signed and dated 'Ng. Tri 68' (lower right)
lacquer on panel
80 x 40 cm. (31 1/2 x 15 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1968
A commissioned gift to the grandparents of the previous owner
Private Collection, Sweden
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Collection, Bangkok, Thailand

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

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Lot Essay

Lacquer is an art form so intrinsic and unique to Vietnam, and none handle the medium better than master artist Nguyen Gia Tri. Born near Hanoi (Hadong) in 1908, Les Élégantes featured here is an enchanting and remarkable example of Gia Tri's artistry and prowess in this art form. He takes us on a journey, not only as a great artist in this field, but also as a theorist who through hard work, epitomized the artistic and political Vietnamese history of the 20th Century, to share the elegance and beauty of his country and its inspiring story. Les Élégantes , a truly exceptional and astonishing lacquer executed in 1968, requires us to try and understand in more depth not only the style and the artist but also the background of the painting and its creation.

In 1924, Victor Tardieu founded The Indochinese College of Fine Arts, where he gathered a generation of the finest painters recognised in the world today. In 1928, when Gia Tri entered the school, he mingled with artists such as Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, and Nguyen Phan Chanh in their fourth year, and To Ngoc Van, Vu Cao Dam in their third. And Nguyen Gia Tri matriculated in the same year as Nguyen Tong Lan and Nguyen Cat Tuong, more famously known as the inventor of the Vietnamese national costume, the ao dai.

Sadly, Gia Tri had to leave the college unexpectedly in 1930, leaving not only his talented kindred classmates, but also teachers such as Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971), who headed the painting department but dedicated most of his life, and leaving as his greatest legacy - the revival and encouragement of his students to perfect the art of lacquer. This departure meant Gia Tri had to give up, among other things, the opportunity to participate in group exhibitions at the college, which always attracted an influential, cultured audience.

Very few people knew the true reason for this departure. Gia Tri had become a member of the Vi?t Nam Qu?c Dân Ð?ng (VNQDD), the Vietnamese National Party. On 10 February 1930, there was a mutiny in Yen Bai, a province in Northern Vietnam. This was an uprising of Vietnamese soldiers in the French colonial army, together with civilian supporters from the VNQDD. It was the largest revolt against French colonial rule in Vietnam. Following the mutiny, in keeping with the spirit of his resistance to the French administration in Vietnam, Gia Tri decided to renounce all French influence in his life. It was this conviction that precipitated his departure from the college that had been set up under the auspices of the French Governor-General of Indochina. Eventually, it was Victor Tardieu, the director of the college and an artist himself, who persuaded Gia Tri to see that his obligations as a patriot should not stand in the way of his art. And so it was that in 1931, Gia Tri rejoined the college to finish his diploma in 1936, along with Tran Van Can and Luu Van Sin.

After graduation, Gia Tri became part of the T? L?c Van Ðoàn, or the Self-Reliance Literary Group, a literary movement that produced poetry and prose shaped by nationalist and anticolonial sentiments. Gia Tri contributed to two magazines, Phong Hoa (Customs) and Ngay Nay (Today), 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 and made a big impression. He met quickly with success amongst local French collectors, and in 1938, he obtained his first official commission from the Governor-General Brevie, 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. The well-known critic of art, Claude Mahoudeau, wrote:

"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 languor, 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."

Gia Tri, being fully immersed in the events of his time, passively or actively, winning or defeated, witnessed many tragedies of war: the war for independence, the isolation in Hong Kong, the separation of North and South Vietnam. Much of his work will interpret what was an acceleration of history triggered by some major political upheavals. The process of creating a lacquer is extremely laborious and technical. There is first an application of multiple layers of coloured and clear lacquer, and then having to let one layer dry before applying the next one. After each layer is 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 fact, this particular lacquer painting was a specific order made by Maurice Rossi in 1968. At first, it appears to be an unusual piece not perfectly in line with Gia Tri’s body of work, therefore, we then realise that, even in this lacquer, and he remains very faithful to his themes in a constant way.

The two ladies walking together, their Western hairstyle, almost dancing with ample gestures, a scene which vastly differs from the Vietnamese classical style usually found in Gia Tri’s representations. We see that more in the young lady found on the bottom left of our painting, with her posture, her hairstyle and in her expressions. One of the trees seem to be in blossom as the other one appears to be in agony, may be witnessing the death, in the near future, of Gia Tri's Vietnam as he knew it and as he dreamt it. That year the Têt happened to be sanguinary.

This painting is awash with contrasts in a poetic atmosphere, literally an explosion of colours - gold, cinnabar (a colour associated with nobility), and the white of egg-shell in a mix of flat, intense and glossy effect defined by very smooth lines to insert his subjects in a floating ambiance.

A unique artwork, dedicated, personalized, a manifesto offered by the best artist in lacquer ever throughout Vietnam’s history.

Jean-Francois Hubert, Senior Consultant,
Vietnamese Art

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