Les couturières, 1930: Nguyen Phan Chanh or the epicurean of simplicity

24 September 2020 Off By Jean-François Hubert

The first years of teaching since 1925 have certainly revealed talents among the students but the director of the School knows that in art there is no talent without an audience. Their audience in Hanoi remains very restricted. For the great exhibition in Paris, where a large public is expected, Tardieu calls upon his best students, including the oldest among them, Nguyen Phan Chanh. His request is received with unanimous enthusiasm.

Nguyen Phan Chanh - Les couturières
Nguyen Phan Chanh – Les couturières

As early as 1929, Victor Tardieu knew that the participation to the Colonial Exhibition – planned for 1931 in Paris – would be decisive for the future of “his” Hanoi School of Fine Arts :  it could mean the difference between stagnation or success… to be confirmed, as the idea to create a true modern and ambitious Vietnamese painting may seem excessive.

Victor Tardieu’s list

Painted during the summer of 1930, Les Couturières will take part in the Colonial Exhibition (which will welcome 8 million visitors) and will be one of the major Asian works presented there.

Its dimension, 65.5×88 cm., is exceptional -the artist usually uses smaller sizes- it has kept its original Gadin frame (named after the Parisian framer in charge of the works presented in Paris) as well as its specific assembly demanded by the artist : the painting is off center, set lower to create a double rectangle, the one above being the largest.

Gadin's frame - example
Gadin’s frame – example

The genius of the artist is expressed in the extraordinary geometrical intricate composition that characterizes the works during his first period: the construction of a double triangle (each of the angles being represented by the black ink), the subtle additions of a circle at the top left, the airy rectangle in the center of the background but also, a triangle pointing upwards, slightly to the right, vertical or horizontal lines structure the space not unlike a Kandinsky to subtly bring us to these four beautiful, dignified, attentive and busy young women.

In a poetic and magnificent text written in beautiful calligraphy, the painter explains the feeling they inspire:

Close-up of the work

Their elegance and their purity are unmatched 
Which lady is the most desired ?
Like the silk they are sewing,
Each is unique and beautiful in their own way.

The choice of words: “elegance”, “purity”, “desired”, “unique”, “beautiful”, creates an earthly mysticism to sacralize a voluntary monotony of the monochrome tones in the gouache and adorns these young women with an elegant sensuality found also in the silk used by the artist as a comparison.

Nguyen Phan Chanh is not nostalgic of the past and instead conveys a fascinated praise for timeless beauty.

The painter knows it: time is only a thief of love.

Jean-François Hubert