Vu Cao Dam,1950 : « L’Anneau de Jade » or the primacy of the rite over the event.

3 November 2020 Off By Jean-François Hubert

Throughout his life, Vu Cao Dam often said that his works were essentially drawn from Kim Vân Kiêu, perceived by many as the very emblem of the Vietnamese soul at its deepest.  Although the Kim Vân Kiêu is a dramatic story, Vu Cao Dam only illustrated the rare moments of happiness, love and serenity found in the tale.

Vu Cao Dam came from a family of learned men in which each boy was given a name related to eloquence. It was a tradition in certain distinguished Vietnamese families to give such names to underline a particular virtue found within the family.  Thus, Vu Cao Dam means « High Words ». His father’s name, Vu Dinh Thi, means « the Erudite Poet », which suited him perfectly as he was a remarkable linguist who founded a school of translators in Hanoi. Coincidentally, he also represented the Tonkin at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. Vu Cao Dam, naturally considered the grand, scholarly Vietnamese tradition as a reference on which he acted upon.

Vu Cao Dam - L'Anneau de Jade
Vu Cao Dam – L’Anneau de Jade

In the Kim Vân Kiêu, the romantic young  Kim climbs over a tall garden wall in order to talk to the girl, Kiêu, he loves, thereby promising to marry her. Vu Cao Dam could not be contended by simply illustrating the scene from the highly popular book in the present painting. Instead, he added his own personal touch, thus giving the scene a second life. The scene evoked – and not described – here, appears in chapter V (« The exchange of oaths ») : Kim rented a pavilion next to the residence of Kiêu, and « he watched the eastern wall, day after day, without stopping ». The story tells us « that he went around the wall » inhaling the perfume of his beauty. The wall is described to us as « mossy with brocade ». And he found a gold pin on a peach tree that he knows belongs to his sweetheart. And still behind the wall, aloud he proclaims to Kiêu that he will give him back the pin. He goes home to get a pair of bracelets in gold and a square of silk scarf. And « by the ladder of clouds, he quickly crosses the wall ».

Our painting takes place at this point in the story. 

We can easily identify the modifications made by the painter to the original text which range from the tree itself – which is a cherry tree (allusion to the Têt) – to this jade ring which drastically replaces the « two of gold ».  It should be seen as a preeminence in the spirit of Vu Cao Dam, the scholar over the lover because the « Book of Rites » tells us that « the superior man carries the jade on him ».

The drastic inclusion of jade in the scene, based on Vu Cao Dam’s perfect knowledge of the symbolism in the material, makes us think that it gives a personal meaning to the scene: the literate must take precedence over the emotional, the rite over the event.  A life is not seized but is ordered.

Further on, the text no longer mentions the two bracelets, then Kiêu against the gold pin, bestows Kim with an embroidered handkerchief and a fan that she wore on her. From this reciprocal exchange is born the mutual promise of a near marriage. 

In a personal communication (in 2006), Michel Vu, the artist’s son, kindly commented on this work and gave us, in addition to a different interpretation, some very interesting personal comments:

«  I often heard my father say that his inspiration came from Kim Vân Kiều (The Tale of Kiều), an early-19th century poem considered by many to be the true expression of the Vietnamese soul. An epic love-song, it illustrates the intimate and complex relations between the Vietnamese and Chinese cultures. Kim Vân Kiều is a narrative of love and adventures, often dramatic, whose tender and happy passages, so similar to his own artistic sensibility, inspired Vu Cao Dams work. (This was also his way of turning his back on the violence of war, of rejecting the hatred to which so many intellectuals succumbed — when they did not altogether drown in despair.)

One of my fathers favorite themes, which he returned to throughout his life, is The Jade Ring (LAnneau de Jade). This episode from the Kim Vân Kiều relates the poets declaration to the young maiden he loves. From atop a ladder propped against the wall of the garden, the young man declares his undying love to her. It is the triumph of love over all obstacles: moved by a supreme urge, the poet has no choice but to transgress the established order, love being revolutionary as much as it is eternal.

That the young woman’s cheeks are pink, which was unanimously recognized in ancient Vietnam as a symbol of the utmost feminine beauty and youth, was to Vu Cao Dam an essential detail which he always included in his paintings.

In the Kim Vân Kiều, the young poet pledges his commitment to his beloved by offering her two gold bracelets. However, in his painting, Vu Cao Dam transformed this offering into a jade bracelet, because in the Confucian tradition, jade symbolized a very pure and beautiful woman. Besides being appreciated for its beneficial healing powers, this nearly magical stone was also respected by the sages as a link between the physical and spiritual worlds.

The central theme of The Jade Ring is an ode to love which resonates particularly with my father as it illuminates his deep belief in the value of giving, especially when the gift is inspired by love. It is furthermore an homage to my mother with whom he enjoyed sixty-two years of a flawless union based on tenderness and delicacy.

On a wall in my bedroom in St-Paul-de-Vence (France) hangs a small picture painted by my father in the 1970s. This painting of a rooster is dedicated to my mother as follows: « To my dear Renée to whom I owe the best of myself. Vu Cao Dam. »

I will never forget what one of my fathers friends (Dr. Manh Don) said to me one day: « At his level of practice, that is to say the highest level, your father is the last survivor of a centuries-old civilization which, in its purest form, might disappear the day your father is no longer with us. »

The reader is asked to draw on the two interpretations which, if they differ in substance and in detail, have the merit of provoking debate.

L’Anneau de Jade dates from 1950 when Vu Cao Dam is still in Béziers and is considered to be the artist’s last major work painted on silk. Shortly after the current painting’s completion, Vu Cao Dam abandoned the material as a medium and moved into a new form of expression with new means, as if he attained a final creative culmination and satisfaction in silk painting with l’Anneau de Jade.

The painting is an extraordinary mixture of technical mastery and the most intense sensitivity. It is here, more than ever, that the tenderness that had become one of Vu Cao Dam’s greatest of virtues bathes the work in rarefied lights.

Jean-François Hubert