Sunday, July 26, 2015

Learning to Draw

Nguyen Phan Chanh "Learning to Draw" Ink and Gouache on Silk mounted to board 

Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892-1984) was born in a rural village in Ha Tinh province (Nghë Tinh) in Vietnam.  He was raised in a family of Confucian scholars and at first intended to follow in the family footsteps, spending his young school years practicing calligraphy and drawing and studying traditional Chinese literature in order to pass the qualifying national exams. However, these exams, were abolished right before young Chanh was due to sit them. Instead he worked as a calligrapher and teacher for many years, and his mother sold his drawings in the local market. When word came of a newly established art school, the Ècole Nationale des Beaux-Arts de L’Indochine, now known as Vietnam University of Fine Arts, Chanh immediately applied. His application was successful despite the fact that he was at least a decade older than most of his classmates, and also came from a rural area (considered at that time a grave cultural disadvantage.) It is said that at school Chanh struggled with Western-style oil painting, but he had a natural and immediate feel for silk painting, a technique which uses ink, dye and gouache on stretched silk. After winning a painting prize in Paris in 1931 he went on to build a career as a teacher, eventually becoming an esteemed professor at his alma mater, Vietnam University of the Fine Arts.

Chanh was much praised for his National feeling. His daughter Nguyet Tu recalled, "My father's life is closely attached to rural Vietnam. His memories of the Vietnamese countryside are plentiful. If you see my father's work you will realize he's a painter of rural girls." ;-) It is true that almost all of his work concentrated on scenes of village life, and specifically on young women performing everyday tasks. He depicted his subjects in their ordinary activities with a kind of elegant, calm, reserve. His style employed a unique blend of simplification and stylization combined with a very Western observation-based verisimilitude. These lines from his diary seem to sum up his approach: "Going out painting at dawn, I usually walked along rivers and canals. Once, I passed by a girl washing vegetables at the water's edge, her white shirt and black trousers only half-glimpsed in the morning mist. It was dreamlike and really beautiful. And I always like misty, dreamlike and poetic scenes."

Nguyen Phan Chanh became one of the most significant painters of Vietnamese modern art. When he passed away in 1984, his contribution to the artistic heritage of Vietnam was posthumously recognized with the highest award given to artists by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: the Ho Chi Minh Prize in Literature and Art.

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