Le Bain de Mer (The Bath at Sea)

Le Bain de Mer (The Bath at Sea)
signed in Chinese and signed 'Le pho' (lower right); titled 'Le bain de mer' (on the reverse)
ink and gouache on silk laid on paper
88 x 56.5 cm. (34 5/8 x 22 1/4 in.)
Painted circa. 1938
one seal of the artist
Anon. Sale, Christie’s Hong Kong, 26 October 2003, lot 45
Acquired from the above sale by the present owner
Collection of Mr Tuan H Pham, California, USA

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Sylvia Cheung
Sylvia Cheung

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Lot Essay

“Erupted from one water
Like a young girl alone
In the midst of her naked dresses
Like a young girl naked
In the hands that pray for her
I salute you”
Paul Eluard (1895-1952)

To be a successful revolutionary it certainly takes conviction but also a great deal of seduction. A real artist is by definition a true transgressor: the painter, Le Pho, in this astonishing painting, perfectly demonstrates it. What makes this painting unique is that it illustrates perfectly why this mandarin's son, the Empire's column and a Viceroy of Tonkin, chose to challenge and measure his talent in France, then the centre par excellence of for any artist wanting to build his or her work. To paint is freedom for oneself and all the others.

For Le Pho and many other intellectuals at the time, the Vietnamese women must find freedom by getting away from the ruled modesty so characteristic to the stricter confines and rules of traditional Tonkinese society. Much like the depictions of these women in the painting, Le Pho challenges and breaks traditional boundaries.

The painter sets the scene on the sea side.Beyond the nakedness, it is the undressing that is interesting. The two women on the forefront, walking arm in arm, have let their hair down out of the traditional bun. The classical ao dai is replaced by clothing so sheer that the contours of the naked body are revealed but yet still covers the more private areas of the body, with a modicum of modesty. One of the ladies holds with grace an oyster in her left hand as if Le Pho wanted to suggest ladies in their posture of pearldivers to deliver a subliminal message.

A third naked lady appears at the same level in the composition even though she is set further away sitting on the edge of the water and pulling her hair back. Her presence pulls away the attention of the viewer but sets a beach scene more public to emphasize the liberation. The black through the sky and the water adds to the intensity of the scene and their choice to be free near the water.

Here Le Pho offers with his artistic brilliance a prophetic, but also a militant masterpiece in a large format on silk not often seen. The theme is supported by darker tones then what he normally uses in his compositions giving strength to the hidden message of the expressive and new ways in which the artist approaches the world.

The Tuan Pham Collection
Elegance Of The Heart And Vietnamese Masterworks

A man with a quiet smile despite heavy odds is most likely a survivor. And the collector Tuan Pham has a quiet smile that's both peaceful and subtle.

From the outset, we understand that from a long time since, he knows that words are the scars of the soul: a sense of self-restraint in his expression, choosing to hold back a little. Let's hope he will forgive us for getting him to say a few words on himself and his splendid collection, our best ally in our intrusive quest in Vietnamese fine art.

An extraordinary collection started 30 years ago:
“…during one of my leisure vacations in South Florida in the late 1990s, I was walking by a small gallery and caught a glimpse of a small painting. It was a still life composition with vase and flowers. The vase was blue and white, reminiscing of the 19th century vase exported from China. The flower was beautiful yellow and blue, and in the obscured background was the Eiffel Tower. There was a story within the painting to be discovered. As I approached the painting, I saw that it was signed in Chinese characters above the name Le Pho (which I thought was Li Pho, a Chinese name). I purchased the painting without realizing that Le Pho was an artist from Vietnam. It was the first painting in my Vietnamese collection, and it started a personal journey that reconnects me with my birthplace.”

Taking a prophetic meaning, this first purchase resembles more a manifesto in that it condenses yet encompasses all the elements that give the 20th Century Vietnamese paintings its true universal value. Vietnam, where the painter Le Pho was born in Hadong near Hanoi), France (the Eiffel Tower), China (the vase), America (South Florida), all clues that define the Vietnamese pictorial approach.

But a first stone is not enough to build a castle. Other explanations are perhaps needed to better understand Tuan Pham's pioneer's work. Any successful life consists in consoling the child we once were. It seems to particularly ring true of that for our collector.

Saigon, April 1975 - a child of thirteen years is with his brother and both are waiting to leave and flee their country. The war rumbles in the city's faubourg, a war the young man barely felt until then, as he was brought up in Dalat in an affluent family. The young Tuan then finds himself in Florida as a refugee, labelled an orphan before getting to California alone with his brother as his whole family (father, mother, and siblings) stayed in Vietnam. He will see them again only 18 years later.

Overcoming, excelling, surpassing: for Tuan Pham there were no other choices. At a young age he knew already that a quiet stoicism was needed, and that noise and complaint does not do much good. Overcoming the difficulties of the moment, concentration on self, neglecting the derisory: such was the way 'combat' was engaged and won.

Was he inspired by Nguyen Binh Khiem (1491-1585):
" In my madness I searched solitude
The clever ones can mingle in the noise of the world " ?
(Time Table)

In 1978, he met the one who would become the love and the strength of his life, Jacqueline Diem Thuy Tran. This and becoming a brilliant PhD graduate in 1989 (University of California, San Diego), would become his first milestones in what would be a path of hard work which led to continued success:
"I started Phamatech, a biotechnology company and laboratory, in 1992. My mission is to utilize new and emerging technologies to provide greater health awareness, early diagnosis of medical conditions and enhance quality of life and treatment options for patients. Now more than 25 years later, not only was I able to achieve my professional goal in building a respectable and meaningful company, I have been able to share Phamatech's success by giving back to the community. For many years, Phamatech has been a regular sponsor for numerous community events to promote different culture and arts, especially Vietnamese. We help started a non-profit group that teaches Vietnamese language and culture, and for each of the past 10 years, Phamatech has given out college scholarships to many under-privileged students to achieve their dream of attending college.”

The first part of the collection presented here includes seventeen works and nine painters. Four of these painters would leave Vietnam for a life in France where they will create, live and die. Five others would stay in Vietnam. If it appears like an equitable number between those who left and those who stayed, it is important to mention that the four are represented by twelve works and the five by five works... What really brings to attention in the collection are thematic representations: the over representation of woman, a mother (his mother, the mother of his three sons, Alan, Brian and Daniel); being in love; sisterhood; elegance and grace ; emancipation and freedom; and objects of desire or contemplation.

The expression of a strict classical Vietnam is also very present by the depictions of women in the traditional ao dai, conical hats, traditional buildings; traditional games; traditional fishing, and the civil mandarin. It is important to note that the divine is barely evoked and that the themes can intersect: in To Ngoc Van's masterpiece Les Désabusées for example where the elegance of the pose doesn't obliterate the power of the message (and its quest for meaning). Vu Cao Dam's Amoureux (Lovers) is also an allusion to the Kim Vân Kiêu.

There are no landscape paintings either as if the paintings were a mirror in which the collector could gaze at past times.

The following works featured here are masterpieces, executed by painters at the height and best of their art. To complement the works, we have added poems extracts to enhance and explain the works as a tribute to Tuan Pham, a lover of art and poetry. As a collector of such beautiful paintings on this journey here, we step aside and let him say the last few words here.

“I have grown attached to many paintings, but like the artist who painted it, it really isn't my painting, and it should continue to find its place among collectors. My journey is complete, and it's time for someone else to start his or her own personal journey.”

Jean-François Hubert
Senior Expert, Vietnamese Art

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