Life in Vietnam

Sunday, 07/10/2018 09:00

Book maps groundbreaking artist’s career

Lop Hoc So Tan (Class at Evacuation)painted in 1968. The painting is at the Viet Nam Museum of Fine Art.
Viet Nam News

by Nguyen Thuy Binh

Artist Thang Tran Phenh was not only one of the first Vietnamese artists to graduate from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (Indochina Fine Arts College) — the first fine arts school in Indochina — he was also among the first to display his oil-on-canvas paintings at expos held in Ha Noi in the early 20th century. 

A new book entitled Thang Tran Phenh by author Ngo Kim Khoi launched recently in Ha Noi and HCM City portrays Phenh with 28 of his paintings in various mediums.

Phenh (1895-1972) was among the masters of Vietnamese modern arts in the early 20th century.

"Phenh was one of those unknown artists and not many people knew much about him or his work," said fine arts critic Phan Cam Thuong.

"Under the instruction of French priest Leopold Cadiere, Phenh did illustrations for the Hue Art magazine. His illustrations for the magazine and his watercolour paintings about Vietnamese life in the early 20th century showed his excellent realistic painting skills."

Phenh was born in Ha Noi to a half-Chinese father and Vietnamese mother. His father was a clerk while his mother was a seamstress. Phenh started showing an aptitude for painting at the age of 12.

His father bought him materials to practise and he learned to paint by himself from French magazines and books. He also learned to design posters and stages from Chinese art troupes that came to perform in Ha Noi.

At the age of 15, his painting Chua Tran Quoc Truoc Khi Mat Troi Lan (Sunset in Tran Quoc Pagoda) was shown at an expo in Ha Noi in 1911. After that his paintings became popular among French expatriates who commissioned him to paint. Growing in confidence, he held prize-winning exhibitions in the capital between 1911 and 1915.

After finishing high school he worked with theatres and magazines on set design and illustrations. In the early 20th century, western techniques and the French in particular were unfamiliar to Vietnamese artists, but Phenh studied oil-on-canvas guided by French fine arts professor Gaston Leloup. 

His first oil-on-canvas featuring national heroines Hai Ba Trung (Trung Sisters) won a Fine Arts prize at Hoi Khai Tri Tien Duc (Intelligence Development and Virtue Advancement Association) in 1923.

In 1925, when the Indochina Fine Arts College opened, Phenh applied for professional training despite being well-known. However, he was rejected and his failure raised questions about the conflict between east and west painting styles. A year later he was accepted by the college, and graduated in 1931.

1931-1933 was a milestone in his carreer. Silk painting Danh Bai Tam Cuc (The Card Game) was displayed at the Grand Palace of Champs Elysees. The painting was auctioned for nearly SG$20,000 (US$14,500) by Christie’s in 2000 to the Singapore National Heritage Board.

Another silk painting entitled Xem Boi (Fortune Telling) was honoured at an exhibition in Rome in 1931.

His oil-on-canvas [national hero] Pham Ngu Lao (1923) and Chan Dung Phu Nu Lao (Portrait of a Lao Woman) 1927, and silk painting Lop Hoc So Tan (Class in Evacuation) 1968 are at the Viet Nam Museum of Fine Arts. Chan Dung Phu Nu Lao shows the artist’s skillful technique that he learned at the fine arts college.

"Phenh’s career was not only about painting," critic Thuong wrote in the book. "After graduating from the arts college he became more active in stage design and this helped him gain fame."

He also set up a troupe with child singers and toured Ha Noi, Hai Phong and Nam Dinh from 1931 to 1943. At the end 1946, he joined national resistance against the French.

The artist worked as a designer at Chuong Vang Theatre from 1954 to 1963, and was a member of the Viet Nam Fine Arts Association from 1957. His works cover wide ranges such as silk, oil-on-canvas, Chinese-ink, and watercolour.

The book on Thang Tran Phenh’s life was published by My Thuat Publishing House and took author Khoi 10 years of research to complete.

Khoi is artist Nam Son’s maternal grandchild. Artist Nam Son (1890-1973) was a co-founder of the Indochine Fine Arts College with French professor Victor Tardieu. The writer has been living in France since 1985.

"It would be a huge mistake if Thang Tran Phenh is not mentioned in Viet Nam’s fine arts development," said Khoi. "He and other Vietnamese masters made great contributions to lay the foundations for modern Vietnamese fine arts.

"Information about him is scarce. When I researched his life and his career, I found myself in a mysterious and amazing world. The book will help give readers an overview of Indochina fine arts in the early years." — VNS








Xem Boi (Fortune Teller) by Thang Tran Phenh. The painting was displayed in Rome in 1931. Photos from the book

Comments (0)

Related content