Nostalgie du Haut Tonkin (Nostalgia for Highland Tonkin) (Lot 53) is a lacquer work – an art form so unique to Vietnam, by the ultimate master Nguyen Gia Trí. He takes us on a journey not only as a great artist in this field, but also as a theorist who, through hard work, epitomized the artistic and political Vietnamese history of the 20th Century, to share the elegance and beauty of his country and its inspiring story.

Indeed, Nguyen Gia Tri was an engaged artist, a lucid nationalist, a man in exile from the interior and from the exterior, and finally a genius of the art of lacquer: masterpieces were always created both from his innate sensitivity and his talent as an artist.

In 1924, Victor Tardieu founded The Indochinese College of Fine Arts, where he gathered closely a generation of the finest painters recognised in the world today. In 1928, when Gia Trí entered the school, he mingled with artists such as Lê Ph?, Mai Trung Th?, Nguy?n Phan Chánh, Tô Ng?c Vân, Vu Cao Ðàm, Nguy?n Tu?ng Lân and Nguy?n Cát Tu?ng. Sadly, Gia Trí had to leave the college unexpectedly in 1930, leaving not only his talented kindred classmates, but also teachers such as Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971), who headed the painting department but mostly dedicated his life in leaving the greatest legacy of reviving and encouraging his students to perfect the art of lacquer. This departure from the college meant Gia Trí had to give up, among other things, the opportunity to participate in group exhibitions at the college, which always attracted an influential, cultured audience.

Very few people knew the true reason for this abrupt departure. Gia Trí had become a member of the Vi?t Nam Qu?c Dân Ð?ng (VNQDÐ), the Vietnamese National Party. On 10 February 1930, there was a mutiny in Yên Bái, a province in Northern Vietnam.

This was an uprising of Vietnamese soldiers in the French colonial army, together with civilian supporters from the VNQDÐ. It was the largest revolt yet against French colonial rule in Vietnam. Following the mutiny, in keeping with the spirit of his resistance to the French administration in Vietnam, Gia Trí decided to renounce all French influence in his life. It was this conviction that precipitated his departure from the college that had been set up under the auspices of the French Governor-General of Indochina. Eventually, it was Victor Tardieu, the director of the college and an artist himself, who persuaded Gia Trí to see that his obligations as a patriot should not stand in the way of his art. And so it was that a year later, Gia Trí re-joined the college to finish his diploma in 1936, along with Tran Van Can and Luu Van Sin.

After graduation, Gia Trí became part of the T? L?c Van Ðoàn , the Self-Reliance Literary Group, a literary movement that produced poetry and prose shaped by nationalist and anticolonial sentiments. Gia Trí contributed to two magazines, Phong Hóa (Customs) and Ngày Nay (Today), which attracted a wide readership. In the first art exhibition organized by the Société Annamite d’Encouragement à l’Art et à l’Industrie (SADEAI), the Annamese Society for the Support of Art and Industry, which was founded in 1935, his works were second to none and made a big impression. He met quickly with great success amongst local French collectors, and in 1938, he obtained his first official commission from the Governor-General Brévié, to decorate his palace in Hanoi, the present-day residence of the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 1943, he exhibited in the ‘Salon Unique’ Fine Arts Exhibition in Hanoi. The renowned art critic, Claude Mahoudeau, wrote:

“He has redefined grace…, this grace is the little something that clothes a woman of charm, of coquetry, of a beauty beyond physical beauty. This grace is a subtlety that resembles the smile of a line, the soul of a form, the spirituality of an object. All the seductions of the female at ease, the langour, the idleness, the strut, the lengthening, the nonchalance, the cadence of the poses, the suppleness of the feminine body and the play of the slender fingers on the grip of the fans. There is nothing left to do but admire the creations of an artist whose contribution to this exhibition is considerable. The artist’s works dazzled everyone.”

Gia Trí was fully immersed in the events of his time: passively or actively, winning or defeated, he witnessed many tragedies of war: the beginning of the war for independence (1945-1946), the isolation in Hong Kong (1946-1951), the separation of North and South Vietnam (1954). Much of his work will interpret what was an acceleration of history triggered by some major political upheavals.

In 1968, the artist executed this sublime lacquer depicting these magnificent regions which he knew and where the minorities’ houses appear between the rice fields and the mountains in a shape of a sugar loaf. The artist recalls the place not as a topographer or as an ethnologist but mostly as a painter of emotion and of deep impression. The mineral is transcended, the vegetation glorified. And the location of the landscape is somewhere in his native Vietnam, capturing the lushness and beauty of the country – it could be anywhere in Sapa (Lao Cai), in Mu Cang Chai (Yen Bai) or in Hoang Su Phi (Ha Giang). As a native of the north (born near Hanoi, Hadong in 1908), he yearns for these regions now inaccessible to him since 1954 and the division of the country. Not a single character is represented here which is rare in the painter’s work – perhaps representing that eternal memory cannot be cluttered by mere mortals.

In an entirely vertical composition, the artist situates the hamlet, place of the living, between the rice fields and mountains, between heaven and earth. The artistic void of the water below responds to that of the sky above. Everything is in impermanence.

Perhaps the great artist is alluding to the words of Madame de Thanh-Quan, the great poet of the eighteenth century.

“With regret for the country, the waterhen utters its complaint; Chanting his nostalgia, the partridge sings and the top of his voice. I stop and contemplate the sky, the mountains, and the water; My inner thoughts are alone within me.”

This painting is bathed in a poetic atmosphere, literally in an explosion of gold and silver, in a mix of flat and gloss effect defined by very smooth lines to insert his subject in a representation of floating ambiance. The use of red, more discreet than in the painter’s usual compositions, compels the viewer to raise his gaze to the far away mountains. The overall effect of the painting is rich and undulating, gold shimmers throughout, bringing rhythm and harmony to the painting. With this traditional and painstaking technique, Gia’s lacquer work is certainly Vietnamese landscape and culture at its best.

A unique artwork, dedicated and personalized, a manifesto offered by the best artist in lacquer ever throughout Vietnam’s history.

Jean-François Hubert, Senior Consultant – Vietnamese Art

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