“Home is where the art is for lamented Le Pho” by Le Thanh Tru
Some of those who have comfortable lives in the West have gradually forgotten their roots, their homeland but that could never be said of Le Pho, the last of four famous Vietnamese painters in France.
Le Pho, one of the first graduates of the French-built Indochina Fine Arts College, died in mid-December last year in France at the age of 94; yet for all his decades abroad, he never forgot his birthplace and one can be sure his soul seeks it still.
From his earliest days, Le Pho nurtured a deep passion for painting. When opportunities were wanting, he made his own: from imitating pictures and photos to drawing back for a small local photographic shop.
After graduating from the Indochina Fine Arts College, which was set up in 1925 by French painter Victor Tardieu, he received a scholarship to study at the Paris National College of Fine Arts, and then went to Italy for research.
According to French art critic Wal Demar George, the professional regime at the Paris college threw him off track.
Even his travels in Italy, where he worked for a long time, left him disappointed.
Through regular and attentive visits to museums, however, he started to find himself and develop a distinctive vision.
In 1932 he came back to Ha Noi and realized what was missing. So he set off for Beijing and became immersed in the Oriental plastic arts so much so that when he emerged again two years later, he had his own particular artistic style, which later made his name in France.
“Le Pho’s draftsmanship raises his paintings into a realm of pure peace, grace and beauty,” George has written.
“He has helped fine arts in oriental and western areas come closer, while holding on to that quietness of gaze, that veneration. His works evoke a world of unreality, a place without death and evil.”
In 1950, Le Pho began painting oil on canvas, striking a delicate balance between Chinese painting and post-impressionism yet all the while recalling his distant homeland.
Images he painted focus on things that are both simple and also dear to the Vietnamese spirit, like bamboo branches, birds and women with with flowers or wearing ao dai as in his famous works including Lady And Carnation, Lady And Orchid, Lady In Dark Blue Costume, and Lady.
“The women in my husband’s paintings are all Asian, not European,” says Le Pho’s wife, Paulet Le Pho.
The works are mostly painted in brown and sombre hues, with black outlines used for emphasis, and the odd touch of indigo blue, violet, orange and light blue.
Nguyen Do Cung, a painter, art researcher says Le Pho’s paintings display both the innocence and the beauty of poetry.
“When I saw his early exhibitions, I felt enchanted. It was as though I was deep in a marvellous dream, and I didn’t want to wake up,” Cung said.
Le Pho’s younger brother Le Tuan, can’t conceal his pride when speaking of the artist.
“I was so happy when I heard former Prime Minister Pham Van Dong praise his talent and his love of his country, and I still take pride in my brother’s contributions to the Paris negotiations in 1946,” he said.
Despite his devotion to art, Le Pho still threw himself into his duties as a Vietnamese citizen.
He was there when the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam Government’s delegation (headed by Pham Van Dong) attended the negotiations between Viet Nam and France on Vietnamese independence in Fontainebleau, France between July 6 and September 3, 1946.
And when President Ho Chi Minh came to Paris as a guest of State, Le Pho, together with intellectuals such as Tran Duc Lang and Tran Huu Tuoc, lobbied the French government to create adequate living and working conditions for the Vietnamese mission, saying they were representatives of an equal and independent nation.
Le Pho and several other Vietnamese intellectuals wanted to return to Viet Nam to fight the French, but Uncle Ho advised them to stay put and play a role from Paris.
In August, Uncle Ho gave the artist a signed self-portrait photograph, with the short note: “For you, Le Pho. Sincerely.”
In March 1993, after 60 years in France, Le Pho said publicly that his soul was still oriented towards Viet Nam, and donated 20 of his artworks to his homeland.
Abroad, his paintings are considered highly valuable. His Ancient Pagoda fetched US$40,000, and Lady Sitting and Reading A Book $30,000 a record for a Vietnamese painter.
Many members of Le Pho’s family still live in Viet Nam, and some have become senior officials, people’s artists, emeritus artists, professors, doctors, musicians and engineers.
Yet they all subscribe to his simple creed: “Live usefully for society; do not betray or harm one’s country and people; and do not seek fame for its own sake.”
Viet Nam News website
Biography from the Archives of AskART.