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The Lustrous Legacy: Exploring the Art and Influence of Vietnamese Lacquer

Updated: Apr 3

Vietnamese lacquer, or "sơn mài," is a sophisticated art form, reflecting a blend of indigenous techniques and cultural exchanges, particularly with France. This expanded essay delves deeper into the nuances of Vietnamese lacquer, its style, historical development, major artists, and the essential role of experts like Gauchet Asian Art and Jean Gauchet in promoting and preserving this art form.

Nguyễn Khang (1912 - 1988) , "Two women in Ao Dai" Rare lacquered wood panel. Sold by Maison R&C auction house and appraised by Jean Gauchet for 85,000 euros. (Picture credits : R&C Auction house)

  • Intricacies of Vietnamese Lacquer Technique

Vietnamese lacquer art is distinguished by its lustrous finish and complex imagery, often depicting landscapes, daily life, or mythological scenes. The process is laborious, involving several layers of lacquer obtained from the Rhus succedanea tree. These layers are interspersed with materials like eggshells and mother-of-pearl to add texture and luminance. Each layer is meticulously dried and polished, resulting in a durable and glossy finish that is both beautiful and resilient.

  • Historical Development and French Influence

The transformation of Vietnamese lacquer from decorative and religious artifacts to fine art was significantly influenced by the establishment of the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi in 1925. French artists and educators like Victor Tardieu and Joseph Inguimberty were pivotal in this transition. They brought Western artistic techniques and theories, which Vietnamese artists blended with their traditional methods. This fusion resulted in a distinctive style that beautifully marries Eastern and Western artistic sensibilities.

Dinh Van Sach , 19th century. "Concours suprême" Polychrome lacquered wood panel, sold by Millon auction house and appraised by Jean Gauchet for 8,000 euros. (Picture credits : Yann Girault).

  • Pioneers and Prominent Figures

Several Vietnamese artists have left an indelible mark on the lacquer art scene. Nguyen Gia Tri (1908-1993) is celebrated for his detailed and profound depictions of the Vietnamese countryside. Pham Hau (1903-1995) is another luminary known for his vibrant and large-scale lacquer paintings. Modern artists like Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988) and Nguyen Tu Nghiem (1918-2016) have also contributed significantly to the art form, introducing innovative styles and themes while adhering to traditional techniques.

On the French side, Victor Tardieu (1870-1937) and Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971) were instrumental in the development and international recognition of Vietnamese art. They not only taught Western techniques but also deeply respected and encouraged the incorporation of Vietnamese themes and traditions.

Phan Hau (1903 - 1995) Rare and important six-leaf folding screen in polychrome lacquer, signed and stamped by the artist. Sold by Millon auction house and appraised by Jean Gauchet, sold for 200,000 euros. (Photo credits : Yann Girault)

  • Gauchet Art Asiatique and Jean Gauchet's Contribution

The appraisal cabinet Gauchet Asian Art and expert Jean Gauchet have played a crucial role in evaluating and auctioning Vietnamese lacquer art. Their expertise has helped in achieving record prices and bringing global attention to these artworks. In partnership with auctioneers, they have ensured that Vietnamese lacquers are presented to an international audience, thus elevating their status and ensuring their legacy.

  • Modern Interpretations and Global Recognition

Today, Vietnamese lacquer art continues to evolve, with contemporary artists exploring new themes and methods. The global art community increasingly recognizes the unique aesthetic and technical aspects of this art form, leading to its inclusion in international exhibitions and collections. The art form's unique aesthetic and technical prowess continue to inspire artists and collectors, contributing to a broader understanding of Vietnamese culture and its artistic legacy.

École des Beaux-arts de l'Indochine, 20th century. Six-leaf screen in Coromandel lacquer showing "The ceremony of the Emperor of Annam and the procession of his followers to the imperial palace of Hué". Sold by Millon auction house and appraised by Jean Gauchet for 140,000 euros. (Picture credits : Yann Girault)

Vietnamese lacquer painting is a testament to Vietnam's rich cultural heritage and artistic innovation. The fusion of indigenous techniques with French artistic influences, facilitated by institutions like the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine and figures like Victor Tardieu and Joseph Inguimberty, has created a unique art form that resonates globally. Artists such as Nguyen Gia Tri, Pham Hau, Bui Xuan Phai, and Nguyen Tu Nghiem have significantly contributed to its richness and diversity. The efforts of Gauchet art asiatique and Jean Gauchet in appraising and auctioning these works have been instrumental in bringing Vietnamese lacquer art to a wider audience and achieving record prices. As Vietnamese lacquer continues to captivate and evolve, it stands as a vibrant symbol of Vietnam's cultural identity and artistic legacy, cherished and celebrated across the world.

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