Le Pho, « Les Lys » (The Lillies), circa 1936, or art, “renunciation of the intelligence to reason the concrete”

10 November 2022 Off By Jean-François Hubert

Our work, subject to inventory, is the most beautiful “bouquet” of flowers painted by Le Pho who was prolix in the matter as shown later in his Romanet and Findlay periods. We will explain later why the word “bouquet” is used with quotation marks.

The painter’s subtle genius illuminates this gouache and ink on silk of large dimensions (56.5 X 74 cm) which can be dated around 1936. This is corroborated by the background left partially natural – the painter affixing a discreet halo of ochre pigment around the group of flowers -, the use of a large stamp, although smaller than the ones used in the early 1930s, and the pastel tone of the pigments in the gouache. Here the artist does not sign with the two Chinese characters of his name, which is rare. The black ink remains discreet, in strokes, not in masses.

Here, unlike most of the groups of flowers represented by the artist, there is no pot or vase. Le Pho offers us these unattached, almost aerial lilies.

He does not represent the typical flowers of his native Tonkin: neither roses, nor chrysanthemums, nor jasmine, nor violets, nor sunflowers, peonies, gladioli or lotus. Here, he chose Les Lys and its majestic white petals, brilliant and diaphanous at the same time.

Eight blooming flowers and eight buds: a beautiful allusion to the auspicious signs, the 8 precious things, the 8 trigrams, the 8 Buddhist symbols, the 8 Taoist immortals, among others. And this set of 16 flowers is a 2 times 8. The 2, even number, like 8 and 16. And so Yin… the symbol of the earth: power of a work for initiates where the symbol comes to illuminate the meaning of the object represented…

The black stems center the work, strengthen the composition, allowing the flowers – and incidentally the leaves – described with exceptional grace, to be aerial. A cameo of green and a discreet blue come to assist the black in an affirmed verticality. The beauty is born from the unreal, from this deliberate opposition between an almost botanical observation and unreal colors applied in wash.

A bouquet, in its vase, with its flowers cut and arranged by man, order fought against Nature, seized in its force. But also progressively amputated from it. 

Flowers in a pot, it is Nature contested, roots bruised, flowers dependent on the care of their observer. 

Le Pho suggests us here free flowers which depend only on their roots. The roots… The supreme questioning of the painter at the moment when he feels that his life will be far away.

He refuses the ordering by human action and promotes the order of nature: No flowers cut in a vase, destined to die quickly, no flowers in a pot, destined to live weary of themselves. 

The marvelous eternity of Nature surpasses the mortal man. 

And that is why the “bouquet” is a mass.

Le Pho went to China in 1934. His trip modified his relationship – so ambiguous in Vietnam – to the country, tinged with intellectual admiration and historical mistrust. And so present in Le Pho who even traced his family ancestry to Yan Li-Ben (600-673), better known as Baron Wenzhen de Boling. For the anecdote, his friends Vu Cao Dam and Mai Thu used to make fun of him on this subject calling him with an affectionate smile, “the baron”…

During his stay in Beijing, he understands that Chinese art will not feed his inspiration. He remained seduced by Paris and its hectic artistic life that he had discovered in 1931-32. He had just been appointed Artistic Director of the Indochina section of the Paris World’s Exhibition (officially the International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques Applied to Modern Life) to be held in 1937. He felt a need for emancipation from this traditional Vietnamese Confucian society which offered nothing in artistic terms. His teaching position at the Hanoi Fine Arts School did not satisfy him. A powerful will to confront all the great artists of the time, present or by influence, who work in Paris, animates him.

Art is not a profession but a cause.

“Les Lys” are the painting of a close departure for a journey without return. Because intuitively, Le Pho knows that he will not return to Vietnam. Like Albert Camus, his contemporary – who would write a little later – he understood that “The work of art is born of the renunciation of intelligence to reason the concrete” (The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942).

The concrete is not the material.

The concrete, around the year 1936, are the notions of Fatherland, career, family, friendship. The man, who was not yet 30 years old, renounced since his first paintings to reason this concrete. A powerful breath animates him, Le Pho knows that one exceeds the absurdity of his destiny by his lucidity, and “the tenacious revolt” against his condition. Absurdity of a destiny certainly. But there is a greatness in living and making the absurd live.

“Les Lys” are the painting of this subtle revolt, of this magnificent observation that a painting lives longer than the flowers it represents.

Jean-François Hubert