The first step of the Vietnamese modern painting

The Fine-Arts School, in the first year of its founding, was situated in Dufeur garden, that is to say, within the limits of the present-day school. That was a repository of the Public Works Service, roofed with zinc, in 1925, where were put shovels and pickaxes. It was both the residence of the director, Mr Tardieu, and the gathering place for successful candidates. In this cradle of the modern Fine-Art school may be seen some lage pictures by Mr Tardieu, now shown at the lecture-room of the University of Indochina. By that time, they were not moss-grown and covered with mould as they are today.They always sparkled with red light of ripe oranges. In front of them stood a very long ladder that reached the top of the pictures. It used to crackle under Mr Tardieu's heavy footsteps each time he climbed up to work on a picture. Every day, we crowded together at the foot of the ladder, with both sympathy and mischief. All day long, the ladder watched a very aesthetically unkempt hair of Le Pho who frequently wore a starched coller with a long black neck-tie. It mischievously witnessed the young Nguyen Phan Chanh's ill luck that occurred twice a day, in the morning and the afternoon. The reason for this is that he never parted from his discoloured umbrella which he always kept beside him, even when he worked on a painting. The first day Mr Tardieu saw it, he carried the umbrella away and hung it on a rung of the ladder without scrupling to offend Nguyen Phan Chanh. However, the next day, then the day after the next..., it rested with Phan Chanh to keep his umbrella beside him, and with Mr Tardieu to hang the umbrella on the ladder. As for the towering ladder, it crackled each time the umbrella was hung on it, as if it poked fun and counted up once again. Over there is Mai Trung Thu with his lips hung and his wide opened eyes that seemingly wanted to run onto the posing naked model's body which he was perseveringly sketching in. At this little place was sitting Le Van De who was also absorbed in his work, also persevering in his efforts. Now and then, he bursted out laughing at something unknow, like a firecracker which suddenly breaks out.

Were there not the Fine Arts-School,a lot of ardent hearts devorted to Fine-Arts would have been wasted in a certain unrighteous art. The God of this art is Mr Tran Phenh, an artist we have formerly admired and have considered a hardly attainable lofty target. His art consists in dexterity ;his talent consists in forging gaudy colours to be applied to figures copied faithfully from photos without taking into account the artist's emotion. Mr Phenh has been present at the first entrance examination to the Fine-Arts School. We took a covetous glance at him, thinking that he came these not to be a student of the Fine-Arts School, but to become a teacher. During the execution of academy figures, everybody opened wide his eyes to watch the motion of Mr Phenh's hand on the paper. He took out successively from behind his ears lost of pencils of all sizes, unrolled sheets of glossy paper of every format, as cleverly as a coiffeur cleaning the customer's ears. He added finishing touches to the eye-lashes or the wrinkles on the lips of the" model" in the picture.

The examination result was quite astonishing: Mr Phenh was failed. He himself and his art ceased to be sacred. Joyful, passionate, confident, we entered the Fine-Art school to reach the palace of the " Beauty" which very soon we were attracted to. Are there any young peole having such a passion for the human beauty as ours for the"Beauty"?

In the world of such passionate hearts, people talked about well-known Chinese, Japanese or European painters of this century or the past one. People delved into their characters, their talents as if the latter are theri old acquaintances, although they knew the artists only through publications or through colour or black-and-white photos of the latter's works. One loves the work only after understanding it. These works have something sympathetic, a certain ambience in which our Fine-Arts school students feel at ease.

Do not ask them why. They can give only a reply after Montaigne:" Since it is Hokusai, Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh...Since it is us..."

The collision between the Fine-Art School and the public began in the first exhibition in about 1928-1929, at the very Fine-Art School. There were the painting" A maiden with tangled hair" with a sorrowful physiognomy by Le Pho, the "Maiden sitting on camp bed" with tears in her eyes by Mai Trung Thu. There were the soft "Old man" by Miss Le Thi Luu, some pictures painted with dark-brown colours by Nguyen Phan Chanh describing the countryside. Silk-paitings had not come into being yet. They were only uneven and rough canvases, and not smooth and shiny ones like photos to the public's liking. The press made cautius remakes. People blamed pictures by Le Pho and Nguyen Phan Chanh for thier mud-like colors... Did they think these remakes to be merely a praise? A daily newspaperwas even ironical about the "lasciviousness" ofMai Trung Thu's painting, beacause the artist painted a young woman wearing satinet trousers and a bodice without outer garment... The then general tendency among painters was to refine the figure of a maiden that looked dreamy, innocent, melancholic... Is that a sign of the times? Who may be comprared to Mai Trung Thu in depicting eyes wet with tears? Every maiden pictured by Le Pho had dim eyes without living glints. People liked thier pictorial works to look  Chinese, Japanese. People used to append lots of red seals to lengthy Chinese inscriptions, picture rocks, trees, silhouettes that are seen only in Chinese painting "Quite Chinese!",thatis a praise for a painting warm-heartedly received by the author. This risible spectacle has betrayed a mannerism, a preference given to the routineover the sincere emotion, as if the pictorial works has merely an outward look without sheltering a soul.

1931. The colonial fair held in France has put the French public in touch with Vietnamese painting. I would like to mean silk-paintings which look neither European nor Chinese by the young Nguyen Phan Chanh who formerly kept jealously his umbrella beside him,the young man who has launched a movement for special Annamese silk-paintings that he him-self and all others have never thought about.

This article by To Ngoc Van appeared in "Xuan Thu Nha Tap" in 1942