Hoang Tich Chu, 1950, « The High Region of Tonkin » or a phantasmagorical naturalism

1 November 2021 Off By Jean-François Hubert

After graduating from the Hanoi School of Fine Arts in 1941, Hoang Tich Chu started a lacquer workshop with his fellow student (who graduated the same year) and friend Nguyen Tien Chung, on Hàng Khoai Street in Hanoi. They offer to the amateurs views of Hanoi (“Hoan Kiem”, “Tay Ho”…) as well as places nearby such as the “Master Tay’s Pagoda”, Bac Ninh, and further away, Halong Bay, the Middle Region and a large lacquer for one of Hué’s churches. 

In the 1940s, Hoang Tich Chu’s worked outside his line of conduct, he conceived, executed and developed his work by himself! This was very different from Pham Hau who would often repeat the same theme (how many ”deers”?), one of the reasons he hired a good number of assistants, so did Nguyen Gia Tri later on. With Hoang Tich Chu, no repetitive theme, no delegation of the work.

Hoang Tich Chu closed his Hanoi studio in 1946 and joined the Vietminh in their struggle for independence in the Bac Ninh region he knew well as a native of Tu Son. He left the maquis in 1947 to return to Hanoi. The maturity of these two years brought about a change in his style: his line became more ample and his palette more colourful. In Dong Ky, where he spent a lot of time, he observed the techniques of experienced woodworkers and their related techniques such as mother-of-pearl work. He also met the buffalo and cow breeders who have the ancestral habit of buying their livestock in Lang Son and, even further, to Cao Bang, before selling it in the Delta.

On their indications, he went there at the end of 1948 and returned to Hanoi for the Têt in 1949 after a three-month stay. It is then that he elaborated this large work (2,30 meters) composed in 5 panels, each of them constituting almost a whole and at the same time giving to the whole its majesty.

Hoang Tich Chu - The High Region of Tonkin
Hoang Tich Chu – The High Region of Tonkin

The painter offers us a landscape – inhabited – of the Upper Region he refused to locate precisely: a profusion of sugar loaves, rice terraces, houses on stilts, typical of the Thai but also of the Hmongs and Nungs. Small Hmong horses, one brown, the other white, buffaloes and farmers transplanting rice, guiding the buffaloes pulling the plow. It is the observation of a man who is a champion of naturalism, but a phantasmagorical naturalism… Everything is true but, above all, everything is felt: the poetry of the artist…

The High Region of Tonkin - Drawing & Layer (extract)
The High Region of Tonkin – Drawing & Layer (extract)

The work is accompanied by a preparatory drawing executed on site in late 1948 and 3 fragments of tracing (1:1 scale) probably executed in Hanoi in 1949. They give us information on the painter’s technique: drawing on the motif, then tracing in the studio and then the execution of the lacquer itself. Mostly, they reveal an excellent draughtsman.

Hoang Tich Chu loves colour: yellow, red, white, black, green, silver, gold, explode in his work. But abundance is nothing without subtlety: fine differences in tones, the choice between solid and powder, the subtle use of eggshells, all contributing to the quality of the work. For example (as for Nguyen Gia Tri, each square centimetre of Hoang Tich Chu’s lacquer would deserve a long commentary…), the painter uses the convexity and concavity of the shell fragments. After applying a layer of lacquer, the convexes appear white and the concaves darker. This allows the painter even more effects.

His mother Hoang Tuyet Trinh, a jeweller, had a direct influence on Hoang Tich Chu by encouraging him to use gold. In powder for the water in the rice fields or in leaf for the sky above the mountains. Water and air, the principles of life, were thus magnified by gold.

Hoang Tich also uses silver powder, especially in the bushes. He also used a double effect of tone on tone but also of eggshell and lacquer as seen in one of the buffaloes, for example. Note also the numerous shadow effects – the mountains, the people and the buffaloes reflexion in the water of the rice fields – and the numerous incisions which, for example, highlight the brown trunk and branches in the trees or, elsewhere, the golden leaves.

The work presented here, majestic and subtle, a true masterpiece, testifies to the artistic fervour and perfect technique of a painter at his peak.

Jean-François Hubert