Phạm Hầu (1903-1995), A family of deer in a forest

Lot 1028. Phạm Hầu (1903-1995), A family of deer in a forest, signed and stamped with a seal of the artist, lacquer on wood panel, in 3 parts; each: 100 by 93 cm; 39 1/4  by 36 1/2  in. (3); overall: 100 by 279 cm; 39 1/4  by 109 3/4. Estimate 800,000 — 1,500,000 HKD© Sotheby’s

Provenance: Private Collection, U.S.A. 

Note: Lacquer painting is one of the most significant legacies of 20th-century Vietnamese art. Although natural lacquer or s’on ta, was used by the Vietnamese in their traditional decorative craft for centuries, it evolved into a modern painting medium in the late 1920s to early 1930s. Its modern-day beginnings can be traced to the founding of the Fine Arts College of Indochina (L’École des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine), where young Vietnamese artists developed and pushed the boundaries of the lacquer under the tutelage of Joseph Inguimberty and Victor Tardieu, elevating it into an unique art form in itself.

Following the establishment of a standalone lacquer department in the Fine Arts College in 1928, the years spanning 1930-1945 are collectively known as the Golden Age of Vietnamese Paintings. During these years, masters such as Phạm Hầu, Nguyen Gia Tri, and Tran Van Can created poetic landscapes and tableaus rendered in brilliant palettes of gold, amber, auburn, vermillion, silver, and ochre. Their ability to manipulate the material properties of lacquer according to their artistic desires belies the sheer difficulty of working with such an inherently demanding medium.

Creating a lacquer work from scratch requires a high level of technical proficiency. The process involves visualizing multiple layers and working accordingly from the base of the vóc, a flat wooden board treated to receive the lacquer. The artist begins with the inlays of eggshell or mother of pearl, followed by the application of layers upon layers of coloured lacquer which are individually dried and sanded. Sanding the lacquer down is a highly crucial step that accounts for the material’s brilliance and compositional complexity. The layers form the artist’s painting surface, and the process repeats until the composition is complete. At this final point the artist polishes the surface to give the painting its finishing sheen. However, while the process of lacquer painting is highly timed and labour-intensive, in the hands of a master, the medium can be coaxed into creating some of the most sublime and beautiful works of art ever produced.

This artistic process was further developed and refined through  the explorations of various artists at the Fine Arts College, who embraced both Western-style classical training and traditional artistic techniques to reflect contemporary Vietnamese aesthetic sensibilities. The specific properties of lacquer, such as the variations of transparency, opacity, surface and depth, offered endless possibilities for experimentation. Indeed, through the meticulous application of layers of lacquer, one could create surfaces which were more radiant and eye-catching than the veneers of oil painting. While lacquer painting was traditionally flat and two-dimensional, modern Vietnamese artists incorporated three-dimensional aspects into lacquer compositions by playing with spatial differentiation and vanishing-point perspective.

As an important part of Vietnamese artistic history, lacquer painting also offers us treasured glimpses into Vietnam’s rich past. Often depicting representations of nature, people, and landscapes, together with the life and customs of the country, the lacquer works from this era gift us with the opportunity to look at moments lost to the currents of history, time, and memory. They also pay homage to the natural beauty found in Vietnam’s surrounding environs, ranging from majestic mountains to delicate leaves. Hence, its importance as a Vietnamese fine art form is inextricably tied with its culture and history, and remains a significant part of Vietnam’s artistic legacy even today.

The present lot A Family of Deer in a Forest  is an exquisitely detailed triptych originating from the renowned lacquer master Phạm Hầu. It offers a glimpse into the natural beauty of the Vietnamese landscape inhabited only by native flora and fauna, its serenity undisturbed by human activity. The work’s understated elegance is evident in the skillful juxtaposition of light and shadow elements, expressive brushstrokes and delicate etchings. As one of the greatest lacquer artists in Vietnamese history, Phạm Hầu had a fine grasp of both Western and Eastern aesthetic principles. In this work, he combines the evocative essence of the natural landscape with precise silhouettes and three-dimensional perspective to create a subtle yet refined masterpiece.

The leftmost panel of the triptych is almost entirely obscured by a dense clump of banana leaves. Upon closer inspection, one can see details such as the fine, wavy lines Phạm Hầu scored across the leaves to give them texture. In between the gaps of the leaves are glimpses of a hill in the distance, whose gentle slope continues down across the other two panels of the triptych, lending a sense of continuity to the natural landscape in the background. The height of the slope recedes just as the viewer’s eye alights on the middle and rightmost panels, which are inhabited by the titular family of deer who make up the focal point of the painting.

Painted in gold, the deer graze and rest in contentment amidst the lush foliage. Considering the spatial positions of the deer, their difference in sizes offers the viewer the opportunity to appreciate Phạm Hầu’s skill in suggesting a depth of field within the composition. At the same time, one can witness the mutual influences of French naturalism and Chinese wildlife painting exhibited in this work. The subtle shading on the bodies of the deer gives them a corporeality which is a contrast to the flatness of the vegetation surrounding them. Phạm Hầu employed the visual motif of deer in several of his lacquer works as a metaphor for harmony, compassion, peace, and longevity. Hence, the inclusion of deer in this painting suggests a realm of peace and serenity.

Phạm Hầu’s penchant for detail is also illustrated in the sheer variety of flora he includes into the texture of the landscape. From the slim silhouettes of the palm trees in the background, to the abundance of wildflowers beneath the deer’s hooves, the myriad shapes and lines forming the foliage adds visual richness and complexity to the painting.  The tiny specks of white-purple colour from the eggshell inlays that form the wildflowers contribute an understated contrast to the black, brown, and gold palette that dominates the painting.

The present work is an exceptional example of Phạm Hầu’s skillful composition and ability for exquisite detailing. As an eloquent visual metaphor for the harmony found within the rhythms of nature, its juxtaposition of simplicity and luxury, and of flora and fauna, highlights its quiet elegance. Phạm Hầu’s mastery of the medium marks him as one of his generation’s best, and this particular work epitomises the beauty that can be found in his repertoire of lacquer works.

Last record at Sotheby's:

 Phạm Hầu, A Family in a Forest Scenery

Phạm Hầu, A Family in a Forest Scenery. Sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 4 April 2015, Lot 1031, for 875,000 HKD (112,871 USD) © Sotheby’s

Sotheby's. Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, Hong Kong, 30 Sep 2017, 05:00 PM