Vietnamese Ladies

Vietnamese Ladies
signed ‘NG. Tri’ (lower right)
lacquer on panel
120 x 180 cm. (47 1/4 x 70 7/8 in.)
Executed circa 1972
Commissioned in 1971 from the artist by Mrs Linda Phan, Saigon then Seattle, USA
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2009
Private Collection, Asia

Brought to you by

Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

Everyone knows that Nguyen Gia Tri is the uncontested master of lacquer in Vietnam: his technique (so very subtle,) which he enriched throughout his life, and his themes, objectively Vietnamese and perfectionist, yet never sickly, amply evidence his mastery.

Opposed or encouraged, bullied or lauded, Nguyen Gia Tri has always been the cantor of a single cause: capturing the essence of eternal Vietnam.

The work (Lot 14) presented here is a private commission offered to the artist at the beginning of the 1970s. Accustomed to repeating layers whilst alternating the themes, the painter however offers us here a representation, definitively classic in his works, of these beautiful Vietnamese ladies in ao dai walking as a group, playing traditional music, singing or lazing about amidst phantasmagorical albeit Vietnamese vegetation. The three ladies on the right, one making use of a Dàn Ty Bà (pipa), the two others rendering tally card songs. form a Ca trú , a form of entertainment combining entertaining wealthy people as well as performing religious songs for the royal court, and thus preserving the sacredness of this tradition which was so important in Nguyen Gia Tri’s eyes.

Nevertheless, a touch of 1970s modernity is certainly present: the hairstyles of the three walking women are more brusque and their strides are freer compared to former representations of the artist which could sometimes be slightly rigid. This novel development is also expressed in a more stylised treatment of the vegetation. Finally, the extent to which the reclining lady is molded in her dress seems to hint at, rather than evoke, feminine charm.

What also makes our panel so original is its size in one piece, rather than an assemblage of different panels. What is also rare is the great painter’s willingness to use his entire palette. The execution of the eggshell is perfect: as evidenced by these harmonious faces whose eyes and mouths are not artificial but are elements of a distinguished charm. Amongst other aspects, the use of cinnabar, the whites in scrolls, the diffused blue and the use of discreet gold all confirm the existence of a major work served by a perfect technique. One also sees the care taken by the artist when executing a work when he is fulfilling a private commission; our work brings to mind the work from the former collection of Claude Mahoudeau (Christie’s Hong Kong 20 May 2015 lot 5) which also evidences, albeit at an earlier time (1956-59), of a comparable willingness to innovate artistically and technically.

My friend the painter Jean Volang, the companion in arms of Nguyen Gia Tri, with whom he lived in Hong Kong on the island of Cheung Chau, liked to talk to me about his friend “Tri”. He described him to me as “a man in search of the absolute”.

Nobody doubts that the lacquer which we have the honour to present here forms part of this “search of the absolute”. Claude Mahoudeau, the great art critic, had already written in Salon Unique (Hanoi, 1943) when describing Nguyen Gia Tri: “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.”

Jean-François Hubert
Senior Expert, Vietnamese Art

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