"My body is white and also round
Seven float and three sink in the unripe water
No matter how the handshake me
There is still a pure heart within me."
Hô Xuân Hong (dead in 1822)
This superlative masterwork is of great historical and artistic significance - both marking a milestone in the artist's work as well as in Vietnamese painting.
When Le Pho painted this highly realistic nude in Hanoi in 1931, he was already an artist recognized by the artistic community in that city. Having obtained his degree from l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts the year before, he was preparing that year to assist the school's director, Victor Tardieu, in presenting works from the school to the French and European public at the Colonial Exposition in Paris in 1931.
One wonders - Did he feel already that he would settle six years later in France and live there twice as long there than his current living years in in Vietnam? He would marry a French lady, Paulette, and eventually spend the rest of his life in Paris.
To paint a nude was inconceivable and taboo to the Confucian mindset of the times in Vietnam.
However, one of the essential elements in the Hanoi Fine Arts School's training follow an European tradition from the 20th Century. The models — all male — were mostly prisoners taken out of jail for a few hours…) The teachers had made it clear to their students that the representation of a nude was the only proof of an artist's real talent.
Nudes are therefore very rare in Vietnamese painting.
In this fascinating painting, the artist's will and his virtuosity are clearly expressed. His great wish was to break with the Confucian past which, pictorially, had created nothing. One can but imagine the revolutionary intent carried by this painting of Le Pho's, which inherited nothing from its creator's conservative background, and yet has forged a resplendent future. Essentially, Le Pho forged new ground and broke away from traditional norms, highlighting the complexity and vision of his talent.
The flowers in the vase remind us that beauty is evanescent and that time withers everything. This woman, a European, offers her nudity most intimately but hides her breasts in an ambiguous gesture. Is she hiding herself — symbolically — to be 'more' naked? Is this gift of herself so shameless that the sheet becomes a shroud? Le Pho reshaped the exotic: this Caucasian woman, naked, abandoned, with a face so beautiful and serene, is his and for him alone. French culture came to Vietnam, Le Pho seized upon it, modelled it, and made it into a theme of action and reaction. Thus, began a new quest, which marked the passing of the world of traditional cultural boundaries and the birth of a new borderless cultural world order.
Le Pho liked this painting so much, that he took it with him to France in 1937 and kept it in the small apartment that he rented in Paris. In 1940 war broke out between France and Germany and the painter enrolled in the French army to combat Nazi barbarism. He explained to his landlady that he would soon be back to pay the rent and left his paintings as a guarantee. In fact, his landlady finally sold the painting to settle his debt.
The Tuan Pham Collection
Elegance Of The Heart And Vietnamese Masterworks
A man with a quiet smile despite heavy odds is most likely a survivor. And the collector Tuan Pham has a quiet smile that's both peaceful and subtle.
From the outset, we understand that from a long time since, he knows that words are the scars of the soul: a sense of self-restraint in his expression, choosing to hold back a little. Let's hope he will forgive us for getting him to say a few words on himself and his splendid collection, our best ally in our intrusive quest in Vietnamese fine art.
An extraordinary collection started 30 years ago:
“…during one of my leisure vacations in South Florida in the late 1990s, I was walking by a small gallery and caught a glimpse of a small painting. It was a still life composition with vase and flowers. The vase was blue and white, reminiscing of the 19th century vase exported from China. The flower was beautiful yellow and blue, and in the obscured background was the Eiffel Tower. There was a story within the painting to be discovered. As I approached the painting, I saw that it was signed in Chinese characters above the name Le Pho (which I thought was Li Pho, a Chinese name). I purchased the painting without realizing that Le Pho was an artist from Vietnam. It was the first painting in my Vietnamese collection, and it started a personal journey that reconnects me with my birthplace.”
Taking a prophetic meaning, this first purchase resembles more a manifesto in that it condenses yet encompasses all the elements that give the 20th Century Vietnamese paintings its true universal value. Vietnam, where the painter Le Pho was born in Hadong near Hanoi), France (the Eiffel Tower), China (the vase), America (South Florida), all clues that define the Vietnamese pictorial approach.
But a first stone is not enough to build a castle. Other explanations are perhaps needed to better understand Tuan Pham's pioneer's work. Any successful life consists in consoling the child we once were. It seems to particularly ring true of that for our collector.
Saigon, April 1975 - a child of thirteen years is with his brother and both are waiting to leave and flee their country. The war rumbles in the city's faubourg, a war the young man barely felt until then, as he was brought up in Dalat in an affluent family. The young Tuan then finds himself in Florida as a refugee, labelled an orphan before getting to California alone with his brother as his whole family (father, mother, and siblings) stayed in Vietnam. He will see them again only 18 years later.
Overcoming, excelling, surpassing: for Tuan Pham there were no other choices. At a young age he knew already that a quiet stoicism was needed, and that noise and complaint does not do much good. Overcoming the difficulties of the moment, concentration on self, neglecting the derisory: such was the way 'combat' was engaged and won.
Was he inspired by Nguyen Binh Khiem (1491-1585):
" In my madness I searched solitude
The clever ones can mingle in the noise of the world " ?
In 1978, he met the one who would become the love and the strength of his life, Jacqueline Diem Thuy Tran. This and becoming a brilliant PhD graduate in 1989 (University of California, San Diego), would become his first milestones in what would be a path of hard work which led to continued success:
"I started Phamatech, a biotechnology company and laboratory, in 1992. My mission is to utilize new and emerging technologies to provide greater health awareness, early diagnosis of medical conditions and enhance quality of life and treatment options for patients. Now more than 25 years later, not only was I able to achieve my professional goal in building a respectable and meaningful company, I have been able to share Phamatech's success by giving back to the community. For many years, Phamatech has been a regular sponsor for numerous community events to promote different culture and arts, especially Vietnamese. We help started a non-profit group that teaches Vietnamese language and culture, and for each of the past 10 years, Phamatech has given out college scholarships to many under-privileged students to achieve their dream of attending college.”
The first part of the collection presented here includes seventeen works and nine painters. Four of these painters would leave Vietnam for a life in France where they will create, live and die. Five others would stay in Vietnam. If it appears like an equitable number between those who left and those who stayed, it is important to mention that the four are represented by twelve works and the five by five works... What really brings to attention in the collection are thematic representations: the over representation of woman, a mother (his mother, the mother of his three sons, Alan, Brian and Daniel); being in love; sisterhood; elegance and grace ; emancipation and freedom; and objects of desire or contemplation.
The expression of a strict classical Vietnam is also very present by the depictions of women in the traditional ao dai, conical hats, traditional buildings; traditional games; traditional fishing, and the civil mandarin. It is important to note that the divine is barely evoked and that the themes can intersect: in To Ngoc Van's masterpiece Les Désabusées for example where the elegance of the pose doesn't obliterate the power of the message (and its quest for meaning). Vu Cao Dam's Amoureux (Lovers) is also an allusion to the Kim Vân Kiêu.
There are no landscape paintings either as if the paintings were a mirror in which the collector could gaze at past times.
The following works featured here are masterpieces, executed by painters at the height and best of their art. To complement the works, we have added poems extracts to enhance and explain the works as a tribute to Tuan Pham, a lover of art and poetry. As a collector of such beautiful paintings on this journey here, we step aside and let him say the last few words here.
“I have grown attached to many paintings, but like the artist who painted it, it really isn't my painting, and it should continue to find its place among collectors. My journey is complete, and it's time for someone else to start his or her own personal journey.”
Senior Expert, Vietnamese Art