Luong Xuan Nhi holds a prominent place within 20th Century Vietnamese art history. A graduate from the Hanoi Fine Arts School in 1937, and an active participant of the Société d’Encouragement à l’Art et à l’Industrie (SADEAI, Annamese Society for the Encouragement of Art and Industry) a competition running yearly from 1934-1939 that granted bursaries to students pursuing the arts. He was also a founding member of Foyer de l’Art Annamite (FARTA, Home of Annamese Art) alongside his contemporaries To Ngoc Van, Tran Van Can, and Le Van De. Luong Xuan Nhi left behind an exceptional body of work, made all the more precious due to its rarity.
Immediately capturing the attention of the viewer in this magnificent gouache and ink on silk painting is the contrast between a gentle young woman resting on her knees before a massive bronze bell that commands the greater part of the composition. Further extrapolating the fine balance between strength and fragility, the wide, strong beams of the rafters contrast with the fine cracks in the floorboards. Predominantly using soft, chestnut tones, Luong achieves in evoking an atmosphere of calm in the painting.
The central figure is not a nun, but a layperson, presumably from the upper class – her slender silhouette, make-up, carefully chosen apparel, elegant and disciplined posture, distances her from the outward appearance of working-class women of the time. The act of striking a bell is an image rife with symbolism, a common feature of the Vietnamese pictorial tradition of the 1930s and 1940s. This work is situated within the historical context of the pre-War Romanticism that was elaborated most notably by the ‘Tu Luc Van Doan’ group, a literary movement founded in 1933 by the authors Khai Hung and Nhat Linh. It is worthy to note that Luong Xuan Nhi later espoused strong Socialist views as is shown by his numerous trips to Eastern European countries and his constant participation in various official organizations.
While we often equate the triumph of Vietnamese painting with a positive confrontation between the East-West, or Vietnam and France, the present lot reminds us of the influence and inspiration of traditional Chinese painting. Along the bottom right corner of the painting, Luong writes in elegant Chinese script an extract of the following poem, ‘Escale nocturne au pont des Erables’ (Nocturnal stop-over on the bridge of Maples) by Zhang Ji (712 or 715 - 779) the famous Chinese poet from Hubei who wrote :
Beyond the ramparts
Of the old Suzhou
Cold Mount’s Monastery:
Resonates through the night
The sound of the great bell
reaches my wandering rowboat.
But let us pledge that this young woman, Vietnamese and true to her time, is thinking of the female poet Ho Xuan Huong (who died circa 1772-1822) :
Bell of sadness, why do you ring alone?
Ah! How all of thee sounds revive my suffering
And my rancor that destiny be so set against me.
Men of talent and beautiful girls, where do you meet?
This body consents not as yet to grow old.
This work of a great painter at his best in his art is not only a political manifesto for future generations, a graphic poetry but mostly Late Afternoon Chimes is a major art work of the 20th century in Vietnamese painting.
Senior Consultant, Vietnamese Art