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Nudes in Nguyen Phan Chanh's Silk Paintings

After the war with the French ended and I returned to Hanoi, I used to visit Nguyen Phan Chanh at his home at 65 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Hanoi. We would discuss his early achievements in silk painting and he would tell me about recent projects and the trips he had taken to gather material for his work. Though he seldom had a chance to share them, his memories of past events were clear. The older he became the more vibrant and youthful were his attitudes and emotions. Chanh was particularly proud of his achievements with silk painting, the medium in which he excelled. When he reached his late 80s, he painted primarily female nudes, capturing well the lyrical and aesthetic beauty of the human body.

Painter Nguyen Van Ty

Capturing the beauty of the human body
Nguyen Phan Chanh liked to paint people bathing and other scenes featuring subjects partially undressed. Though these were subjects favoured by Western artists, he treated them in a uniquely Vietnamese style. In his nudes painted on a silk canvas he conveys the soft texture of women’s skin and the purity of their bodies. His paintings of half-naked women, which first appeared in 1957, include Sau gio lao dong (After a Day’s Labour), Me con (Mother and Child), Sau buoi bua (After Ploughing the Field). In “Mother and Child”, Nguyen Phan Chanh paints a young mother breastfeeding her child. The woman, who wears an undershirt, has silky shoulders and arms and a luminous face. Her skin looks as fresh as milk. Held close by her mother, the child is shown preparing its mouth to receive its mother’s milk.

“How do you paint nudes,” I once asked Chanh, “when your children and grandchildren are living all around you like this?”

“I manage,” he responded. “Usually, I paint nudes while my children and grandchildren are not home. I post a notice on the door stating ‘Busy painting female model. Please don’t disturb!’ So, if guests arrive, they will be likely to sympathise with me and leave. Once when my wife came from the farm where she was working to visit me, she saw the notice on my door. Realising that I was busy painting nudes, she became so jealous and upset that she left Hanoi for the farm again and stayed there for several months.”

Certainly these obstacles didn’t cause Ch¸nh to move to other subjects. In his later paintings, such as Ky l­ng (Rubbing the Back), Trang to (Bright Moonlight) and Trang lu (Dim Moonlight), Chanh depicts women’s bodies with even greater confidence. Using a variety of compositions, he presents his nude Vietnamese women from an Oriental perspective, but in his works we can detect some similarities of colour and shape to the paintings of Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), or Francisco de Goya (1746-1828). In viewers, Nguyen Phan Chanh’s paintings of nudes evoke both a refined aesthetic sense and deep emotion. The beauty of his art does not lie specifically in the external forms of the nude women but in the method of presentation, in the artist’s ability to use shades of colour and other techniques to create the grace and charm of the human body. Generally speaking, while Occidental painters concentrate on muscles and movements, Oriental painters create a general impression by accenting facial expression, gesture, and emotion. While Occidental painters attempt to capture fleeting moments when soft or cold light strikes a woman’s body, Oriental painters strive for a general tint, one that hints at something more permanent, more likely to last. Applying the above statements to Nguyen Phan Chanh, we see that he took an Oriental approach to his painting. He painted conventionally beautiful women from everyday life and placed them in a calm and tranquil atmosphere. His models were often rural women of the fertile Red River Delta, and many of his paintings are bathed in soft browns similar to the colour of the peasant blouses they wore.

A blend of traditional Vietnamese and Western styles
In traditional wood engraving and silk painting, there were many white spaces and also little attention to perspective. This simple, clear style of presentation found in traditional Vietnamese folk art can be detected in the works of Nguyen Phan Chanh. In Chanh’s depiction of nude figures, however, we see that the artist has adopted some methods associated with European aesthetics. Nude figures in traditional wood carvings or brass reliefs were stylised-not depicted in a concrete, realistic manner. Traditional artists would focus on one representative feature of their subjects and not worry about matters of proportion and balance. We see the influence of this traditional approach in Chanh’s works, but also observe that his figures are more concretely and individually rendered. Though his figures are still generalised to a certain degree, their body proportions and musculature are more anatomically correct. This more realistic presentation of subjects differs from the folk art of former times. Artists have been liberated from an abstract view of women, and we see evidence of this liberation in Chanh’s paintings.

In Nguyen Phan Chanh’s art we see some features common to modern Vietnamese art. While Western artists use nudes to illustrate states of mind (Michelangelo’s “The Slave,” Rodin’s “The Thinker”) or to reflect a philosophical or mythological atmosphere (Greek or Indian classical art), Nguyen Phan Chanh accepts the beauty of nude figures as a natural part of a labouring life. In his paintings of nudes and in other paintings as well, he presents the simplicity of everyday life: a woman taking a bath, a girl ploughing in the field, a mother breastfeeding her child.

Nguyen Phan Chanh, like many other modern Vietnamese painters, integrates Oriental and Occidental artistic styles to fashion his own unique works.

Reprinted with the kind permission of VietNam Cultural Windows


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