LE PHO (1907-2001)
LE PHO (1907-2001)
LE PHO (1907-2001)
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LE PHO (1907-2001)

Le Bain (The Bath)

LE PHO (1907-2001)
Le Bain (The Bath)
signed in Chinese and signed again ‘le pho’ (upper left)
ink and gouache on silk 
40 x 39 cm. (15 3⁄4 x 15 3⁄8 in.) 
Painted circa 1938
one seal of the artist
Private Collection, Paris
Nice Gallery, Nice
Private Collection, Asia

Brought to you by

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

Lot Essay


Le Bain (The Bath) by Le Pho, an exquisite gouache and ink on silk, is one of the painter's most important works. It is an expression of his art at its peak, but more importantly he gives us, with the subtle discretion and elegance that characterizes his life, his philosophy of the world.

We can date the work to around 1938. The Pho is in the full power of his art, stimulated by his move, voluntary and conquering, to Paris, the previous year (1937). He does not know yet that he will live there until his death in 2001 without ever returning to Vietnam again.

The Pho depicts an outdoor scene with three characters. On the somewhat phantasmagorical shore of a body of water rippling with waves, upon which a wooden and bamboo pontoon protrudes, a confrontation of nudity takes place. Le Pho chooses subtle tones of gouache, allows himself the mixtures of color, modifies his use of classical ink black as testified by the pants of the lady.

Three nudities: that of the child, total, of the young woman -- audacious -- and of the third character (to which we shall return) -- fundamental.

The child who seems to be freezing is of a realistic nudity, his hands crossed on his chest leaning towards the woman conveys the cold that seizes him.

The woman is wearing make-up: her lips are covered in a carmine red, her eyebrows plucked, her cheeks a lightly rose. She wears the classic Tonkin headdress. She has left the tunic of her ao dai far away and has kept only the black pants supported by a white fabric belt. We can surreptitiously catch a glimpse of a breast. Her shoes are curiously oriented in the opposite direction of the pontoon. They correspond to the new model of shoes imposed in the 1930s, in the Vietnamese bourgeoisie. Made of a light wood, the Wrightia Annamensis, they give the modern Vietnamese woman a more aerial allure, complementary to the grace of the new ao dai created with undeniable success by the painter Nguyen Cat Tuong and promoted by Le Pho.

The figure at the top right is the least visible of the three. Yet it is he who gives a particular meaning to our painting... Let us observe his hairstyle, the rough shape of his body, his gesture. Le Pho makes it certainly allusive almost hidden by the tree upon which are hung the clothes of the group. This man is naked. A revolution in the work of Le Pho because, subject to inventory, he is the only adult man ever depicted naked by the painter.

The painter does not give us any indication of the relationship between the different protagonists. Yet this is essential for the full understanding of the work. Are they brother and sister? A mother with her two sons? The father, the mother and their child? Strangers to each other? In the Confucian context in which Le Pho had been educated, this nudity from a societal point of view, if it is acceptable for the child, remains shocking for the woman and unimaginable for the man. We will never know the original intention of the artist. But what we must remember is the true cultural and political transgression that he expresses here. Pho was a sympathizer of the "Tu Luc Van Doan" (Autonomous Literary Group), a progressive Vietnamese nationalist movement whose thesis he embraced. This movement was created in 1932 and four (Nguyen Tuong Tam, Nguyen Tuong Lam, Nguyen Gia Tri and Nguyen Thu Lê) of the seven founding members were disciples at the “Fine Arts of Hanoi” (two without diplomas). The emancipation of women and the refusal of the social anonymity of bodies were amongst the values of this movement.

Le Pho will translate this cultural nationalism not into political nationalism like his friends who remained in Vietnam but into artistic nationalism imported into France. A painting is also a manifesto.

Le Bain, a magical work, bears witness to this.

Jean-François Hubert
Senior Expert, Vietnamese Art

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