Le Pho « La Toilette de l’enfant » or “the unreasonable silence of the world”

11 November 2021 Off By Jean-François Hubert

Two children are depicted with whom we imagine is their mother though we can’t tell for sure.

Central to the painting, the woman takes care of the youngest child while, in the background, the other child seats quietly. 

Le Pho « La Toilette de l’enfant »

All Le Pho’s pictorial characteristics of his late 30’s are found here : the signature using a smaller stamp, at the bottom left ; the perfect mastery in the gouache and ink techniques on silk laid down on paper. Techniques he refined for a period of 30 years – when he abandoned oil on canvas – before using it again after signing with the Wally Findlay Gallery in 1963 ; the elegant and beautiful Tonkinese woman in ao dai, here dressed in a green tunic and blue pants ; the healthy children with the classical hair tuft – which in ancient times was meant to protect the child’s sinciput – and the care given to the three characters’ very beautiful faces as he, later on, will simplify the faces more and more ; the movement of the scarves, like a punctuation mark : the blue linen, placed on the table on the left, but also the white sheet around the body of the first child and the ao dai spreading under the table ; the Tonkinese bourgeois furnishings with the orange lacquered table, in the foreground, on which rests, in addition to the wipe, a talcum powder box and its lid placed next to the child, both on the wipe. Le Pho liked, at this time, to represent a bowl, a vase, a box, simply placed on a table ; the background with what could be a hanging, or a tree trunk on the left as the group is probably on a veranda, which could corroborate the abundance of camellias in the background.  

The figures are at an angle – not in profile – a Le Pho’s chosen posture for his characters, a presence more than an exhibition.

The choice of colours also reflects the late 1930s. The painter would only lighten his palette, following Matisse’s advice, after meeting him in 1943. But, already, here, together, the blue of the lady’s pants and the orange of the child’s shirt on the right announce this evolution, while the green of the tunic and the black of the hairstyles are classics in Le Pho’s work.

The flowers here are Camelias amplexicaulis (Hoa Hải Đường) which bloom from late fall to very early spring in northern Vietnam. Le Pho demonstrates his science and love of flowers throughout his work. His “bouquets” – always painted from “just cut flowers” he used to tell me every time we together looked some of these – and I contemplated – and listen to his comments he was kind enough to share. Le Pho, in this case, favours these Camellias found not far from Hanoi, in the Tam Dao in 1910 but, unfortunately, no longer exist in the wild since 2018.

A ballet of hands forms a structure in the composition.

The handwritten title, ”La Toilette de l’Enfant” (Child’s grooming) given by the artist in the back of the painting, defines the child on the left as the central subject to the work as he caresses his hair tuft distorting the tradition as if he knew it was ineffective. His right hand, touching his mother, reassures him.

The woman with her left hand delicately holds the child’s right foot while her right hand appears to hold the puff intended to talc the child. Maternal attention and certainty. The talcum powder box, with its lid next to it, testifies to the immanence of the world : everything is in everything and this box is as important as the protagonists already identified.

Frivolity? Never for Le Pho. With him, everything is allegory.

And this figurative thought, Le Pho offers with his usual subtlety. Already a clue : Le Pho has learned the lesson of the Italian Renaissance : he saw that his counterparts painters identified, according to the ancient Roman tradition, the direction on the right as auspicious, that on the left as negative. But beware, it is the subject that gives the meaning and here it is the child who looks to the right. The mother looks towards the child. The child in the back – of which only a diaphanous hand is represented – looks to the right. The auspicious sense is thus for the child on the left who looks to the right but through the prism of his mother…

Let us understand better: ”La Toilette de l’Enfant” is a scene from Vietnam, but painted in Paris where Le Pho settled permanently in 1937, with his will to conquer the West. Like the majority of the painter’s works, it is tinged with the memory of the native country and bears the seal of a nostalgia. But of a conquering nostalgia. Of those which push you to question what Albert Camus, his contemporary, named in “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942) “the unreasonable silence of the world”.

Le Pho tells us: the child after the bath, on the left, in fact it is him when he paints this splendid picture. In the background, on the right, the second child, it is him, in the past, he leaves. And this caring mother-lady is Vietnam preparing her for the West.

Yes, at the end of the 1930s, Le Pho, in this magnificent work, invited us to his life to come: the lid will never be set back on the talcum box.

Jean-François Hubert