Before 1945

The earliest Vietnamese artist to achieve recognition for his work in the medium of oil and watercolour painting was Lê Văn Miến (1873 -1943), a native of Huế who studied classical academic painting at theÉcole des beaux arts in Paris in the early 1890s. However, at the turn of the century western concepts of space and light in art were still alien to Việt Nam and the ‘realism’ of his work would undoubtedly have raised eyebrows in Vietnamese artistic circles.

Contemporary French art was introduced into Việt Nam during the Exposition de Hanoi 1902-1903 and in subsequent years western-style painting and sculpture became popular amongst Vietnamese intellectuals. The first of several ‘Annamese Art Exhibitions’ was held by the French in 1909 and in 1913 the École de dessin or Gia Định School of Drawing (Trường vẽ Gia Định) was opened in Sài Gòn. However, this school was principally an applied arts school designed to provide continuing studies for graduates of the woodwork and lacquerware school at Thủ Dầu Một (1901) and the ceramics and bronzecasting school at Biên Hòa (1907).
Nam Son (VN Fine Arts Museum)It was the establishment of the École supérieure des beaux-arts de l’Indochine (Trường Cao đẳng Mỹ thuật Đông Dương) in Hà Nội which laid the essential groundwork for the development of a distinctive Vietnamese style of modern art. When it opened its doors in 1925, the school had only two faculties – painting and sculpture. Other faculties were added later, including architecture (1926), lacquerware (1930), jewelrymaking (1933), ceramics (1934) and woodcarving (1938).
The École supérieure was founded jointly by its first principal Victor Tardieu (1870 -1937) and talented Vietnamese artist and teacher Nam Sơn (Nguyễn Vạn Thọ, 1890-1973). During its 20 years of existence this important institution imparted to succeeding generations of Vietnamese students the skills of anatomical drawing and oil painting, at the same time introducing them to major European art movements of the day such as Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and Symbolism.
Nguyen Do Cung (HN University Fine Art)
The seminal work of early graduates Nguyễn Gia Trí (1906-1993), Nguyễn Tường Lân (1906-1947), Tô Ngọc Vân (1906-1954), Trần Văn Cẩn (1910-1994) and Nguyễn Đỗ Cung (1912-1977, also a distinguished researcher and later the first Director of Hà Nội’s National Museum of Fine Art) led to a reappraisal of the importance of traditional Vietnamese art forms and the beginnings of a patriotic modernism which sought inspiration and creativity from the indigenous culture of the people. Nguyễn Gia Trí quickly become known for his pioneering work with lacquer, whilst the other three concentrated on oil painting, each in his own way pushing back the borders of Vietnamese art.
Bui Xuan Phai (VN Fine Arts Museum)The ideas espoused by this group were subsequently taken forward by four very important artists trained during the latter years of the École supérieure des beaux arts. The work of Bùi Xuân Phái (1921-1987), Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm (b 1922), Nguyễn Sáng (1923-1988) and Dương Bích Liên (1924-1988) broke away decisively from the European realistic and impressionistic styles taught at the École, striving towards a national modern art by combining mediums such as oil, gouache and watercolour with distinctly Asian motifs and spatial concepts.
Other important alumni of the school during the late colonial period included Lê Phổ (1907-2001), Mai Trung Thứ (1906-1980) and Lê Thị Lựu (1911-1988).
In the early 1930s the École supérieure des beaux arts introduced Vietnamese modern painting to the western world through several international fairs and exhibitions, including Paris (1931), Rome (1932), Milan (1934), Brussels (1936) and San Francisco (1937).
Nguyen Gia Tri (VN Fine Arts Museum)It was during this period that the ancient Vietnamese art of lacquerware emerged for the first time as a medium through which artists could express themselves in a contemporary manner. The idea originated with Joseph Imguimberty (1896-1971), a French art teacher at the École supérieure des beaux arts de l’Indochine, who persuaded his students to experiment with the application of traditional lacquer technique to painting. The dark lacquer was applied layer by layer onto an image, sometimes decorated with eggshell and gold leaf, until that image was completely obscured. When the final layer of lacquer had dried it was sanded down to reveal the image beneath in varying degrees of clarity. The first to succeed with this technique was Nguyễn Gia Trí, who applied both western and modern painting approaches with traditional lacquer techniques and came to dominate the field of lacquer painting before 1945. Many of Trí’s contemporaries also experimented successfully with lacquer painting, including Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Trần Văn Cẩn, Phạm Gia Giang (b 1912), Hoàng Tích Chù (1912-2003), Nguyễn Khang (1912-1989), Nguyễn Tiến Chung (1914-1976), Nguyễn Văn Bình (b 1917), Nguyễn Văn Tỵ (1917-1992) and Lê Quốc Lộc (1918-1987).
Nguyen Phan Chan (VN Fine Arts Museum)
Another traditional technique to be developed during this period was that of silk painting. The soft lines and subtle patches of colour created by the absorbent silk gave the colours and forms of the image a unique quality, invoking a spirit of meditative reflection which many Vietnamese artists regarded as uniquely Asian and therefore particularly suitable for development as a contemporary medium. Nguyễn Phan Chánh (Hồng Nam, 1892-1984), a student at the École suprieure during the 1920s and 1930s, is considered by many to be the founder of modern Vietnamese silk painting, but his work was very much of the traditional school and silk painting only experienced its full flowering as a contemporary genre with the works of Nguyễn Tường Lân, Trần Văn Cẩn, Lê Phổ, Mai Trung Thứ, Nguyễn Tiến Chung, Lê Thị Lựu, Lương Xuân Nhị (b 1913) and Nguyễn Thị Nhung (b 1915).
Nguyen Thi Kim (VN Fine Arts Museum)Woodblock art was also given a new lease of life at theÉcole supérieure des beaux arts. Numerous leading artists experimented with the lithographed woodcut print, including Tô Ngọc Vân, Trần Văn Cẩn, Nguyễn Tường Lân and Nguyễn Đỗ Cung; of particular note during the early development of woodcut printing as a contemporary genre were the works of Nguyễn Văn Tỵ, Nguyễn Tiến Chung and Công Văn Trung (Hoài Lương, b 1907).
The activities of the École supérieure des beaux arts de l’Indochine were also pivotal to the development of contemporary Vietnamese sculpture. As noted elsewhere, Vietnamese sculpture had hitherto centred on religious themes and functioned as an adjunct to architecture. Between 1925 and 1945 the school turned out several important sculptural artists in the western tradition – these included Vũ Cao Đàm (b 1908), Phạm Gia Giang, Nguyễn Thị Kim (b 1918), Diệp Minh Châu (1919-2002) and Trần Văn Lắm (1915-1979). Thereafter further development was impeded by the outbreak of the First Indochina War.

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