“Le Concert” by Le Pho – 1938. Or “the reality is not the subject”
It is agreed today that the life of the great Vietnamese painter, Le Pho, can be divided into three distinct periods. In our regular meetings and discussions previously he agreed on this chronology of his entire oeuvre. Each period can be classically named and dated with their specific distinctive identifying characteristics.
The first period begins with his years of training in Hanoi’s School of Fine Arts (1925-1930) all the way to the early 40’s. Le Pho clearly favoured the practice of oil on canvas, avoiding working with too much traditional Vietnamese lacquers due to his allergies but, gradually, he specialized in gouache and ink on silk. Beyond the techniques, his work was always marked by a strong and marked Mandarin solemnity, reflecting his scholarly background.
The second period, from 1945 to the very early 60s, is known as the Romanet period and was named after the painter’s gallerist, Paul Romanet. During this period, Le Pho continued painting on silk – using a thick varnish that modifies the appearance of the colour palette which was more suitable to the artist’s new impressionist style, being influenced with his time spent in Paris.
Finally, the Findlay period, from 1963 to the late 80s, named after an American gallery with whom Le Pho signed a contract (as did his friend and contemporary Vu Cao Dam). During this period, Le Pho returned to painting on canvas using exceptional bright colours unique to his work and still typified in an impressionist style. At the end of the 80’s, after suffering from a bad accident, he never painted again.
Within these periods, within the great book of life, beyond the chapter, we must aim to identify each page which marks the work of an artist and lead us in the full awareness and understanding of universal beauty, an exceptional moment where the artist’s talent meets in perfect harmony with the spectator’s sensitivity.
The present works The Concert, is one of Le Pho’s major works, unique in composition and extremely important as it provides us with a key insight and understanding of his life in Paris.
When the painter completed our painting, probably in 1938, he was at the peak of his artistic career and excelled in the use of gouache and ink on silk. Up to then, the painter worked mostly on silk; creating representations of beautiful Madonna’s and maternities inspired by the European Primitives he spent time observing in museums since his arrival in Paris in 1931. In this period he also practiced on subjects such as evanescent young women, still-life and flowers arrangements.
The situation of our artist reminds us of Nguyên Gia Thiêu (1741-1798) and his masterpiece the Cung Oan Ngân Khuc (Sadness of the Palace) because the poet and the painter meet in these verses joining together the Buddhist pessimism on impermanence and the universal grief and the pessimism of the former ruling class, which was disappointed by the Tây-Son’s revolt :
How pure was the accent of the cithara in the back of the palace,
And the plaintive flute under the purple veranda!
The more their romance vibrated and the more I was exhilarated,
The more their rhythm rushed, the more my heart soften.
To better understand the context of this painting and to better imagine the scene and the moment of execution, a few facts need to be recalled. In 1931, Le Pho was assisting Victor Tardieu during the Colonial Exhibition in Paris. The International Colonial Exhibition (Exposition Coloniale Internationale) , was a six-month colonial exhibition held in Paris, France in 1931 that attempted to display the diverse cultures and immense resources of France’s colonial possessions.
In 1937, he was the artistic director of the Indochina section at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. Between 1933 and 1937 he was teaching at the Hanoi Fine-Art School, his students were brilliant and his talent was well regarded and recognized by the distinguished and cultural circles in Indochina.
What could possibly have pushed a well-heeled man of society of thirty years of age to leave behind a successful life and material comforts for a far away and unknown city?
Le Pho had a few recommendations, spoke perfect French but in the late 1930s, Paris was the place where all the artistic talents of the world would gather and congregate together – a gathering of great creative minds and impulses. At that time, Le Pho was just a painter among many trying to conquer not only Montparnasse but also the Parisian galleries. At the very least, following the proactive actions of AGINDO (The Economical Agency of Indochina) and the 1931 Exhibition – it meant there was already a public awareness there of his art.
Perhaps he was thinking of these four verses of Chinh Phu Ngâm (the masterpiece of Vietnamese literature of the late eighteenth century, written by Dang Tran Côn in Chinese and translated in Vietnamese by Phan Huy Ich ):
Each year the charms further fade;
Man lingers in distant lands.
Why the body and the shadow, never to be separated
Now are like the evening star and the morning star?
This painting is exceptional because it is the manifesto of what makes a man’s destiny: the journey, a lifelong quest or as an escape.
At the very moment Le Pho was painting this scene, we can imagine him feeling a profound nostalgia for his native homeland. Here we are, far away (as for the iconography) of the Madonnas and yet so strongly influenced by the great European Primitives, beautiful portraits of women wrapped at times in their gentleness or at times in their seduction.
The great painter offers us here the phantasmagorical description of a Vietnamese interior full of charm, coming through with an unprecedented force. A beautiful lady musician plays the flute while another evanescent young woman reads a letter (a booklet) behind her fan. The writing can be identified as quôc ngû and we can identify a few words: Môt vài lòi (a few words), Thò vong (resounding breath). The woman in her ao dai enjoying the fan leans nonchalantly on a low Vietnamese style table. The musician seems to actively search, deeply within herself, the music to find the sounds of a lost and loved Vietnam.
Le Pho used with great mastery the black ink along with soft tones of gouache such as yellow, red, green and blue giving the rich composition a true ethereal lightness. In the right lower corner of the painting, a wicker basket contains a flower arrangement of Asian flowers – the lily, peony and prunus.
The effort by the artist to make the scene as Asian as possible is shown in the details in the painting; from the Vietnamese pattern on the notebook’s cover placed on the table; or even in the kakemono hanging on the wall: we can discern a Chinese influence probably inspired by Le Pho’ s visit in China in 1934. Finally an empty background in a green and brown colour reinforces the relationship of the two young women immersed in their scholarly pursuits.
This magnificent work was previously exhibited in 1942, in the Galerie Romanet in Algiers (then French Algeria). It was purchased by a well-known French personality and was kept intact in the family to this day, including its French frame (from the early 1940s) which was made specifically for the purpose of this exhibition. A breath-taking work, a masterpiece, that represents the absolute best in the master painter’s oeuvre.