BackArts & Culture » Music & Art » A Halcyon Hanoi in the Art of Joseph Inguimberty, the Professor Who Taught Lê Phổ

In 1925, Joseph Inguimberty stepped into the tropical humidity of Hanoi for the first time. Despite having been to Italy, Greece and even Egypt, the 29-year-old art professor probably couldn’t imagine that the dynamic, paradoxical, but relentlessly enchanting Southeast Asian city would become his home for the next two decades.

For the past five years, paintings by 20th-century Vietnamese artists have consistently fetched astronomical amounts at prestigious auctions around the world. Most recently, a tender portrait by Mai Trung Thứ was sold for US$3.1 million in Hong Kong, cementing its status as the highest-valued Vietnamese artwork in history.

The record was previously held by none other than Thứ’s own contemporary and classmate Lê Phổ, whose painting ‘Nue’ reached US$1.4 million in bidding in 2019. Both art masters belonged to the special crop of students at the French-run École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l'Indochine (EBAI), or School of Fine Arts of Indochina in English, a creative institute commonly credited with producing some of Vietnam’s foremost revolutionary artists of the past century.

The teachers and students of EBAI, circa 1930. Only a few are identified. Front row, sitting: Victor Tardieu (center), Nam Sơn, (first from right), Joseph Inguimberty (second from right). Second row: Nguyễn Phan Chan (second), Lê Phổ (fifth), Tô Ngọc Vân (sixth), and Hồ Văn Lai (seventh). Third row: Vũ Cao Đàm on the far right in front of the pillar. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Văn Ninh private collection.

The school was co-founded by French artist Victor Tardieu and Vietnamese artist Nam Sơn, comprising key faculty members like Joseph Inguimberty, Alix Aymé and Andre Maire. During the two decades of its existence, numerous key figures in the Vietnamese art world studied under the tutelage of Tardieu and the others. Some, like Lê Phổ and Mai Trung Thứ, settled down in France permanently, building a reputation in the international art world as classically trained painters while others, like Tô Ngọc Vân and Trần Văn Cẩn, remained in Vietnam and became pioneers in resistance art, training generations of Vietnamese artists and even participating in war-time propaganda efforts.

A vast mural painted by Victor Tardieu for the University of Indochina in Hanoi. It still exists on the campus of today's Vietnam National University in the capital. Image via Flickr user manhhai.

The role that this colonial art education played in the growth of Vietnamese modern art is problematic, as acknowledged by art historians. In his essay on the legacy of EBAI on Vietnamese art, John Michael Swinbank writes: “Indeed, the role of French influence and Vietnamese collaboration in the modern Vietnamese artistic tradition is problematic for both colonial and revolutionary sides of the coin and has often been elided in official art histories."

He continues: “Nevertheless, it is a fact that the EBAI laid the groundwork for a burgeoning style of art that was both colonial and Vietnamese, and for which there was no precedent in Vietnamese culture.”

A nude painting class at EBAI. Image via Flickr user manhhai.

Still, according to the writer, the idea of establishing an art academy in what was then Indochina didn’t come from Tardieu or the French colonial administration, but Nam Sơn. It was Sơn’s long-enduring dream to bring fine arts to local students, and he had already drafted a detailed proposal by the time he met Tardieu through Paul Monet, a French geographer, in the early 1920s. Sơn convinced Tardieu to use his clout with the colonial government to finance the school, and in October 1924, EBAI was founded in Hanoi.

The same year, Joseph Inguimberty, then a student of Arts Décoratifs (decorative arts), was traveling through Italy, Greece and Egypt when he caught wind of the launch of EBAI and decided to try his luck and applied. He was hired as a professor of Decorative Arts and moved to Hanoi in 1925.

Joseph Inguimberty, circa 1938–1940. Photo via Kiet Tac Nghe Thuat.

As an educator, he didn’t have too much time for his own arts, but Inguimberty was enamored with the natural landscapes and culture of Vietnam. Verdant paddy fields luxuriating in the radiant northern summer, aristocratic Hanoian ladies on hammocks bantering, marketplaces teeming with commerce and colorful fruits — life in Hanoi came alive under his gouache brush strokes.

'Au bord de la mare' (By the pond). Image via Flickr user manhhai.

Left: 'Temple,' oil on canvas. Right: 'Two women,' oil on canvas. Images via Flickr user manhhai.

If Tardieu prized technical precision and preferred to stay in the studio, Inguimberty was a champion of en plein air. The simple pleasure of painting in open nature, as advocated by past Impressionists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was something that he imparted on his students. While not all of his paintings depicted nature, nearly all of them took place in the open space of Hanoi and its surrounding environs.

'Farmers in Tonkin,' 1938, oil on canvas, 68 cm x 129 cm. Image via Flickr user manhhai.

Left: 'Rizières du delta tonkinois,' 1928, oil on canvas, 65 cm x 100 cm. Right: 'Femme au hamac,' 1940, oil on canvas, 189 cm x 180 cm. Image via Flickr user manhhai.

The fine arts school lasted for almost two decades until the American bombings of the capital in 1943. Teaching operations had to cease as classes were relocated out of the war zone. The Objet d'art department moved to Phu Ly with Georges Khánh and Bùi Tường Viên in charge. The painting department and part of the sculpture department, headed by Inguimberty, Sơn and Tô Ngọc Vân, moved to Son Tay. Evariste Jonchère took the architecture and most of the sculpture departments to Da Lat. The school endured for a short while until it was closed for good in 1945 after the Japanese coup d'état.

Left: 'Portrait de jeune indochinoise,' oil on canvas, 35.5 cm x 27 cm. Right: 'Portrait du peintre To Ngoc Van,' 1942, oil on canvas, 60 cm x 48 cm. Images via Flickr user manhhai.

According to art historian Jean-François Hubert, Joseph Inguimberty left Vietnam in November 1946, returning to Menton in the south of France. He lived there until his death on October 8, 1971, leaving behind his oeuvre of landscapes depicting his past life in Hanoi, Provence and Franche-Comté.

'Groupe de femmes,' 1932, oil on canvas, 67 cm x 115 cm. Image via Flickr user manhhai.

At times, there is a tendency for discussions or allusions made today with regards to Vietnam's colonial period to glamorize it. The adjective "colonial" becomes sanitized, stripped of its historical complications and, for most of Vietnam's people, generational trauma. EBAI, as much as it was a French-established colonial school, started out as an actualization of artist Nam Sơn's ambitious dream, and grew into a culturally significant melting pot where western and eastern art paradigms rubbed shoulders, quite literally. It influenced and molded a generation of Vietnamese artists that are now considered icons both in and outside of the country, from Tô Ngọc Vân to Trần Văn Cẩn to Lê Phổ, and that was a historical episode worth acknowledging.

[Top image: 'Le hamac,' 1938, oil on canvas, 198.5 cm x 301 cm/Sotheby's]

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