Paris is a party… A Moveable Feast: the one-way journey of vietnamese artists in the 30s.

30 August 2021 Off By Jean-François Hubert

It was because he was confident in their talent that, from 1929, Victor Tardieu, the founder (in 1924) of the École des Beaux-Arts of Hanoi, wanted his students to participate in the Exposition Coloniale (which, it had been decided in 1925, would be held in Paris in 1931). 

Paintings and sculptures – essentially – by the first graduates (in 1930), and also by undergraduates, would figure in the Pavillon d’Angkor of which Tardieu would be the artistic director and Le Pho his assistant.

At the end of the Exposition (on November 15 1931) Le Pho extends his stay. He visits France, Belgium, Germany and Italy. All these places grip him. Apart from the beauty and the magnificence of their countrysides and towns, he is captivated by the solemn beauty of the Primitives and the vaulting elegance of Renaissance Masters. These would have a considerable influence on his oeuvre.

Le Pho returns to Vietnam in 1932, is named a teacher at the École des Beaux-Arts of Hanoi in 1933 and is honoured with his first solo exhibition in that same year. In 1934 he visits China. His commissions grow (including one from the Emperor Bao Dai).

Everything should have retained Le Pho in Vietnam, but …  

La Coupole, Montparnasse, Paris, between the two wars

He decided to base himself permanently in Paris after his stint as artistic director of the Indochinese section of the Exposition Internationale Universelle (officially “Exposition Internationale des arts et des techniques appliqués à la vie moderne”) which was held again in Paris from the 25th of May to the 25th of November 1937.

There, six years after the extraordinary exhibition of the École des Beaux-Arts of Hanoi in the 1931 Exposition Coloniale, Vietnamese paintings (notably a large number by Luong Xuan Nhi) were exhibited. As were others … On the 12th of July 1937 Picasso unveiled, at the Spanish pavilion, his Guernica. At the time that painting did not attract much enthusiasm, but it certainly left nobody indifferent. It was left to the surrealist painter Michael Leiris to grasp its essence: « Picasso is ending us his letter of mourning: everything that we love will die. »

For Le Pho, everything that he loved was already dead, but he knew that what he would love was life itself … life in Paris, until his death there in 2001, without ever going back to Vietnam.

Vu Cao Dam, recently graduated, also arrived in 1931. Like Le Pho, he never returned to Vietnam, staying in France until his death 69 years later in 2000.

Mai Thu, teaching in Hué, based himself in Paris in 1937 and only once returned to Vietnam very briefly in 1962 on his way to Japan. He died in France in 1980.

Finally, somewhat later, Le Thi Luu abandoned her teaching career in Vietnam to rejoin our trio in 1940. She accompanied her husband who had volunteered to join the war against Germany. After a short stay in Africa, she based herself in France where she died in 1988, only going back to Vietnam once, for a very brief time, in 1975.

Why did this group of friends – all brilliant graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts of Hanoi, all with the same Mandarin upper class background in Hanoi, certainly Francophile but collectively proud of their origins and confident in their talents, feel this necessity to leave a Vietnam where their career was assured, not just to experience but to seize, in Paris, that extra soul which they could no longer find in Hanoi?

Paris in the 30s … what was this city which thus disrupted prematurely conceived destinies?

Paris was certainly a temptation. 

One can easily imagine the feeling of excitement and anticipation which our young Vietnamese must have felt, standing on the Haiphong quayside in Vietnam in the 30s, ready to embark on those long-distance boats about to start a journey of some 28 days to reach France. Leaving behind them their ancestors’ altars, their nearest and dearest, and the mental, material and social comforts so cherished by men (and women) of letters. For them, henceforth, only art – this combat with no possible victor – mattered.

Le Pho, Vu Cao Dam and Mai Thu journeyed to the “City of Light” to access the exuberance and intellectual and artistic competitiveness which reigned there. One can feel these vibes when reading A Moveable Feast (published posthumously) in which Ernest Hemingway described his times in Paris in the 20s. Granted, by the time our painters arrived the “mad years” had finished, and Paris had become more a city of writers than of painters or sculptors. But Paris still sparkled, brilliantly and welcomingly, and our artists immediately became the Vietnamese artists in Paris.

La Closerie des Lilas, Montparnasse, Paris, in the 70’s

The confluence of our talented painters and a generous city mutually enriched those involved.

The spirit, both past and contemporary, of the summits of 20th century art reigned smoothly: our young Vietnamese immersed themselves in the works of the artists of that time: Modigliani (who arrived in France in 1906 and died in Paris in 1920), Picasso (who arrived in France in 1900 and died in Mougins in 1973), Soutine (who arrived in France in – probably – 1906 and died in Saint-Paul de Vence in 1985), Foujita (who arrived in France in 1913 and died  in Zurich in 1968), and many others … so many others …

It was in the cafés of Montparnasse – which replaced Montmartre from the beginning of the century – that the world history of art was written in those years.

What triumphed there, to an ever greater extent than spirit, was culture. A culture created by an extreme artistic cauldron fuelled in equal parts by meetings and interactions  between artists, gallery owners, collectors and various institutions.

Montparnasse, or more precisely the crossroads Montparnasse-Vavin-Raspail, was the centre of the world.

All was audacious there.

The audacity of all – yes all – the pictoral trends of the time or the past. These trends overlaid, or added to, or clashed or were ignored. They refined and varied in line with the current affairs, political, economic or social, with which they interacted … 

All these trends were, therefore, discussed in Paris in the 30s.

And what discussions!

They occurred in a milieu that was extremely beneficial for our Vietnamese artists.

It was the world of art – in its current form – that was offered to them. Before them, with them, evolved Realism, created around 1850 (Manet, Degas, Courbet, Rodin …), Impressionism, created from 1860 (Monet, Renoir …), Neo-Impressionism active at the end of the 19th century (Seurat, Signac …), and the Nabis, a term created in 1889 (Bonnard, Vuillard …). This world was enriched by the Independents (Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Munch …), Symbolism, around 1880 (Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes  …), Fauvism, at the end of the 19th century (Matisse, Derain …), Expressionism, beginning of the 20th century (Schiele …), and Art Nouveau, around 1900 (Klimt, Majorelle …). The ellipsis here express the impossibility of giving an exhaustive list of the artists concerned.

Innovation was then superimposed on such realities.  

Turn by turn, successively or concurrently, new techniques imposed themselves. Cubism, beginning of the 20th century (Braque, Picasso), Futurism, beginning of the 20th century (Gino Severini), Abstract Art, beginning of the 20th century (Kandinsky) Geometric Abstraction, beginning of the 20th century (Malevich, Mondrian), Art Deco (the 20s), Bauhaus, also in the 20s (Gropius), Surrealism (20s) (Magritte, Dali, Miro) and Dadaism, beginning of the 20th century (Duchamp).

  • Le Pho would always express his admiration for Matisse and Bonnard. How many times did he tell me face-to-face that it was they who motivated his voyage to the West.
  • Vu Cao Dam had an intellectual complicity with Chagall, his neighbour in Saint-Paul-Vence.
  • Mai Thu’s paint brush did not hesitate to summon up Leonardo da Vince and the Fontainebleau School.
  • Le Thi Luu submerged herself in Impressionism. All were actors or inspirers of the trends enumerated above.

Four complementary remarks must be added:

Firstly, the history of art should not be narrated in “isms”. Art is a discrete destiny. The Schools thus identified should be seen as a place of exchange, (complementary or supplementary) between artists, and not as a field of dogma despite the severity of some guardians of such successive temples … 

Secondly, Paris was not always the birthplace of these trends although it was always the place, or conduit, where they flowed. Furthermore, some of these influences had already been felt by the École des Beaux-Arts of Hanoi, because all of their teachers had already been confronted by them during their training or by through their background.

Finally, it would be incomplete not to mention – apart from the founding École des Beaux-Arts – various French colonial or national artistic institutions, all of which promoted or assisted our artists. Examples include the Agence Economique de l’Indochine (“Agindo”) founded in 1917, the Société  des Artistes Français (created in 1881), and regular events such as the afore-mentioned Exposition Internationale Universelle of 1937 which followed on from the Exposition Coloniale of 1932. These all promoted and assisted our artists. 

It is necessary to recall the extreme and genuine solidarity which linked Le Pho; Vu Cao Dam, Mai Thu and Le Ti Luu  – who all remained united throughout their lives, encouraging each other with deep respect. Initially a solidarity between individuals, this evolved into a solidarity between families (mainly Eurasian, between artists maintaining close links). Le Pho and Mai Thu remained principally in Paris (or close suburbs), with stays, sometimes lengthy, in Nice or Macon. Vu Cao Dam (in 1950) and Le Thi Luu (in 1971) settled in the South of France. But the bond was never broken with their cultural, political and economic capital, the fruit of the French Jacobin tradition.

In Vietnam during this time the recurring debates on the severity of colonial regime and the necessity of modernisation, and on the gradual elimination of the old Confucian order and the economic and social consequences of the 1929 Crash, remained sterile.

Nothing fundamentally changed, finally, and the semantics got bogged down: from 1911 the contradiction remained between the maintenance of traditional principles (Confucianism, the monarchy, and ancestral culture) and modernisation, that is to say progress which few still deny is a necessary objective. He who says modernisation says France, even if Japan in the Meiji era still retains some supporters. Neither Nguyen Van Minh, nor Pham Quynh, nor Phan Boi Chau, nor Phan Chau Trinh finally advanced their views beyond these concepts: the social order was not blocked but it was late to renew, presaging – as in every society – that its end is nigh. The colonial power remained as a referent mirror, the facilitator of all these deceptions …

The artistic sphere itself regressed:

The theses of Tu Luc Van Doan inspire painters such as Luong Xuan Nhi, Luu Van Sin, and Tran Van Can amongst others. As for Pham Hau, he seemed to confine himself to a somewhat tedious repetition of well executed lacquers depicting banal scenes. Hoang Tich Chu continued his original journey. Nguyen Tien Chung and some others were already regressing. Certainly Nguyen Gia Tri and Nguyen Phan Chanh continued their personal Odyssey, as did To Ngoc Van, but the general level which the École de Beaux-Arts had heralded, began to fade. The talents of the artists were lower. Amongst some of them a temptation began to make an appearance: lacquers with Chinese themes, signed not in Roman script but only in Chinese characters. Vietnamese artists laying claim to Chinese roots? An issue of ancient self-questioning, the effort ran short.

FARTA (an emanation of AFIMA created by Pham Quynh in 1917), SADEI (created in 1934) which evolved into the Salon Unique (1942 to 1943) encouraged this artistic trend. But the colonial disengagement advocated by the National Front which gained power in France in 1936, and the nomination of Evariste Jonchère (who had neither the scope of his predecessor nor the experience of a Joseph Inguimberty) as the new Director of the École des Beaux-Arts of Hanoi following the death of Victor Tardieu on the 12th of June 1937 in Hanoi, tragically occurring two weeks after the opening of the Exposition Universelle in Paris on the 25th of May 1937, institutionalised a decadence stemming from less talented students and ideas which became confused. 

To this regression followed, in the North, Communist dogma masquerading initially as a nationalistic ideal. This resulted in some appealing and touching objects executed in the Bac Bo. But military works of a distressing banality soon became the norm … especially as Vietnam never had a Malevitch or a Rodtchenko. Uchronia transformed rapidly to a Dystopia, as in all Communist countries …

All this explains the total absence of quality contemporary art in today’s Vietnam.

The conceited conceptual poverty and strained claims of today’s “useful idiots” make them the “Pompiers painters” of tomorrow. One cannot be an artist once one has passively accepted to be trained under the mental yoke of a totalitarian regime and be a stooge of its Nomenclatura.

The artists of the South still survive, ravaged by the Civil war and crushed after 1975 and the victory of the North.

Our Vietnamese artists had already embarked on a one-way journey 90 years ago.

François Mauriac had such conquerors in mind in Les Chemins de la Mer (1939): « The life of most men is a dead road. But others know, from their childhood, that they will travel to an unknown sea. ( …) It remains for them either to plunge into this sea or to retrace their steps. »

Contemporary Vietnamese art, inert, still awaits its Rinascimento. For this to happen, all that so well described by Bâo Ninh and Duong Thu Huong must disappear. After that a fresh wind will blow. In the meantime one must recall the gesture of the great elders who voted with their own destiny for a better world … for their own mental health, it is time for the spoilt children of today’s regime who consider themselves rebels to begin to learn humility on the tombs of real artists.

Easy: they are in France, the country of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

A country where one knows, from so long ago, that identity is not to be sought but is itself to be forged.

Jean-François Hubert