Silk Painting: An Icon of Vietnamese Art
The early works of Nguyen Phan Chanh are considered icons of Vietnamese art. Some of the most widely acknowledged include:
Choi O An Quan (Game of O An Quan); Len Dong (The sorcerer); Rua Rau Cau Ao (Washing vegetables by the pond); Em Be Cho Chim An (Little girl feeding the bird). These works were critically acclaimed and widely published and collected in 1931-1932 and quickly became the cornerstone images of Vietnamese painting.
La marchande de riz (The Rice Seller) (Lot 10), rediscovered recently in a private European collection, is one such early work dated 1932. It was sent by the artist himself under the authority of Victor Tardieu, Director of the Indochina Fine Art School to the AGINDO, (Agence economique de l'Indochine), a Parisian organisation dedicated to the promotion of Vietnamese artists out of Vietnam. In its Gadin frame (so named after the framemaker), the work is in pristine condition. On the back the label is kept in reference to the Naples' Colonial Exhibition where it was exhibited and offered for sale for 2000 French francs in 1934.
When Nguyen Phan Chanh painted the present lot, he was 40 years old and had just graduated from the Indochina Fine Art School only two years before in 1930 as the eldest of the graduating students from the first class. Indeed, in this first class, his fellow students - Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Le Van De, Nguyen Tuong Tam) were half his age, which set a generational distance between him and them. While many in the younger generation were to find their way to Paris, the art centre of the world, to carve out artistic careers, Nguyen's life and art continued to be centred in and around Vietnam, its people and sceneries.
Nguyen Phan Chanh was born on the 21st July 1892 in Trung Tiet in the Ha Thinh Province in the centre of Vietnam and was educated by his father, a Confucian scholar. When his father passed away when he was 7, he helped his mother selling his drawings in the markets as well as drawing from photos presented to him. Later on, he taught Chinese writing and in 1922, he entered the Hue Pedagogy School. He graduated in 1923 and started teaching in Dong Ba Primary School in Hue, Central Vietnam. He was the only candidate from the central region of Vietnam to be admitted in the first batch of students at the Indochina Fine Art School. As early as 1928, a stamp designed by Nguyen became the first French Indochina stamp. At the same time, encouraged by Victor Tardieu and Nam Son, he developed an interest in silk painting. The chief technical challenge in silk painting is that gouache and ink cannot be altered after the first application on a silk crepon laid down on thick paper. This technique, along with the technique used in lacquer, are the two major contributions offered by Vietnamese painters to world art. Silk painting is hence central to the identity of Vietnamese art and Nguyen Phan Chanh is one of its most recognisable practitioners.
Timeless Elegance: La marchande de riz
La marchande de riz (The Rice Seller) illustrates perfectly the talent of a painter at his best, painting the simple but evocative subjects of commoners engaged in small trades or other equally timeless moments in Vietnamese life. One recalls the lines written in Nguyen Phan Chanh's diary:
"Going out painting at dawn, I usually walked along rivers and canals. Once, I passed by a girl washing vegetables at the water's edge, her white shirt and black trousers only half-glimpsed in the morning mist. It was dreamlike and really beautiful. And I always like misty, dreamlike and poetic scenes."
These lines perfectly describe the artist's approach to the painterly subject. Beyond the specificity of the subject, Nguyen Phan Chanh applies a style of his own with strong and solid masses, for example the hat of the seller or her huge basket, with no superfluous decoration, in a style close to traditional and popular Vietnamese woodcuts. Employing a subdued brown colour palette with ink strokes elegantly outlining the head gear and the trousers of his figures, the artist creates a clever geometry of triangles and circles, creating harmony of colours, lines and washes in the painting.
Painting the feet of the stool and the don gahn (used to carry to heavy bags of rice) renders both vertical and horizontal spatial dimension in the painting. Nguyen Phan Chanh is also shown to be a perfectionist, judging by the elegant quality of the Chinese inscription and the choice of mounting the painting relatively lowered in the frame.
After 1933, he returned to his native province but Nguyen Phan Chanh will take into his own hands the promotion of his work, choosing to exhibit in the Hanoi Real Estate Bank and also in the SADEAI (Societe Annamite d'encouragement a l'art et a l'industrie). In 1945, Nguyen Phan Chanh became an executive member of Ha Tinh Province Association for Salvation of National Culture where he took up the cause of the fight for independence. His journey mirrored that of artists and other cultural workers of his generation. In those years, he painted propaganda and campaign posters, where the imageries and expression were vastly different from the timelessly classic silk paintings. When he passed away in 1984 in Hanoi, his contributions to the artistic heritage of Vietnam was suitably recognised when he received the highest posthumous award by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: the Ho Chi Minh Prize in Literature and Art.
Written by Jean-Francois Hubert, Senior Consultant, Vietnamese Art, Christie's