Le Pho : The Lady With Custard Apples or humanisation of the sacred

23 July 2019 Off By Jean-François Hubert

The painting we are proud to present here is clearly an extraordinary work : a milestone in the master painter’s creation. 

Indeed, this work uses all the same classical elements usually found in all his painting at that time : the fine features in the lady’s face, her headdress, her ao dai, her light scarf, all set in a mountainous landscape and nature.  All these elements evoke his native land of Tonkin.  In this particular work, and what makes it outstanding, Le Pho went beyond the evocative description : this work can be included in a will for symbolization based on a knowledge acquired through watching and studying European masters during his first trip to France in 1931-1932.

We know that at the time, even if he initially came for the Colonial Exhibition in Paris, he also stayed in France and traveled through Europe to discover, what will fascinate him for the rest of his life, a new school of painting : the purity of the Primitives with an attention to details, the careful use of the whole surface of the canvas, something that will not only interest him but also fascinate him and will influence him for ever.  


The symbolism is obvious : this young woman don’t just mechanically pick out the custard apples, this « exotic fruit » so typical to what was once his country and is now his « overseas ».  The painting belongs to the great painting tradition developed in the European School from Titian (1488-1576) to Rubens (1577-1640) but also with Paul Sérusier (1864-1927) himself a friend of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), an artist who, Le Pho once told me privately, greatly influenced him.  

This painting combines in the most original way the usual grace and elegance of a Tonkinese lady and evoke the Eve of the Bible, a universal theme studied by many of his eldest but treated here with Le Pho’s very unique style.  As we know, in the Bible, God banned the consumption of the forbidden fruit, and against his will Eve ate the apple and worse, she seduced him and mislead Adam to eat some too.  God was then forced to expel Adam and Eve from Paradise and made them mortal.  

The founding myth never cease to inspire commentaries, interpretations and representations at a universal level.  We can easily imagine the painter observing carefully the famous work, « The Fall of Man » by Pierre Paul Rubbens (1628-1629), in which symbolism has it place with, among others, a parrot (present in one of Le Pho’s silk) as a symbol of good and redemption.  Raphael (1483-1520), Titian but also Jan Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) also expressed, as many did, this evocative theme but Le Pho will modernize it and humanize it.  

In front of the powerful grace of the Tonkinese Lady, the religious aspect recedes.  Her facial traits express a definite sensuality et in her gesture, she caresses de fruit more than she intend to grasp it.  Her hand surrounds graciously the apples already gathered.  To highlight the very subtle and sensual relationship between the lady and the custard apples, Le Pho used greens and soft whites in contract the dominant cool shades of blue. Le Pho, the Sensual, seems to provoke the religious history : far from being unique and fatal, the apple, on the contrary, is a symbol of pleasure and reveals the conquering energy of the painter.  From a classical and distressing theme (Rubens even named his work « Adam and Eve or the Fall of Man ») Le Pho aimed for a more humanistic, down to earth version where man frees himself from God.

While painting this work around 1938, he probably already made up his mind.  The choice was to stay in France, a country where he was welcome with elegance and success in 1931, when he was Victor Tardieu’s assistant during the Colonial Exhibition.  His contribution was essential and so recognized during the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1937 and, it is again in Paris that everything will be decided, judged and said : Montparnasse is the world center of visual art, where all the great masters meet each other and mingle in an atmosphere of permanent quest for the absolute.  On the other side of the world, in Vietnam, Tardieu, his mentor, passed away the previous year (1937).  Evariste Jonchère then became the head of the School of Fine-Art of Hanoi but in a way all the artists did not approve.  Le Pho was an orphan for a long time, his true field of investigation, his real artistic homeland is going to be France where he will be welcomed with pride but also demands.  The great Vietnamese painter will never return to Vietnam, nor will Vu Cao Dam who arrived in 1931 and nor his other friend Mai Thu who, will only briefly return in 1958 after arriving in France in 1937.

He was then a 31 years old young man, ambitious in his work, trusting his destiny, he, with the modesty known to the greatest, he created this beautiful art work.  The dominant sensuality of this work is just elegant without suggesting a hint of indecency, one of the characteristic of Le Pho’s work. He was undoubtably a lover of women, the reason why, of all the female representations in XXth century pictural art in Vietnam, he offered the most beautiful, the most elegant and the most sincere representation of women.  By his genius, now universally recognized, he succeeded in making his subject of predilection, a subject of admiration.

May be, at the time did he remember these beautiful verses written by Hô Xuân Huong’s (who died in 1822).  She was an immense poet, orphan, as he was, at a young age:

In The Jackfruit where poetry transforms sensuality into art :

« My body is like a jackfruit swinging on a tree

My skin is rough, my pulp is thick  

Dear prince, if you want me pierce me upon your stick 

Don’t squeeze, I’ll ooze and stain your hands »

Hô Xuân Huong

Jean-François HUBERT