governor-General Brévié, to decorate his palace in Hanoi, the present-day residence of the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 1943, he exhibited in the 'Salon Unique' Fine Arts Exhibition in Hanoi to rave reviews.
The Hanoi-based French art collector and critic, Claude Mahoudeau wrote:
"Here at the front of the room are the lacquers of Mr. Nguyen-Gia- Trí. We have the good fortune to come across a passage written by the Goncourt brothers that could well have been for these lacquers:
'He has redefined grace..., this grace is the little something that clothes a woman of charm, of coquetry, of a beauty beyond physical beauty. This grace is a subtlety that resembles the smile of a line, the soul of a form, the spirituality of an object. All the seductions of the female at ease, the langour, the idleness, the strut, the lengthening, the nonchalance, the cadence of the poses, the suppleness of the feminine body and the play of the slender fingers on the grip of the fans.'
There is nothing left to do but admire the creations of an artist whose contribution to this exhibition is considerable. The artist's works dazzled everyone."
In the years after the end of Second World War, Gia Trí travelled to Hong Kong with Jean Volang before returning to Vietnam to settle down in Saigon, where he led a studious, reclusive life dedicated to honing the craft of lacquer painting.
The present lot, Women in the Garden, is painted on bleached resin obtained from the Chinese lacquer tree (Rhus vernicifera), found in the north of Vietnam. Educated in Western painting, engraving and inlaying methods, Gia Tr? pioneered new techniques for preparing, polishing and colouring lacquer . Limited by the colours available for their work, with only brown, black and shades of red to choose from, Gia Trí, along with other lacquer painters produced new colours, notably from crushed egg shells to create hues of white. In Women in the Garden, Gia Trí s adroit use of egg shells gives the work a wider range of colours.
The lacquer painting process is a laborious one, involving the application of multiple layers of coloured and clear lacquer, and waiting for each layer to dry before applying the next. After all the layers are applied, the artist then uses fine sandpaper, along with charcoal powder and human hair, to carefully rub at different parts of the painting to obtain the desired colour in each.
In a letter to Claude Mahoudeau about a lacquer painting the artist was commissioned to do in the late 1950s, Nguyen Gia Trí gave him insight into the lacquer painting process,
"... there is in your painting a problem that can be resolved but only with great patience. In certain parts of the painting, the broken egg shells are encrusted in a background of vermillion red. To achieve the desired intensity of this colour, at least three layers are applied. The challenge is to make sure that the last layer of colour, applied when the egg shells are already inlaid in cavities carved out in the lacquer, only just coats the edge of each of the broken egg shells or is at least evenly spread over the web of cracks formed by the egg shells. It will not do to have this final layer produce a border of a visibly darker shade of red and form a ring around each piece of the broken egg shell. Another difficulty: the lacquer shrinks on drying while the egg shell does not. There is thus a need for the final layer of lacquer to dry as much as possible before the painting is sanded down and polished. I have to stress that impatience will be at a high, as one never knows when the lacquer will dry completelyK it could take years. As time goes by, the lacquer will shrink, and the effect of this contraction can be seen against the egg shells. This is way I always think that the use of egg shells on lacquer is an extremely delicate operation."
One can compare the present lot, Women in the Garden to the well-known work, The North-Centre-South Flower Garden, a work that, like Women in the Garden, features women against a dreamy landscape. The North-Centre-South Flower Garden was acquired by the People's Committee of Ho Chi Minh City for a hefty price and is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Ho Chi Minh City. This work has nine panels and was executed between 1970 and 1990, overlapping the time of execution as the present lot.
The composition of the work in the museum's collection is however different from Women in the Garden, as no structures are featured in the latter. Rather, ethereal beauties are painted against a bucolic yet mystical setting realized in a profusion of colours, with gold shimmering throughout the piece. While each panel in The North-Centre-South Flower Garden is no wider than 65cm, Women in the Garden is, uniquely, composed of a grand single panel measuring nearly two metres across. This change in dimensions allows the subjects-- and not the setting-- to become the focal point of the work.
The spatial recomposition in Women in a Garden, conscientiously conceived to achieve the transcendental feel of the piece, explains why Gia Trí, whose works are so sought-after, kept this superlative work in his personal collection. It was only when he met with the present owner, a former ambassador to Vietnam, whose love for Gia Trí 's work so moved the artist, that he decided to part with this masterpiece, knowing that its new owner would appreciate and promote the Vietnamese spirit embodied in Women in a Garden.
(Written by Jean-Francois Hubert, Senior Consultant, Vietnamese Art, Christie's)