A Fertile Imagination

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One of Vietnam’s best known sculptors, 77-year-old Le Cong Thanh creates striking images of the female form. “I sculpt statues of women because a woman’s sexuality and body allow me to better understand the mysterious truth of life,” explains Mr. Thanh. “Painting is a means of expression, as is a story’s theme. All things have meaning, but there is only one purpose, the pursuit of beauty.

While it strikes me that understanding the meaning behind Mr. Thanh’s sensuous sculptures requires almost as much work as creating them, their beauty is easy to grasp. He celebrates female fertility without embarrassment or inhibitions. But where does his inspiration stem from? Is he motivated by Cham sculptures or Indian temple art? Obviously, Vietnam’s folk culture has greatly influenced his art.

In Vietnam’s agrarian societies there are countless examples of the celebration of human procreation. In northern Vietnam, farmers outlined plots of land shaped like stylized female genitals, which were named Thach Sang. People of the Muong ethnic group continue to tell the ancient tale about Dung and Da, a couple with enormous genitals. Vietnam’s founding myth tells of Lady Au Co, who bore 100 eggs from which hatched 100 children. Meanwhile, wooden funeral statues carved by minority peoples in Vietnam’s Central Tay Nguyen Highlands tend to have pronounced male and female genitalia. These statues’ enlarged genitalia convey a message about the continuity of life and the deceased’s family lineage.

All of these stories and images seem to have influenced Le Cong Thanh, causing him to draw on ancient folk beliefs to create his impressive statues. The shapes that he creates are more refined than those produced by his contemporaries or by ancient folk artists. His works call on men to recognize and re-evaluate the holy grandeur of the female form. Looking at his smooth sculptures, I feel that his creations-and the women that they represent-contain Zen-like power, their curves as gentle as a breeze, yet as firm as the brushstrokes of Japanese master painters.

As well as sculpting, Le Cong Thanh paints. His paintings, of which there must be close to one thousand, come as a surprise to me. These works, like the stream of life, are constantly changing. There is no hint of reproduction. Women remain his key focus, most paintings depicting the female buttocks, thighs, breasts and genitals, the most sensitive parts of the female body.

In my view, Le Cong Thanh’s works are in the same league as those by another great Vietnamese artist, Nguyen Sang, who is now deceased. While Nguyen Sang explored the theme of revolutionary war, Le Cong Thanh explores human sexuality. Indeed, his works introduce sex very slowly and naturally, just as it is nature that determines when a woman will go into labor and deliver.

He is infatuated by the ancient Vietnamese soul, his works full of vitality and power. The main challenge faced by Le Cong Thanh is not a lack of talent but rather his viewers’ prejudices, borne from a thousand years of Confucian dogma. His works brush away these inhibitions to reveal eternal human values. Some have compared Le Cong Thanhs works with those of Henry Moore. In the field of Vietnamese sculpture, Mr. Thanh’s works stands out for its originality and artistic merit. He lives to create beautiful art, skillfully using the colors of traditional culture and preserving the national character. As he once said: “Art is similar to kites, which soar up to the sky. Just remember not to cut the strings.”

I believe that Le Cong Thanh will be remembered as a pioneer in his field. As one who has freed himself from worldly restrictions, he truly deserves the title of artist.

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