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The First Step to Vietnamese Modern Painting


The First Step of the Vietnamese Modern Painting


by To Ngoc Van

From the book Painters of the Fine Art College of Indochina

The Fine-Arts School, in the first year of its founding, was situated in Dufeur garden, that is to say, within the limits of the present-day school. That was a repository of the Public Works Service, roofed with zinc, in 1925, where were put shovels and pickaxes. It was both the residence of the director, Mr. Tardieu, and the gathering place for successful candidates. In this cradle of the modern Fine Arts school may be seen some large pictures by Mr. Tardieu, now shown at the lecture-room of the University of Indochina. By that time, they were not moss-grown and covered with mould as they are today. They always sparkled with red light of ripe oranges. In front of them stood a very long ladder that reached the top of the pictures. It used to crackle under Mr. Tardieu's heavy footsteps each time he climbed up to work on a picture. Every day, we crowded together at the foot of the ladder, with both sympathy and mischief. All day long, the ladder watched a very aesthetically unkempt hair of Le Pho who frequently wore a starched collar with a long black necktie. It mischievously witnessed the young Nguyen Phan Chanh's ill luck that occurred twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon. The reason for this is that he never parted from his discolored umbrella, which he always kept beside him, even when he worked on a painting. The first day Mr. Tardieu saw it; he carried the umbrella away and hung it on a rung of the ladder without scrupling to offend Nguyen Phan Chanh. However, the next day, then the day after the next, it rested with Phan Chanh to keep his umbrella beside him, and with Mr. Tardieu to hang the umbrella on the ladder. As for the towering ladder, it crackled each time the umbrella was hung on it, as if it poked fun and counted up once again. Over there is Mai Trung Thu with his lips hung and his wide opened eyes that seemingly wanted to run onto the posing naked model's body which he was perseveringly sketching in. At this little place was sitting Le Van De who was also absorbed in his work, also persevering in his efforts. Now and then, he busted out laughing at something unknown, like a firecracker, which suddenly breaks out.

Were there not the Fine-Arts School, a lot of ardent hearts devoted to Fine Arts would have been wasted in a certain unrighteous art. The God of this art is Mr. Tran Phenh, an artist we have formerly admired and have considered a hardly available lofty target. His art consists in dexterity; his talent consists in forging gaudy colours to be applied to figures copied faithfully from photos without taking into account the artist's emotion.

Mr. Phenh has been present at the first entrance examination to the Fine Arts School. We took a covetous glance at him, thinking that he came there not to be a student of the Fine-Arts School, but to become a teacher. During the execution of academy figures, everybody opened wide his eyes to watch the motion of Mr. Phenh's hand on the paper. He took out successively from behind his ears lots of pencils of all sizes, unrolled sheets of glossy paper of every format, as cleverly as a coiffeur cleaning the customer's ears. He added finishing touches to the eyelashes or the wrinkles on the lips of the "model" in the picture.

The examination result was quite astonishing: Mr. Phenh was failed. He himself and his art ceased to be sacred. Joyful, passionate, confident, we entered the Fine-Arts school to reach the palace of the "Beauty" which very soon we were attracted to. Are there any young people having such a passion for the human beauty as ours for the "Beauty"?

In the world of such passionate hearts, people talked about well-known Chinese, Japanese or European painters of this century or the past one. People delved into their characters, their talents as if the latter are their old acquaintances, although they knew the artist only through publications or through colour or black-and-white photos of the latter's works. One loves the work only after understanding it. These works have something sympathetic, a certain ambience in which our Fine-Arts school students feel at ease.

Do not ask them why. They can give only a reply after Montaigne: "Since it is Hokusai, Manet. Cezanne, Van Gogh... Since it is we..."
The collision between the Fine-Arts School and the public began in the first exhibition in about 1928-1929, at the very Fine-Arts School. There was the painting, "A maiden with tangled hair" with a sorrowful physiognomy by Le Pho, the "Maiden sitting on camp bed" with tears in her eyes by Mai Trung Thu. There was the soft "Old man" by Miss Le Thi Luu, some pictures painted with dark-brown colours by Nguyen Phan Chanh describing the countryside. Silk-paintings had not come into being yet. They were only uneven and rough canvases, and not smooth and shiny ones like photos to the public's liking. The press made cautious remarks. People blamed pictures by Le Pho and Nguyen Phan Chanh for their mud-like colours... Did they think these remarks to be merely a praise? A daily newspaper was even ironical about the “lasciviousness" of Mai Trung Thu's painting, because the artist painted a young woman wearing satinet trousers and a bodice without outer garment... The then general tendency among painters was to refine the figure of a maiden that looked dreamy, innocent, and melancholic... Is that a sign of the times? Who may be compared to Mai Trung Thu in depicting eyes wet with tears? Every maiden pictured by Le Pho had dim eyes without living glints. People liked their pictorial works to look Chinese, Japanese. People used to append lots of red seals to lengthy Chinese inscriptions, picture rocks, trees, silhouettes that are seen only in Chinese paintings. 'Quite Chinese! ', that is a praise for a painting warm-heartedly received by the author. This risible spectacle has betrayed a mannerism, a preference given to the routine over the sincere emotion, as if the pictorial work has merely an outward look without sheltering a soul

1931. The colonial fair held in France has put the French public in touch with Vietnamese painting. I would like to mean silk-paintings which look neither European nor Chinese by the young Nguyen Phan Chanh who formerly kept jealously his umbrella beside him, the young man who has launched a movement for special Annamese silk-paintings that he himself and all others have never thought about.

(This article by To Ngoc Van appeared in "Xuan Thu Nha Tap" in 1942).

From the book Painters of the Fine Art College of Indochina
     

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