Lê Phổ - Pioneers of Modernism: A Selection from the Scheeres Collection Hong Kong Saturday, May 26, 2018 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Private Collection, Paris
    Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1997

  • Catalogue Essay

    Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, Nguyen Gia Tri and Pham Hau are four prominent artists in the history of Vietnamese modern art. The four of them were alumni of the Fine Arts College of Indochina (L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Indochine) in Hanoi, an arts academy founded on the initiative of French artist Victor Tardieu in 1925. The Fine Arts College established a system of formal instruction for fine art for the first time outside of the traditional apprenticeship in the guild system, coupled with extremely comprehensive admissions tests that ensured only the most talented applicants would be admitted.

    While the foundational courses at the college focused on training the students in the European oil painting tradition, Tardieu and his faculty encourage the students to experiment with more traditionally Vietnamese media in their practice. In the context of the burgeoning nationalism of colonial Vietnam, the artists collectively sought to nurture an art form they could claim as their own. Silk painting and lacquer art became the two major techniques that the Vietnamese artists would hone to a superior standard – both of which are rooted in traditional Asian culture and so were rich in stylistic references.

    As the students of the pioneer batch of the Fine Arts College academy, both Le Pho and Mai Trung Thu were quick to abandon oil painting in favour of ink and gouache on silk. Ink painting allowed for a precision of line that was not easily achieved with oil, while gouache offered a sureness of colour without completely obscuring the unique grain of the silk surface. Alongside their peers from the first-graduating batch from the college, Le Pho and Mai Trung Thu travelled to Paris to exhibit in the 1931 Exposition Coloniale, at the Angkor Wat Pavillion under Tardieu’s charge. Just as their works were well-received by the Parisians and the international audience at the Exposition, they were equally enamoured by the romantic, carefree lifestyle of the Parisian, free from the rigidity of hierarchy and structure in Confucian society. Both artists eventually decided to move to Paris to further their artistic careers, though Vietnam was never far from their hearts and minds.

    Le Diner (Lot 23) is a very early work by the Le Pho and was painted in 1938, in the same year as his first solo exhibition in Paris. Works from this early stage in Le Pho’s artistic development are rare and highly sought after as they display his innate skills in painting on silk. Framing the boy as the sole focus of the painting, the artist portrays the child is eating from a bowl with a pair of chopsticks. The setting is decidedly Asian in its references, with three other dishes laid on the table towards the foreground to suggest a communal meal. Despite being painted in Paris, Le Diner exudes a sense of nostalgia and a longing for the familiar simplicity of life back in Vietnam.

    Mai Trung Thu’s Lady Combing Hair (Lot 22) embodies the artist’s perception of ideal feminine beauty through his delicate linework and muted palette. A doleful expression casts across her soft facial features as she gazes at the viewer with languid eyes while stroking her silky hair that cascades down her shoulder, mirroring the sheer curtains that fall across the right side of the painting that barely obscure any details from the eyes of the viewer. The long sleeves and draping sash of the traditional ao dai and the sensuously curved silhouette of the rosewood table that sits in the background situate the scene in the artist’s homeland. Much like Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu remained deeply inspired by Vietnam even while in a new environment.

    Just as Le Pho and Mai Trung Thu were the masters of silk painting in modern Vietnam, Nguyen Gia Tri and Pham Hau were committed to lacquer as their primary vehicle for expression. The former is credited with elevating lacquer art from decorative art to a richly expressive fine art that was uniquely Vietnamese.

    Landscape with Ricefields (Lot 24) typifies the essence of Nguyen Gia Tri’s mastery of the medium. The intricate details of the chosen landscape are not spared in this unusual small, square format. Fine lines guide the wheat grown in the padi terraces, with smoothly engraved plants framing the sides of the vignette. The gold paint acts as an accent to the scene, illustrating the areas where the warm sunlight would have grazed the tops of the leaves. The artist employs the Western concept of a vanishing point to suggest depth in the landscape, enhanced by the bright ochre tones of the foreground blending into a darker umber towards the background.

    Similarly, Pham Hau’s beautifully designed lacquer box, View of a Temple (Lot 25) is rich in detail despite its limited surface – a testimony to the skill of the artist. The large banana leaves glimmer in the golden sunlight, owing the fullness of their form to the artist’s expert handling of tonal variations. Instead of a vanishing point, Pham Hau opts to layer elements in the scene to achieve depth, much like in traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Even in the distance, the leaves of the trees are carved individually, and the windows of the buildings marked out one by one. The lacquer box is a true treasure, a record of the patience and technical dexterity displayed by the artist.

    The works in this collection demonstrate the artists’ keen appreciation of the pictorial structures of the West while maintaining a clear vision to develop traditional art forms to serve the images of the 20th century. Regardless of whether they spent their entire lives in Vietnam, or travelled the world to further their artistic careers, these artists were continually drawing inspiration from their country, its people, and its culture, in most of their oeuvre.

Pioneers of Modernism: A Selection from The Scheeres Collection


Le Diner

circa 1938
signed 'Le Pho [in Chinese and English]' with one seal of the artist, top left
ink and gouache on silk
28.6 x 21.8 cm. (11 1/4 x 8 5/8 in.)
Executed circa 1938.

HK$100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for HK$487,500

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Pioneers of Modernism: A Selection from the Scheeres Collection

Hong Kong Auction 27 May 2018