Luu Van Sin, 1937 : “Resting On The Way To The New Year Market” Or Walk. But Where?

19 November 2020 Off By Jean-François Hubert

In his gouache and ink on silk, Luu Van Sin – a 1936 graduate of the École des Beaux Arts of Indochina, and a contemporary of Tran Van Can and Nguyen Gia Tri – used his art to perfection in order to offer us a strongly symbolic piece. 

The cherry tree, which blooms in northern Vietnam in January or February, indicates that the painting illustrates the time of Têt, the Vietnamese New Year, which is a time of taking stock and of making auspicious wishes for the future. 

Luu Van Sin - Resting On The Way To The New Year Market
Luu Van Sin – Resting On The Way To The New Year Market

The clothing and posture of the three young people provide further illumination: the two figures on the right seem to be from an influent family whereas the figure on the left, almost hidden behind his spoilt conical hat, came from a more modest social origin, especially when one compares his traditional headdress, his peasant clothes with the Westernized hairstyles and clothes of the other two. Even their looks are different: a little blissful for one, a little smug for the other two.

Even their general maintenance raises questions.  Clearly the two westernized people are talking to each other, not giving a glance to the peasant who is staring at them. A certain indolence, a little rough on the part of the peasant, a little pedantic for the other two, dominates the picture.

Luu Van Sin crystallized questions that were current at the time: in 1936-37, Vietnam was in the throes of queries and the artist was questioning the political, economic and social realities of his era as well as his own views on these issues. He was faced with the dilemma between modernization and tradition, renewal or decline, nationalism or universality passivity or activism, individualism or conformity. Luu Van Sin was even interrogated by officials in 1936-37.

In France, the « Front Populaire » became the leading party in 1936 and the political message turned to socialism: the colonial power proposed a new discourse in which social dialogue became the necessary paragon. In Hanoi, Victor Tardieu, the founder of the École des Beaux Arts, passed away in 1937, and the exacerbated desire to promote Vietnamese talent died with him. These were widely troubled and anxious years, and Luu Van Sin chose to illustrate the colors of his time very well. It was the eve of the Second World War and the decolonization war was about to take place. It seemed as if the white cherry blossoms would become red with the blood of conflict.

Interestedly, the painter adds some details to his painting, writing from right to left:

Painted by Van Sin
By the studio window

With a seal “Luu Van Sin

Exclusively in Chinese characters. Here we take up the hypothesis already developed for the Tran Van Can / Nguyen Khang lacquer screen according to which these inscriptions, only in Chinese, without any romanization of the letters including in quoc ngu, must be analyzed as a deliberate desire to free oneself from French supervision. A vain, even immature effort, on the one hand, Luu Van Sin and lacquer would be nothing without the teaching of the Fine Arts of Hanoi, on the other hand, this plunge into Chinese identity, against nature, will lead to nothing.

The author precisely dates the season of his work. It must be winter 36-37. Note that it is very rare to find seasonal dating in Vietnamese paintings. The artist gives us a precise dating of his work, the “winter” of 1936-37 leading to the Tet on February 11, 1937.

“By the studio window”:
Should this be the location of the artist when he signs his finished work?

The seal:
Classic and usual. Many of the artists would abandon it later, probably because with the modernity of the public and a better knowledge of the public, the cachet seemed obsolete. A modern artist is a name not an acronym. Iconically, for those who stayed in the North, signing in Chinese would have been a betrayal, Very soon Le Pho and Vu Cao Dam abandoned it, Mai Thu kept hers, very simple, even returning in the 1950s to dating in Chinese (but in simple numbers not using the calendar). Complexity of identity …

After their stop, our three protagonists will resume their journey, with their existential, fundamental questioning. Who are they really?  What do they want?  We will never have it.  

Maybe they thought of Chau Trinh (1872-1926) and his poem « the Candle »:

« But the door ajar lets the breeze filter in…
In the night that draws to a close, to whom can one entrust one’s tears?

Walk, but walk to where?

Jean-François Hubert