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  • Writer's pictureCabinet Gauchet Art Asiatique

The Flourishing Market of Vietnamese Modern Art

Updated: Apr 3

Le Pho, Mai Thu, Nguyen Nam Son, Vu Cao Dam... Names that, only a few years ago, were unfamiliar to the general public, are now increasingly appearing on the auction house lists of works presented in France.A whole school of Vietnamese artists who emerged in the first half of the 19th century, and whose works are particularly remarkable for their finesse and singularity, are reaching an increasing number of enthusiasts, eager for renewal in the pictorial forms for some, defenders of a will to return to the sources for others.

With the arrival of Asian collectors in auction houses, particularly French ones, art categories that were once considered "niche" sectors are becoming popular. This is evidenced by the current boom in sales of Far Eastern art, and more particularly of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese objects and works of art. As for modern Vietnamese painting, several Parisian auction houses have chosen to organize specialized auctions in order to attract a targeted clientele.

The Hanoi School of Fine Arts, the starting point of a unique production.

Although Vietnamese painting tradition dates back to the foundation of the Empire (3rd century-2nd century BC) and was widespread in the 15th century, there are now very few authentic productions and testimonies of these works, which were previously closer to the field of crafts than to that of fine arts. It was really in the 20th century, at the time when the country was under French colonial domination, that the field of painting was revealed and experienced an intense development and a fruitful production, which now attracts amateurs and collectors. The denomination of "modern Vietnamese painting", which we find today on the art market, actually applies to a group of artists who trained at the Hanoi Fine Arts School, from its creation in 1925 until the Second World War.

LE QUOC LOC (1918-1987) Paysage de PHNOM PENH, 1943 Important paravent à huit feuilles en bois à décor polychrome finement laqué et en léger relief, vendu 940 000 euros© Yann Girault

While Vietnam had been a French colonial territory since 1857 and was part of a group of colonized countries with Laos and Cambodia known as "French Indochina," the School of Fine Arts of Hanoi, the administrative capital of Indochina, developed. Also known as the Higher School of Fine Arts of Indochina (EBAI), it was founded in 1925 and was led in its early years by the French academic painter Victor Tardieu (1870-1937) and the Vietnamese painter Nguyen Nam Son (1890-1973) under the supervision of the French colonial government. Inspired by the scheme of the School of Fine Arts of Paris, this institution allowed exchanges between French artists who held the Indochina Prize and went to teach the students Vietnamese techniques of Western painting. These students from the school created a new painting, now called "modern," where European and extra-oriental influences were mixed. In the eyes of many historians and specialists, it was during this period of Vietnam, in the hands of a colonizing France, and in this city of Hanoi, epicenter of production, that the identity of Vietnamese painting was truly defined and revealed. The vast majority of modern Vietnamese artists that we find today in the auction room were graduates of the School of Fine Arts of Hanoi, a title that seems to be a guarantee of quality, conferring a real pedigree to the works in the eyes of the auction houses.

Vietnamese painting is characterized by "its extreme diversity, not only in its themes but also, more significantly, in its qualities of support, paper treatment, graphics, drawing and application of colors" (Philippe Papin, "La diversité de l’imagerie vietnamienne et les figures de la vie ordinaire»", Arts Asiatiques No. 66, 2001, p. 81). This is evidenced by the works produced by those now considered to be the great masters of the period, such as Le Pho (1907-2001) or Mai Thu (1906-1980), both of whom were part of the first group of students to enter the Hanoi Fine Arts School. Their works are among the most sought after on the current market and their auction prices often far exceed estimates.

SIEN NGUYEN (1916-2014), Jeune fille alanguie Laque polychrome sur panneau de bois, Vendu 5,000 euros chez Maison RC

The variety of mediums in modern Vietnamese painting can also be seen in art sales catalogues, where works done in lacquer or silk, techniques and knowledge from China and specific to Asian regions that were brought back to life in the teachings of the Hanoi School of Fine Arts, are mixed with works done in oil on wood, panel or canvas, techniques of creation linked to Western traditions. Lacquer works have also gained popularity in the market, particularly those of pioneering artists such as Le Quoc Loc (1918-1987), Le Van De (1906-1966) or Pham Hau (1903-1995).

In the choice of subjects, modern Vietnamese painting favors scenes of everyday life, both domestic, with for example the representation of intimate moments between children and their mothers or of female toilets, or outdoor, with students of the Hanoi Fine Arts School being encouraged to go and paint on the motif of representations of rural scenes, such as those of people working in the fields or rice paddies. By also including linear perspective in the works, as well as the imitation of nature where painting from live models, modern Vietnamese painting which is undergoing a marked renewal at this time, is a clever mix of Asian and Western styles which makes it unique and often recognizable at first glance.

Although there are many Vietnamese artists who have graduated from the Hanoi Fine Arts School, with each class having about ten students, some artists have become more prominent in the art market, such as Le Pho, Mai Trung Thu, and Vu Cao Dam. These three Vietnamese artists from the Hanoi Fine Arts School are now the most popular on the French and international market.Painter Le Pho (1907-2001), the most evocative name in the field, is an eminent artist of Asian art of the 20th century, in addition to being part of the tradition of Vietnamese painting. Coming from an aristocratic family, he entered the Hanoi Fine Arts School and became a student of Victor Tardieu. He traveled to Europe, discovering the works of the old masters, then went to Paris for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, where he settled permanently. His works perfectly fit into the Franco-Vietnamese stylistic mix of the Hanoi Fine Arts School, with both the production of silk female portraits or flowery still lifes taken from the Western tradition but treated in an eminently Asian style. In addition, Le Pho was the first Vietnamese artist to reach an auction exceeding one million dollars at Sotheby's in April 2017, with the work Family Life 1937-1939, a scene between a mother and her son which was sold for 1.2 million dollars at Sotheby's Hong Kong.

VU CAO DAM (1908-2000), Idylle, 1956, Huile sur panneau, Vendu 34,000 euros chez Millon

After completing his academic training in drawing, painting, and sculpture at the Hanoi School of Fine Arts, Vu Cao Dam (1908-2000) left Vietnam to join Paris with a travel scholarship from the French government. In addition to presenting his works to the French public at the 1931 International Colonial Exhibition, he exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants and the Tuileries and received his first commissions. A friend of Marc Chagall and Morris Kestelman, he spent the rest of his career in France. Vu Cao Dam's painted works occupy a significant place in current French sales.

Mai Trung Thu (1906-1980), who can also be found on the market under the abbreviation Mai Thu, was a member of the same graduating class as Le Pho and was recognized as a painter, filmmaker, photographer, and amateur musician. After volunteering for the French army, he also lived in France from 1936 until the end of his life. His most characteristic works are his depictions of rural life in his homeland, often populated with children, as well as his depictions of women. Mai Thu's works are now highly sought after by collectors.

HENRI MEGE (1904-1984). Matin sur la rivière - 1952. Huile sur panneau, Vendu chez Cannes enchères

Another interesting phenomenon to note when discussing the modern Vietnamese painting market is that in French auctions labeled as "Vietnamese art," almost systematically, French artists with a connection to the Hanoi Fine Arts School are presented. Thus, the works of Alix Aymé (1894-1989), Henri Mège (1904-1984) or Joseph Inguimberty (1891-1971) are alongside those of Vietnamese artists, these academically trained artists all having in common the fact of having taught at the Hanoi Fine Arts School during their careers. Thanks to the Indochina Prize scholarship, they were able to travel to Southeast Asia and produce specific works, with subjects of everyday life both indoors and outdoors, portraits of people from ethnic minorities or typical landscapes of French Indochina, themes that could speak to the exotic imagination of the French public.

Learn more about the Vietnamese art market and its artists through Barnebys' article "4 Vietnamese Artist to Know". world’s largest search engine for art, design and collectibles.


Do you own a work of art by a Vietnamese artist or a traveling painter? Contact us to find out its value on the current market.

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