Culture Culture

07/06/2017 - 10:22

Two precious paintings by artist Le Huy Mien in Ba La Mat Temple

Ba La Mat temple is located in Nam Pho village, Phu Thuong commune, Phu Vang district, to the right of a street from Hue city to Thuan An, which is Nguyen Sinh Cung street now. The temple was set up in 1886 by Mr. Nguyen Khoa Luan (Grand Master Vien Giac) as a monastery after his resignation, which is nearly 120 years old. The disciple generations of Grand Master Giac Vien have continued to restore the temple, so it has become more and more solemn and impressive.


Portrait of Grand Master Vien Giac

Having a close relationship with venerable Thuong Chieu, Abbot of Ba La Mat temple, I sometimes visit the temple. I usually pay attention to a pastel portrait, enshrined in the center of Ancestor’s altar behind Dai Hung Buu Palace. The Venerable Abbot said that it was the portrait of the Ancestor who built Ba La Mat temple - Grand Master Vien Giac. The reason for my interest is that the portrait paintings and pictures of senior monks worshipped in many temples in Hue are often put in frameworks made of precious wood, which are carved and painted very meticulously. However, though the portrait of Grand Master Vien Giac of Ba La Mat is old and put in a simple wooden framework, it still has an unexplainable beauty.

Portrait of Mrs. Nguyen Khoa Luan

After referring to some resources, I was so amazed. My God, the portrait of Grand Master Vien Giac hung in Ba La Mat temple I have seen is a masterpiece by artist Le Huy Mien (Le Van Mien). According to document, there is not only the portrait of Grand Master Vien Giac, but also a portrait of Mrs. Nguyen Khoa Luan in Ba La Mat temple, also painted by Le Huy Mien. But who is Le Huy Mien?


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Drawing on research studies by several authors such as Ngo Kim Khoi (Paris) (artist Le Huy Mien (1873-1943): Life and masterpieces); Nguyen Khac Phe (Hue) (Some characteristics: Le Van Mien - "born at wrong time" artist, luminaries’ teacher); Nguyen Dac Xuan (Hue) (Some facts about artist Le Van Mien) ..., it is possible to profile this artist as follows:  Le Huy Mien (which was also referred to as Le Van Mien, because at that time, French’s notion about An Nam people’s name was that male middle name was "Van", female one was “Thi") was born in 1873, his hometown was Nghi Loc district, Nghe An province. He was a son of Vice Chairman of Hai Duong province named Le Nang Nghiem in the Nguyen dynasty. When he was young, he was famous for being smart and studying very well. In 1892, Dong Khanh court chose 3 children of 3 officials and sent them to France to study in the Colonial school (École Coloniale) in Paris. Vice Chairman Le Nang Nghiem’s family chose one of the two elder sons who were Le Huy Sang or Le Huy Than, but they didn’t agree. The third son, who was Le Huy  Mien also refused to go abroad. After the family’s persuasion, he finally reluctantly consented. Going abroad with him were Hoang Trong Phu, son of Hai Duong’s Chairman named Hoang Cao Khai, and Than Trong Hue, son Binh Phu’s of Chairman named Than Van Nhiep. In Paris, Le Huy Mien was respected by many people, even French students, because he often ranked the first in his class. During his studying time, since the principal of this school was a racist in favor of French students. Le Huy Mien led his classmates from other colonies class to strike and wrote a denunciation letter to the Ministry of Colonies. Later, when Le Huy Mien came back to Vietnam, he said a sentence which has been well-known till now: “Once we study, we must study so that we are looked up to. In every field, especially in education, if we desire, Vietnamese will not be defeated by anyone. I personally do not want to study to become a mandarin, but I am willing to study to forewarn the French."

Venerable Thuong Chieu standing beside altar of the Ancestor who built Ba La Mat temple

After graduation from the Colonial school, Le Huy Mien did not came back and became an official like his two Vietnamese classmates. Because of his love for painting, and probably as a way to avoid involvement in mandarin life, he decided to stay and continued to study at Paris school of Fine Arts. He got acquainted with the arts of oil painting and became the first to paint in oils  in Indochina.

Coming back to Vietnam in 1898, he was offered a mandarin position by Hue court, but he refused it. In 1899, he was responsible for drawing illustrations for Schneider, the first printing house in Hanoi. Due to the close relationship between Le-Dao families, he went to Vinh and worked with Dao Tan, Chairman of An-Tinh (Nghe An and Ha Tinh). In 1902, Emperor Thanh Thai appointed Dao Tan as Minister of Transport, Le Huy Mien followed him and became an official in the Ministry of Transport, he was in charge of drawing maps and architecture for Hue palaces. This job gave him many opportunities to meet King Thanh Thai. Le Huy Mien, with an anti-French mindset which was in common with the king, was trusted by the king. King Thanh Thai gave him a secret mission to draw samples of Western infantry rifles to cast them later and to equip the women’s army in the citadel.

The close relationship between anti-colonial minded people was suspected by the French protectorate government. When Thanh Thai’s weapon drawings were detected, he pretented to go insane and tore them off. Taking advantage of this opportunity, the French accused the king of insanity, forced him to abdicate, Dao Tan to retire and moved Le Huy Mien to Nghe An. People said that in the time as an official of the Ministry of Transport, Le Huy Mien was nominated by Dao Tan to draw King Thanh Thai’s portrai, and told the king about Western civilization. The portrait of King Thanh Thai was drawn when he was sitting and taking an airing at the Luong Ta house, in front of Phu Van Lau. When the painting was finished, he enjoyed it very much, and awarded the artist to have a meal with him. This was considered to be an "unprecedented" gesture in the royal palace.

Until 1907, thanks to the advice of a former classmate, Le Huy Mien came back to Hue and became a professor of arts and of French language at Quoc Hoc school in order to avoid being persecuted by the colonial government. In 1913, he assumed the role as a teaching assistant in Hau Bo school - Hue. By the end of 1914,  he was promoted to be a Vice Director, and in 1919 as Director. In 1923, he was in charge of the Temple of Literature, became Director, and also taught French. He retired at the age of 56 because of his poor eyesight (Many people suspected that he was poisoned by the colonial government). When he retired, he was promoted as Minister of Education and Foreign Affairs. He died in 1943 at the age of 71. He was buried in Truong An, Phuoc Tich village (Phong Dien). Hue court conferred him  several honorary titles, especially Director of Temple of Literature.

Le Huy Mien’s masterpieces that remain till now include some portraits and realistic paintings of living activities, "using Western methods to present An Nam’s landscapes and people ". Among them is Mr. Nguyen Van Mai’s Portrait – the first painting drawn in Paris in 1894. Nguyen Van Mai (1853-1945) was a former student of Mr. Le Dang Nghiem, Le Huy Mien’s father. When Mr. Nguyen Van Mai went to France, he met Le Huy Mien and the portrait was painted at this time. Unfortunately, we don’t know where this painting is now.

The second painting is Portrait of Mr. Tu Men (1898). According to the description by author Ngo Kim Khoi, Portrait of Mr. Tu Men is a 54 × 63cm-size painting, oil-painted on thick and crude canvas, and stretched on a wooden framework. The work was made in 3 months. Mr. Tu Men was Le Huy Mien’s former teacher of Han script, and also an Oriental physician who used to help his family. His real name was Nguyen Vinh Mau. He was born in 1834, in Nam Xuan commune, Nam Dan district, Nghe An province, passed the Dinh Mao baccalaureate in 1867. The painting was bought by Vietnam Fine Arts Museum (Hanoi) in the 1970s.

The third one is Binh van –a 68x97cm-size oil painting of a Han script class, and it was assessed by artist Thai Ba Van: "... artist Le Van Mien with his Binh van painting is a  landmark which is considered to be favorable and beautiful by the national arts history. It gives to modern arts of Vietnam a quarter of a century in terms of age and a solid education that won’t reoccur a second time." Besides, though there are not any names or symbols on the painting,  many people still believe that it was Le Huy Mien’s painting. However, to be absolutely certain, its authorship is still an unanswered question. Vietnam Fine Arts Museum (Hanoi) also bought and stored this painting in  August 1972.  

The next paintings are two portraits of Mr. & Mrs. Le Nang Nghiem, parents of the artist, which are preserved by the family in Nghi Loc (Nghe An); Portrait of Dao Tan; Portrait of Chairman Hoang Cao Khai. According to author Ngo Kim Khoi, there are more than 13 paintings. However, to the domestic artists, there are currently only 7 paintings by Le Huy Mien, two of which are at Ba La Mat temple as we have mentioned. That is a  proportion disappointing art lovers.

I have a friend who is a son of an artist, several generations after Le Huy Mien. He is luckily preserving some of his father’s paintings, and some people wanted to pay him more than 200 taels of gold, but he did not accept. Then, the paintings by Le Huy Mien kept at Ba La Mat temple must be worth a huge amount of gold. I hurried to the temple to do a superfluous and ... kind of inapproriate thing: To inform the Abbot about the value of those paintings (which he might have already known so well) and warned him about possible thieves. The fact that thieves burgle temples and steal bells and statues is not rare now. Even bells and statues are stolen just to sell as ... scraps; so burglars must be interested in the paintings as precious as gold. Therefore, though hesitant, I finally decided to warn him just in case.


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Back to the two portraits of Mr. & Mrs. Nguyen Khoa Luan (the artist’s parents in law). These two portraits were not painted in oils  like other paintings by Le Huy Mien, but they were painted in pastel on papers (it is also called as fairy pastel). According to our observation, it is not 60x80cm as described in some documents, but it is about 40x60cm. Mr. Nguyen Khoa Luan in the painting was sitting cross-legged relaxedly on a large slightly-carved wooden armchair. With a white, short beard and bright eyes, he wore a red turban on his head, a grey Buddhist robe, and white pants. A long rosary was hung around his neck down to the seat. His left hand was holding the Bat Nha Buddhism sacred book in Han script, and his right hand a feathered fan. The elderly woman was depicted sitting on a carved wooden chair put on a light grey carpet, in front of a red limestone wall. Her hair was tufted; she had a high forehead and a thin face. She was wearing a black Ao dai, white pants, and black shoes. Her left hand was holding a feathered fan, her right hand resting on the arm of the chair. Behind her was a beautifully-patterned carpet (?) used as a background, which helped foreground the portrait. Both paintings are up to 115 years old, but they are still preserved perfectly; the colors and details of the paintings are still very bright. Nonetheless, the paper has some damages by termites. Venerable Thuong Chieu said that the temple did not have any special solutions to preserve them. Perhaps, the temple is always dry. From the past till now, the painting of the elderly man (Grand Master Vien Giac) has been placed on an independent stand and the painting of the elder woman has been hung on a wooden wall (not on a limestone or brick wall), so that mold is prevented. Furthermore, that the temple usually has incense smoke may be an accidental factor helping the paintings last a long time (?).

Good wine needs no bush. In late June 2014, the delegations of Vietnam Fine Arts Association led by artist Le Huy Tiep (Le Huy Mien’s grandson) and of Vietnam Fine Arts Museum led by Mrs. Nguyen Anh Nguyet, Vice Director of the Museum came to Hue and to Ba La Mat to view the two paintings. The group applied some techniques to conserve the paintings. They also conducted an investigation to make a record.  Venerable Thuong Chieu and journalist Nguyen Khoa Dieu Ha (TRT TV station), who witnessed the work of this group, said that when they took the paintings down and examined it through the magnifier, everyone admired Le Huy Mien’s talent. They didn’t know why the tiny Han characters on the book cover were so clear (thanks to this, we could know exactly that was the Bat Nha Buddhism sacred book. And even the blood vessels in the body of the persons were also drawn very accurately and meticulously. No wonder why the paintings look so shimmering and lively.

With regard to the year when the two paitings were completed, some people thought that they could be created after 1900, because until 1902 Le Huy Mien followed Dao Tan to Hue. However, another question emerged: if it was after 1900 who would be the sitter for the portrait as Grand Master Vien Giac had died by that time? There was only one explanation that he drew through the description of the relatives and based on photographs of Grand Master Vien Giac when he was alive. (At present, Ba La Mat temple also enshrines an enlarged and legible photograph of Grand Master Vien Giac and his student Vien Thanh). With Le Van Mien’s talent, he is believed to have completed his work that way. As in the case of the portrait of Mr. Tu Men, Le Van Mien just sometimes paid Mr. Tu a visit, and then back home he painted the portrait out of his memory.  However, to answer the above questions properly, Venerable Thuong Chieu said that he would go to the Le family to read the genealogy book. For a notable traditional family like the Le, he believed that the genealogy was recorded very carefully, adequately and accurately. Just by referring to the birth dates of Le Huy Mien’s children with his wife from the Nguyen Khoa family, it would be able to figure out the age of the two paintings kept in the temple.

By Dien Thong