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A Vietnamese French Artist Reunites With His Own Roots Through Painting

On display at Thảo Điền’s Ngõ Art Gallery last year, the watercolor painting exhibition “Dream” is the conclusion of a decades-long artistic journey that has led a French national to learn more about both his motherland and himself.

Vincent Monluc is a Vietnamese French painter and film producer. Born to a French army officer in Vietnam in 1952, he relocated to France with his family at the age of 11, and continued to live there for most of his life. After graduating from the University of Bordeaux, he found tenured work in college teaching, but was driven by other artistic callings and decided to pursue animation production — eventually becoming a director and animator for French television for more than 35 years.

Despite spending most of his formative and adult years in Western Europe, Monluc never ceased to harbor affection for Vietnam, and yearned to return so he could discover more about the culture, society and people of the country of which memories he has dearly held onto for decades.

Following his retirement, the animator continued his artistic endeavors through traveling and creating paintings of the places he visited. But the more of the world he saw, the more his heart ached for his home country. "I’ve painted many places in France and America, but the place I that I dream about is Vietnam, my homeland," says the artist.

And thus, after a lifetime of waiting, the Vietnamese Frenchman began a repatriation voyage to realize his ambition. Starting in 2016, Monluc hit the road with fellow friends and artists to create sketches and watercolor paintings of all corners of Vietnam. The painter’s long road trip has brought him to the sights of his dreams, some of which include the rustic countryside of Sapa, the bustling streets of Saigon, and the quaint old town of Hoi An.

Six years in the making, Monluc’s collection of more than 95 Vietnam-inspired works has now been brought together and presented to the public at the exhibition "Dream" — a title that epitomizes the artist’s yearning. “I know this dream has always been there. It stirs, it waits, it lives vividly between the dimension of space and time. I can hear it, the sounds of my dreams, urging me to return to Vietnam, and to paint about Vietnam,” says Monluc.

“And painting is how I get to know my home country better. Because unlike merely traveling to a place and taking pictures of it, the act of painting requires the artist to make observations from different angles and perspectives. If you want to draw one person, you have to look at 10 in order to pick the right one. And so far every look has left a lasting memory in my mind.”

Monluc said that viewers can sense in his works the peace of mind that came from him being reunited with his dearly departed homeland. “You can feel my joy in the brushstrokes, in the arrangement of every detail, in the layers of color, and in the people and the things depicted.”

And here, his subject of choice is the slices of life so mundane that people can easily pass by them without paying much heed. But through Monluc’s artistic lens and watercolor strokes, they are emboldened and championed with a newfound interest.

Whether it's a lonesome man enjoying the morning sun in his garden plot or a skillful fish seller at Bến Thành, exhibition-goers will catch themselves pondering how many of life’s subtle offerings they've missed. “I’m aware that it’s tough to sell these kinds of paintings, but I still love to make them,” he says.

Admittedly, watercolor paintings of Vietnam can be found everywhere, but there’s a certain uniqueness in Monluc's paintings that derive from his multifaceted personality. When looking at his work, one can pick up the overt technical expertise and rationality of a western-trained artist, but also a sense of appreciation for Vietnamese landscapes and aesthetics.

But above everything else, there is an intimate and humane quality to Monluc’s work that's moving. “As someone who works in art, I do enjoy beautiful things: beautiful light, beautiful colors…and Vietnam is a country that is filled with so many of those wonderful things. But what I am most interested in is the people and the essence of life found in it.”

When asked about his favorite work, the artist excused himself to contemplate for several minutes, not because he can’t recall any, but because each left an impression felt deeply: “No painting is better than the other, because if I’ve chosen to draw it, there must have been something special about it. Perhaps the way the light looked, or the people roaming around that day. Each is unique in its own way.”

However, the French artist mentioned a series of paintings that evoked in him "the most profound stream of emotions," in which he recreated a separated but inextricably connected scene on Con Dao. The first painting illustrates a mansion that once belonged to a French jailer, and the second depicts the exterior architecture of Con Dao prison.

“In this painting, I'm not merely painting a scene, but I’m capturing the 'soul' of the people that once lived and left marks of their presences here. I asked myself: ‘Who are they?’ and imagine what might have happened here. During the day, the jailer could have gone to work and brutally punished the prisoners. He could have committed so many heinous acts. Yet in the evening, he left all of that behind to go home to his wife and children, to live a content life in this splendid villa.”

The lavish mansion is now abandoned, Monluc says. But the fate of the people that once resided within the structure, and the nuances of life embedded in it, are preserved, expressed, and now showcased on the canvases that the artist has painted. And that is the overarching theme and message that the "Dream" exhibition exemplifies.

The "Dream" exhibition by Vincent Monluc is taking place from December, 2021 until January 26, 2022, from 9am to 9pm, at Ngõ Art Gallery, 2nd Floor Q2 Terrace Thảo Điền, 21 Võ Trường Toản, HCMC.

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