MAI TRUNG THU (1906-1980)
MAI TRUNG THU (1906-1980)
MAI TRUNG THU (1906-1980)
MAI TRUNG THU (1906-1980)
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MAI TRUNG THU (1906-1980)

L’élégante Interrogation (The Elegant Questioning)

MAI TRUNG THU (1906-1980)
L’élégante Interrogation (The Elegant Questioning)
signed and dated ‘MAI THU 1943’ (upper left)
ink and gouache on silk laid on cardboard
55.5 x 46 cm. (21 7/8 x 18 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1943
one seal of the artist
Private Collection, France
Acquired from the above by the present owner

Brought to you by

Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay


The interior depicts the somewhat old-fashioned austerity of the wealthy residences in Hanoi or Hue, at the time. The hardwood armchair designed with French influence, the opulent horizontal drapery, the solid wood column with its base carved in Thanh-Hoa stone do not soften the reigning Confucian rigor.

Mai Trung Thu isolates us from the scene by imposing in the foreground the top of a balustrade, openwork and carved with floral motifs, but frontal, over the entire width of the painting, as if he were holding us at a distance so that we beg for his attention. The original molded and gilded frame - which the Romanet gallery used at that time - encloses and enhances the subject. Later on, Mai Thu would patiently craft and lacquer his own frames into more than simple accessories that would truly reveal the work.

The two women are clothed in ao dai. The one wearing a Tonkinese headdress is covered in a flowered shawl in two-tone silk velvet while the other with hair brushed back wears a simple necklace. Both ao dai are made in the style created in the 1930s in Hanoi by Nguyen Cat Tuong (1912-1946), also known as LeMur, an innovative couturier and artist who also graduated from the Indochina School of Fine Arts, in 1933. A member of the nationalist literary group (founded in 1932) called the Tu Luc Van Doan (Autonomous Literary Group), LeMur did not merely suggest a new fashion but offered to the urban Vietnamese woman emancipation, both physical and psychological. The clothing became a social weapon. Mai Thu, of course, supported this nationalist and liberating movement, as did almost all of the country's artists. The child has all the attributes - from the haircut to his clothes - of his environment...

This place and these figures are all elements of the Vietnamese wealthy class, that of Mai Thu’s, son of Mai Trung Càt (1857-1945), a high dignitary of the imperial court of Hué.

Subject to an exhaustive inventory, it should be noted that Mai Thu rarely represented three characters together. It is as if, here, he needed the strength of a group to deliver the meaning of his work.
The faces of the figures, which the artist has taken particular care to portray, remind us that Mai Thu was an extraordinary portraitist, first in Vietnam until 1937 and then in Macon, France, where he lived in 1940-41, after his demobilization from the French army. There he painted many portraits of the inhabitants. The Portrait of Mrs. N. D and her daughter executed in 1941 is a graceful testimony of a talent at its peak. Later, after the war, he will propose mostly smoother faces, almost interchangeable. For him, anonymity is a renunciation of identity.

These three faces, in 1943, do not affirm, they question. They are the interpreters of the painter.

The two youngest characters are grasping their chin with their hand, and if the faces look away from each other, the bodies are brought close together. The flesh as defiance of the spiritual. The entire meaning of the painting could reside in the hands of the seated woman, who could be the mother. She is the only one looking at us, with a delicate but firm authority, known of Vietnamese women, while the other two are looking away. Her hands, a distant allusion to an abhayamudra that has become secular, testify to the certainty of her seduction, but a seduction that awaits an answer. The free, useless hands of the other two protagonists slump on the hard wood of the armchair or the railing.

When he arrived in France in 1937, Mai Thu abandoned oil on canvas in favor of ink and gouache on silk, a technique, exogenous, taught (the "painting on cloth" of the official program) since the foundation of the School of Fine Arts in Hanoi and which quickly became a characteristic Vietnamese identity that Nguyen Phan Chanh will pursue, and that Le Pho and Vu Cao Dam will gradually abandon, amongst others. An affirmation of his identity.

Did Mai Thu truly settle in France? Playing the dôc huyen, this old Vietnamese instrument he mastered, did it mean sharing with others or isolating oneself in a country where artistic cosmopolitanism, and particularly musical, was the absolute norm?

In fact, this magnificent painting testifies Mai Thu's dissatisfaction. Far from his roots, he seems, unlike his two friends Le Pho and Vu Cao Dam, unable to root himself. Perhaps their journey to the West did not have the same meaning? Did Mai Thu only flee from a past love, this "Mademoiselle Phuong", of whom he has left us with superb oils, charcoals and pastel-and-chalk drawings, dated 1937? France to him, is it just another place at the difference of Le Pho and Vu Cao Dam who found a home? While Vu Cao Dam and Le Pho wanted France to surprise them, Mai Thu wanted France to understand him. A difference in the quest that resulted in a difference in integration.

Mai Thu knows that all images will disappear: immediately for those that we see, and a longer period for those that we think about. But what of the ones you dream about? In this year of 1943, Mai Thu answers us, with the elegance of a scholar, through these three characters who embody the past, the present and the future: none can be deprived of his nostalgia.

Jean-François Hubert
Senior Expert, Vietnamese Art

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