VU CAO DAM (1908-2000)
VU CAO DAM (1908-2000)
VU CAO DAM (1908-2000)
VU CAO DAM (1908-2000)
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VU CAO DAM (1908-2000)

Tête (Head)

VU CAO DAM (1908-2000)
Tête (Head)
incised ‘vu cao dam’ (on the back of the neck)
terracotta sculpture, with artist’s base
sculpture: 23 (H) x 13 x 12.5 cm. (9 x 5 1/8 x 4 7/8 in.)
base: 10 x 10 x 9.6 cm. (3 7/8 x 3 7/8 x 3 3/4 in.)
Executed circa 1940
unique work
The Artist's studio, France
Hotel Drouot, Paris, 1990s
Private collection, Philadelphia (acquired from the above)
Thence by descent to the previous owner
Hindman Auctions, 17 October 2023, lot 89
Acquired at the above sale by the previous owner
Private collection, USA (acquired from the above by the present owner)
Further details

As Le Pho himself told me—and in so doing, demonstrated a very elegant modesty: "Vu Cao Dam is the greatest Vietnamese artist". Looking back at the long life shared by both artists, through their career and their friendship, in Vietnam and in France, the appreciation takes on its full value.

Le Pho worked in oil on canvas, gouache and ink on silk, and lacquer (which he soon abandoned because he was allergic to it). Mai Thu switched from oil on canvas to gouache and ink on silk. Vu Cao Dam was the only one of the three to practice sculpture in addition to gouache and ink on silk.

As these three sculptures (lots 228, 229 and 230) perfectly demonstrate, this is a field in which he remains unrivalled to this day.

Although he sculpted far less than he painted, sculpture was his life's work. Humorously, when he lived in Vence - where he didn't sculpt - he would say to his guests, with his gentle, luminous smile... :

“One day, I'll return to the earth” (a French word play on the earth he moulds and the earth we return to after we die).

At a very young age, his unprecedented talent burst through.

This is demonstrated, for example, by the sublime Buste de mon père, a 1927 bronze (which would appear four years later at the Exposition Coloniale (see Catherine Noppe and Jean-François Hubert, La fleur du pêcher et l'oiseau d'azur. Arts et civilisation au Vietnam, Musée royal de Mariemont, 2002, reproduced in catalogue p. 164, and Tardieu's list infra)). When he executed this bronze, he was just 19 years old. A year later, we made the bronze Gallinaces (cf. Jean François Hubert (Dir.) L'Âme du Vietnam, Paris, 1996, p. 72).

Victor Tardieu was so impressed by his talent that he selected seven sculptures by the artist for the 1931 Exposition Coloniale, including this Buste de jeune fille annamite (Bust of an Annamite Girl).

Vu Cao Dam's style, from 1927 to the early '30s, expressed a very ethnically typified representation (referring to the titles of the works...), using mass-volumes and rather smooth surfaces.

Cubic wooden bases for the heads would remain a constant in his work.

The three unique sculptures offered sum up the artist's immense talent.

In the early 1930s, he moved towards a less figurative style: less gendered, less ethnic, more universal, which in those days still meant more Western. Our Tête (Head) (lot 230), circa 1940, is a fine example of this, as The Pugilist by Paul Landowski (1875-1961) would not have contested.

Then, as if struggling against the nagging feeling that the memory of the “homeland” is fading, the artist returns to his “roots”. Themes are “re-Vietnamised," and execution reflects a lesser appeal to the "masses." Detail is accentuated.

This is beautifully illustrated by our Maternité (Maternity) (lot 228), whose slanted eyes, Tonkin headdress and ao dai are easily identifiable. Volumes are smaller and the surface is no longer smooth.

Between reminiscence and quotation?

A great tenderness too, like a refusal of Confucian austerity.

Vu Cao Dam, for this Maternité (Maternity), as for Portrait du fils d’un ami (Portrait of a Friend’s Son) (lot 229), certainly proceeds by modelling, but also by incisions and striations using wooden spatulas, some with wire ends.

Michel Vu, the artist's son and an artist himself, born in 1941, gives us an unedited, first-hand account:

“I must have been seven or eight years old, and I remember my father setting up his sculptures—clay figures or busts—by raising a circular shape that became the base of the sculpture; for a head, it was the neck.

He would then assemble the sculpture by turning it on the wheel and using his fingertips to add small pieces of clay, sometimes the size of a lentil, when he reached the finish, which he would sometimes wet with his saliva.

He'd say to me, 'You really mustn't get any air bubbles, as that would cause the sculpture to burst during firing. (private communication, May 4, 2024)

This upward modelling, this finishing touch where every gesture is an offering, creates in Maternité (Maternity), in woman and child, this attentive gaze, this charming smile, this fine nose, this half-open mouth and graceful neck. And in the Portrait du fils d’un ami (Portrait of a Friend’s Son), he creates that falsely aloof expression intended to mask the shyness inherent in age.

As we can see, Vu Cao Dam was a free man, the sole master of his art, with a lifelong poetic refusal to be essentialised.

Jean-François Hubert
Senior Expert, Vietnamese Art

Brought to you by

Emmanuelle Chan
Emmanuelle Chan Associate Vice President, Specialist, Head of Day and Online Sales

Lot Essay

This lot has been authenticated by the Findlay Institute.

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