The good man, the bad man and the ugly. Or a compromise of the soul with the instinct : a 2023 point of view on the vietnamese painting
The history of art is not just a history of beauty, a concept so broad that it can support all kinds of narrative.
No, the history of art can also be the history of ugliness.
Not of the art itself, whose ugliness is impossible by essence but the ugliness of man, sometimes, in his encounter with art. History abundantly testifies to this kind of man, negative for art, and Vietnamese painting is no exception to the rule.
To illustrate this, 4 photographs showing two Vietnamese forgers at work with their fake Pham Hau (supra), near Hanoi, in 2022 and two other elements of their “production” (infra), a fake Alix Aymé and another fake Pham Hau. Some examples among others…
These poor men are only the “little hands” of an extremely active network which, in the short term – because our weaknesses are exploited and it participates to an intellectual poverty – can destroy the real interest in Vietnamese painting, patiently built many years.
This one is located at all the confluences of the contemporary interrogations, a strength but also a fragility.
Its strength comes from a grandiose acculturation, in the 20th century, between France and Vietnam, in which all the passions and ideas were confronted with incredible force. This confrontation broke many codes, wrote others : the State, the group, the individual, the border, the body, the memory, the heritage and so many other concepts were evoked or revoked. A deconstruction politically demanding, culturally upsetting, socially acerbic, and sentimentally painful, not so easily approached but masterfully translated by Vietnamese painting. The strength of passion is achieved.
Its fragility is linked to the current imposed dialectical questioning. As André Comte-Sponville so elegantly writes in his Dictionnaire philosophique (Paris 2021, p 362), dialectics is (also) “a logic of an appearance (in the best of cases) or the appearance of a logic (in the worst)”. The appearance of an appearance here and a mental reconstruction more than intellectual one, mirroring each other. An acuteness in the questioning accentuated by a recent and phenomenal monetarization – in the measure of the history of art. Monetarization is a blessing when it is healthy, but in Vietnamese art the recent arrival of disreputable characters may threaten the integrity of the material if it is not not urgently stopped.
Let’s locate historically and geographically the subject by identifying in turn the good guys, the bullies and the crooks.
A duty of inventory…
I. The good man. Vietnamese painting is the result of a grandiose acculturation between France and Vietnam in the XXth century. Its inclusion in the History after a long eclipse, seems definitive
A. A grandiose acculturation
The meaning of “acculturation” needs to be clarified as the concept is often completely misunderstood : a “process through which a person or a group assimilates a foreign culture to its own”, this clear definition given by the dictionary Le Robert helps avoiding the usual pompous argumentation.
The acculturation we are interested in here occurred in Vietnam during the French colonisation, a time when the local traditional painting didn’t exist yet. This may seem staggering, considering the historical immensity of painting of a China, a neighbour and a matrix, but this is undeniable.
The immense mission of artistic education led by the French administration, both local (colonial) and central (metropolitan), was embodied by Victor Tardieu, the founder-director of the Indochina School of Fine Arts in Hanoi in 1924. With his gifted teachers he laid the foundations for Vietnamese painting in the 20th century. A creation made possible by the extraordinary synergy immediately generated locally by a generation of extremely gifted artists in the making… The techniques taught, all imported directly (oil on canvas, lacquer, drawing…) or indirectly (gouache and ink on silk) were magnified immediately and magnificently by a “winner” generation of Vietnamese artists (in contrast with the “looser generation” of American writers evoked by Gertrude Stein).
These artists will gradually make their mark thanks to a well-structured local promotion system involving the School’s exhibitions, their relay in the press, promotion and mutual aid associations (SADEAI, FARTA, Salon Unique), and international with essentially the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 (and its extensions abroad) and the Universal Exhibition of 1937, both of which have a very large audience, in Paris where the AGINDO is active.
The decisive migration of paintings, either bought in Hanoi and then brought back by the “colonialists”, or exhibited (1931, 1937, on rue La Boétie for Agindo) in Paris, was followed by the decisive migration of artists who, in person, to actively question the “City of Light. Vu Cao Dam, Le Pho, Mai Thu, Le Thi Luu and a few others later came to paint in France where eventually they would die.
It is fact, just before the war Vietnamese painting was successful. Born in Vietnam, it was then divided between two branches : those who remained in the country (the vast majority with To Ngoc Van, Nguyen Phan Chanh, Luong Xuan Nhi, Tran Van Can and so many others) and the handful of those who left for France. These two branches will be keep together in a deep beneficial relation but their destinies will be very different.
Yet, on both sides, a long eclipse awaits them.
B. A long eclipse in France and in Vietnam
This eclipse both in France and in Vietnam for different reasons.
- In France: In 1945, the liberated country is ruined, scarcity reigns. The galleries (so many…) which flourished during the Occupation are withering away, the administration has other priorities than artistic expression and the “Indochina war” is going to turn Vietnam into a bitter political battle : France, has been out of the game since the Japanese coup de force on March 9, 1945, beyond a feigned discourse between realism and honour and has no desire to keep its colonies. The aim is to avoid another humiliation like the one in 1940.
For Vietnamese painting, disinterest is taking over as the doxa chose to decolonize so anything “colonial” could no longer be talented. Slogans which have become clichés are still found in current comments… For the painters, exhibitions are getting rarer. Teachers or students : Tardieu, who died in 1937, sinks into oblivion, Inguimberty, who returned in 1946, moved away from the rice fields and painted the Calanques or the Franche-Comté, Le Pho and Vu Cao Dam signed with the American gallery Wally Findlay in 1963 while Mai Thu benefited from the remarkable work of his dealer Jean-François Apestéguy. Le Thi Luu painted infrequently. Others like Jean Volang postulated a Western style.
Nothing to do with the pre-war ardor.
In Vietnam, let us differentiate between the South and the North.
- In the North, after the closure of the Hanoi School of Fine Arts by the Japanese, it was no longer a time for artistic expression.
With the incomplete military and administrative return of the French, artistic life resumed in slow motion. The vast majority of artists left for the maquis, returned and sometimes died there. As art loves ambiguity, we would need pages to simply sketch a history of the sensibilities of the time. Nguyen Gia Tri, a convinced nationalist, threatened by the Communists, went into exile in Hong Kong in 1946, only to return in 1953 and before migrating to the South. Pham Hau prospered and Hoang Tich Chu persisted.
The communist ideology will become the rule and its corollary in art, the socialist realism, will become the principle. It is necessary to read Michel Aucouturier (“Le réalisme socialiste”, Paris, 1998) to understand how this authoritarian realism condemned a number of artists to a contested or impoverished talent, as shown by the extreme decline in quality of the paintings of Nguyen Phan Chanh, for example…
- In the South, the arrival of painters from the North after 1954, the revelation of new young talents through the School of Applied Arts in Gia Dinh has benefited Vietnamese painting. However, the omnipresent war and the transfer from the North of Communist ideology in 1975 were to hinder any artistic aspirations for a long time.
But, in France, at the beginning of the 90’s a new wave…
C. A victorious comeback
After a long purgatory, Vietnamese art and painting will gradually regain their momentum. It is shown in “The Mr. and Mrs. Robert P. Piccus Collection”, a splendid collection of Vietnamese ceramics sold by Christie’s in Hong Kong on December 7, 1984.
Here and there a few Cham pieces, Dong Son bronzes, or some “Than Hoa” appear on sale or continue to gather dust in the museums’ reserves with very few exceptions, such as the Anglo-Saxon museums. Chinese art, Indian art, Khmer art and Japanese art still get all the attention.
But 1995 will mark a comeback : Le Bon Marché asked me to be the curator of a cultural exhibition to promote Vietnamese products. The “Vietnam of the Kingdoms“, 100 000 enthusiastic visitors in 5 weeks, a catalog (ah…these typos and other approximations…) printed in 5000 copies, sold out. A new breath, a beneficial freshness. The following year, still at the Bon Marché, the exhibition “The Soul of Vietnam” confirmed this success. The catalog presented a beautiful selection of Vietnamese paintings and sculptures.
On February 17, 1995, the first sale ever devoted to the “Art of Vietnam” was held at Drouot. On November 22, 1995, “Art of Vietnam, H.I.H. Prince Bao Long’s Collection” offered the imperial spirit of Hué to the numerous amateurs. Both sales were colossal successes and I had the honour bring together Le Pho and Bao Long. Beautiful conversations, all of elegance. The assessment was languorous…
The catalog covers represent the most important work in the sale.
They will also bring their piece to the reconstruction of the edifice : I chose “The Mandarin’s Wife” by Le Pho for Drouot in Paris on December 16, 1996, and at Christies in Singapore on March 28, 1999 “The Two Sisters”, also by Le Pho. The first has since become one of the most sought-after Vietnamese paintings in the world – but I won’t tell you where it is… – while the second belongs to the National Gallery of Singapore’s Collections. A beautiful journey… But the greatest satisfaction for me was the happy smile of the honoured painter.
At the same time, I selected paintings from Vietnam for the exhibition “Visions & Enchantment, Southeast Asian paintings” organised from June 8 to August 29, 2000 by the Singapore Art Museum and Christie’s Singapore.
With the Royal Museum of Mariemont I am the co-curator of the exhibition (which is still the reference) “Arts du Vietnam la fleur du pêcher et l’oiseau d’azur” from April 20th to August 18th 2002. Also, with Christie’s from 1996 to 2002, Sotheby’s from 2003 to 2009 and Christie’s again from 2010 to today, thousands of works were exhibited, presented and commented on, thus helping to build up large collections. In 1989 the French Union of Experts and in 1997 the National Company of Experts created for me the qualification of “expert in art of Vietnam”.
Publication, explanation, authentication. All this was the work of a group of enthusiasts and I unfortunately do not have enough space here to mention all the actors that took part in the promotion of Vietnamese painting.
More broadly, from 1924 to 2023, despite an eclipse, the work with people of good will, of all origins, has borne new fruit. Passion and hard work have been rewarded : good ones.
But let’s not go into angelism… It was also a fight against passeism, entryism, obscurantism and lucre because if the good ones have a cause, the bullies have a goal…
II. The bullies. In France, an institutional passeism facilitates entryism. In Vietnam, a negative obliteration leads to an absence of expertise
A. France: from institutional passeism to entryism :
1. Today, France remains a country out of breath, never really recovered from the bloodshed of 14-18, ashamed of the years 40-44, economically bogged down since the beginning of the 1980s. This breathlessness has led to inertia and facilitates entryism “with flags unfurled” so dear to Leon Trotsky.
2. As demonstrated in the disastrous 2012 exhibition in a Parisian public museum where most of the works presented belonged to the exhibition’s “guest curator” and a few others (serving as an alibi) belonged to her second-hand assistant, a tailor suddenly promoted as a great specialist in the subject and the last few to people or institutions. All at the high cost of the taxpayer, the incredible publicity throughout Paris, the catalog, the cocktails, the private visits and other colloquia for a set of works often ordinary and a fake Victor Tardieu bought just a few months earlier in Belgium. Public money wasted to the benefit of a self-appointed private collector who, as he wished, praised his own works in an admittedly mediocre catalog. Only the “Journal des Arts” had the courage to denounce this scandal. This is very telling of the ethics at the time…
What other developed country than France would have tolerated this? Where else in the world would you find such a form of entryism? In the countries of Northern Europe or North America, all the protagonists, private and public, would have been held accountable before the courts and the sanctions would have been severe.
A banana republic, a republic of “friends and foes”.
The exhibition was a paragon of entryism in this small plethoric world of cocktails, inaugurations, inefficient administrative entities and their parasitic associations that pollute the French cultural life. One enters these circles not by breaking in but by infiltration, one comes in not to serve but to be served. To conciliate “President”, “Secretary”, “Administrator”, “Executive Director” of associations, often old, parasites of the State or the public communities, and most often to occupy sumptuous venues, endowed with monopolised jobs and to consolidate their power by choosing all of their suppliers, from the editor to the advertiser, from the caterer to the tour operator. A fantastic misappropriation of public money, of the educational role of public communities. A pure and simple abandonment to the mediocrity of a rare perversity.
This disastrous state of affairs certainly translates more self-contempt than contempt for the other and shows our structural fragility, a promise of all dangers to come.
What about in Vietnam?
Unfortunately the “Đổi mới” initiated in 1986 has not changed the country’s sensitivity to its own painting.
B. Vietnam : from the obliteration of painting to the absence of expertise
Proper painting expertise in Vietnam doesn’t exist (except for a handful of collectors). This is due to a local obliteration of the very notion of art which has led to an impossibility to evaluate it and therefore to appraise it.
Reasons for obliteration :
They are due to the country’s ideological, economic, intellectual and mental context, very particular, even unique, in the recent history with the French colonisation, the persistent communist ideology, the rapid accession to a high degree of economic development – although partial – and the trauma due to the wars.
All this has contributed to Vietnam’s blindness to its own painting.
Painting can convey a political message that must be controlled, different to more ancient arts fixed by essence. Because…
French colonisation founded Vietnamese painting. Admiring the painting means praising the coloniser.
- “Socialist realism” inherently prevents the creation of art work.
- The remarkable country’s economic development, since the early 1990s, means that today, out of the 100 million Vietnamese, 5 million have “Western” purchasing power and want to acquire works from “their heritage”
- The almost complete disappearance of the French language in the country deprives the Vietnamese of easy and culturally essential access to all the documents, comments and testimonies, extremely numerous, in France and in Vietnam, needed to understand the subject. It explains some of the aberrations in the local comments.
- Finally, the terrible trauma linked to the wars has meant that in Vietnam, a painter in art is perceived for his “patriotic” acts more than for his aesthetic representations.
In Vietnam, three centrifugal forces (legitimacy, dogma, suffering), one centripetal force (economy) means that the relation to painting pedagogically negative.
This is shown by an “intellectual” production, both written and oral, of a very poor content, between a frightening confusion of dates – often linked to a lack of understanding of the founding French texts – and an absence of reflection on the origin of styles, techniques, and movements, supported by an understandable but particularly harmful patriotism in art history.
This weakness is best summarised in the trilingual Vietnamese-French-English book “Les peintres de l’école supérieure des beaux-arts de l’Indochine” (Painters of the Indochina Fine Arts College), published in Hanoi in 1993, written by Nguyen Quang Phong with Nguyen Quang Viet as “editor and collector” and Le Thanh Duc as “advisor”. A local reference that has authority, however, it is a delight to see how an amphigoric ideological sabir can affect a subject and offer its readers the exact opposite of the historical and practical knowledge needed to acquire a level of expertise. Nguyen Quang Phong was in the same graduating class (the 16th, unfinished, 1942-45) at the Hanoi Fine Arts School as my friend Jean Volang. The latter confided to me that when he came to visit him in Paris, Quang Phong burst into tears while apologising for his writings… A minimum…
- A media – ranked 174th out of 180 countries for freedom of expression by Reporters sans Frontières – at the orders (an “abuse of democratic freedoms” by a journalist is worth 5 years of detention), and that can be bought in art, a contribution to obscurantism.
- Anglo-Saxon systematically hostile writings concerning French Indochina support an ambient revisionism so reassuring (a diversion for them, genocidal peoples of the first inhabitants in their respective countries?).
- The blind faith of Abartchuk, the Vassili Grossman character in his masterpiece “Life and Fate”, which is often found among old convinced communists, reinforces this lack of knowledge.
The institutions are not left behind :
Instead of being a reference at least visually, the Hanoi Fine Arts Museum is, by exposing its fakes by necessity, by action or by omission, has become an important source of artistic misinformation.
- The galleries of Hanoi, but especially of Saigon, bring a note of humour to this mental disaster as their sales of fakes go with far-fetched stories. But truth is, apart from a few naive people, no one stays around them anymore.
- The painters’ families… like, among others, the unworthy son of the “streets of Hanoi” author of thousands of fake paintings. Having personally seen him wandering, looking haggard, not far from the “Little Lake” in Hanoi… I will grant him a certain indulgence. Beyond the artistic framework, there’s a madness in the identification to the father that must be evoked. On the other hand, to have met, as I did, the brother-in-law (ex-convict in Vietnam) of an immense Vietnamese artist, a painter in his spare time… he denied an exhibition-sale for his brother-in-law’s 350 works, when in fact he only painted in his life… less than 40 works, it is a striking memory...
The result : at the level of the narrative, the individual, the group, the State, a dislocation of the concept of authenticity has been imposed in Vietnam, which has allowed the fake to become an almost mandatory constant.
Not a single painting enthusiast can acquire the necessary instruments to build up an expertise : observation, understanding, comparison, reflection. A bit like pianists who never heard play right.
C. Summation of defects
In the age of globalisation, it was inevitable that the pairing of passeism and entryism would be addressed, almost absorbed by the pairing of obliteration and ignorance.
This unfortunate encounter takes us from the time of the good guys and the bullies to the time of the crooks.
III. The crooks. The sudden and recent divagation of Vietnamese painting : crooks who use entryism to become traffickers and jesters who become executioners
A. In Vietnam, tricksters who become traffickers
1. Local counterfeiters and the lack of market opportunities in Vietnam
The counterfeiters are children of the communist regime, but of a regime that does not consider them to be at a sufficient level to manage the important matters (civil and military administration, raw materials, banks…) and to assume the continuity of the country. These downgraded nomenklatura keep the privilege of having their (admittedly mediocre…) studies abroad paid for. But the regime does not want them socially. So they have recently found in art an Eldorado, apparently easy to access. Infatuated with themselves, they try to acquire a certain varnish, the opportunity to be known, in short to exist in a country that despises them. And to get rich…
Without knowledge, without any talent and without original works, the task is hard…
They act mainly on social networks – which they use perfectly – where they have developed a strategy of insults and defamation against everything that bothers them and also self-flattery. A way for them, primordial, to extricate themselves from the social gangue which suffocates them and to fulfil their financial desires. Vast program…
Three individuals are at the head of the network : two suppliers: Ace L. the leader of the network and Kevin V. his factotum and companion. They don’t make the fakes but order them (for a small fee…) and diffuse them. T. Chuong, the third, a failed pseudo-artist who thinks he is Ta Ty… is the head of the best team of forgers like those in our photo.
With their comparses, notably DV Tuan, they embody, in Vietnamese communist society, an updated “lumpenproletariat“. The term was defined by Karl Marx in his “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, (1848, in part I which is entitled “Bourgeois and Proletarians”) :
“As for the lumpenproletariat, that passive product of decay in the lower strata of the old society, it may find itself, here and there, drawn into the movement by a proletarian revolution; however, his living conditions will rather get him to sell himself out to the reactionary.”
Just add “communist” after “society” and replace “proletarian” with “artistic”, and the logic and description remain the same.
2. ” To sell oneself to the reactionary » : These structural misfits have experienced in Vietnam the painful failures of pseudo sales houses CHON and LY THI, however, strongly supported by the press. They had to close down and since have understood that the local market did not offer, as for them, any credibility : no buyer is interested in their bad art, their fakes or in them.
Selling their fakes turned out to be impossible even though the internal market should have been ideal considering the local compromises to ensure the financial success of the fallacious project.
Hence the need to find outlets… elsewhere.
B. France : entryism provides an outlet
The counterfeiters first turned to France, the “country of origin” for Vietnamese painting, of historical promotion, despite a long eclipse as we have seen.
And, thus, a junction took place with the pioneers of entryism, the old ones, Loan S, NK Khoi, Alain T, Philippe T, joined by some “young sympathisers” of which one, indescribable, alternates under several addresses on the Web, false erudition and photos with the “Village People”. Poor Sorbonne…
Another, working at the National Geographic Institute in Paris, docently dispenses his ukases with a rare lack of erudition.
Entryism, in France, following the monetarization of the market, is no longer content with the above-mentioned extremists abusing the public sphere, but penetrates the private sector, which is even more lucrative. Some auction houses in France, French or foreign, will end up trapped.
To do this, they need to destroy the good ones.
C. The widespread technique : destroy the genuine to sell the fake
1. Ace L. Kevin V. and their accomplices aim at eliminating everything that hinders their projects. They will attack and destroy two major obstacles : people who know well and any authentic works. How can they sell their fakes if they are identified by an expert, if the comparison with the originals is fatal?Their weapons are those of the mafia : insults, anonymous letters, faking of photos and collages – in high resolution – on framed supports and setting the context, threats, scandals, defamations on their blogs – shared between them -, manipulation of social networks where they “denounce” as fakes works that are obviously authentic, bribing of local reporters or manipulation of certain foreign reporters, with a great success in securing the services of a new Walter Duranty, using his appetence for the young boys of Bangkok …
The list is endless and permeated with a certain racism in a spirit very close to the Héraud City massacre (Saigon 1945) and a savage ostracism such as the Agrarian Reform (in the north in the 1950s).
2. But here is the most interesting part : placing the fake works
For France, it is mainly NK Khoi – who personally acts as the Vietnam-France relay – who acts as the head of the operation, while Alain T remains more of a silent influence. Dealers, nominees, uncleared works of art, tax evasion, tax fraud laundering. The system is well regulated but above all it benefits from French passivity. Stockholm syndrome or solidarity of the titleless? Ah this beautiful Luong Xuan Nhi “since always in the family, brought back after the war” that I had personally seen in Saigon 4 years before its Paris’ sale… And so many others… fakes lent or hired…
Once infiltrated, the fakes are praised by Ace L. and his networks to recommend the sales. The counterfeiters even offer to be your intermediary (for a commission) to buy… their fakes.
NK Khoi and Alain T. excel at this unhealthy game.
Ace L. and his clan also succeeded in infiltrating Hong Kong, in particular an honorable Anglo-Saxon house which will sell, among other things, but in Paris this time… a “beautiful” copy of Hoang Tich Chu…
Ace L. is currently claiming that a bigger and better Anglo-Saxon auction house, after requiring his help in Saigon in 2022 for an exhibition (where he was certainly more of a “coolie” than a “curator”), is asking him to join as a permanent representative as of April 2023. He has already started hiring.
The apocryphal sentence attributed to Lenin : “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which to hang them” would then take on its full meaning because our counterfeiters would definitely be in the place (forgeries and laundering at all levels) and would greatly alter the market, without any trouble. Let’s hope that this great auction house will come to recognise their error with a will of correction.
IN CONCLUSION :
A call to vigilance is required as proven public facts are being exposed which undermine the essence of Vietnamese painting.
At Christie’s, in 2022, for all sales, 35% of buyers were new and 34% of them were “millennials” (i.e. born in the 80s and 90s). These figures express more than enthusiasm, they are the basis of a process.
We owe to these newcomers to eliminate this scale of nuisances, main actors or accomplices, public or private, in France and in Vietnam.
The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote on the wall of a detention camp, “They can crush all the flowers, but they won’t stop the spring.”
Of course, anticipation is to the future what memory is to the past : a simple intellectual reconstruction, a bit mythomaniacal, of the reality which is the eternal creation. But we must believe that the truth will prevail if we arm it.
France’s strength is the law. It is impossible to counteract the deficient mentalities that have become entrenched. But on the other hand, if the Customs and Tax authorities were interested in who sells, who buys and with whom, who exhibits and where, if the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) was more involved and if article 324-1/7 of our penal code was applied and if Interpol was solicited, all the intermediary agents who encourage this fraud would go from a pretended inattention to a serious circumspection… A beginning…
The fact that in Vietnam, less than two years after his election, President Nguyen Xuan Phuc resigned on January 17, 2023, followed by many officials, suggests that the Vietnamese government is stepping up its fight against corruption and money laundering. This could be of help in the matter at hand.
At Christie’s in Paris on December 16, a sumptuous Pham Hau, estimated at 50,000 € was sold for 264,600 €. Not far from there, two days earlier a Hoang Tich Chu from the same team obtained less than 32 000 €…
The quality collectors were able to deliver their verdict. But for how long will the soul of Vietnam accept to be compromise with the instinct?
For my part, I like this say : “One does not renounce the honour of being a target“. (F-A Charette de la Contrie (1763-1796)).