70-Year Return of Hanoi Painter’s Artwork from Europe

The late Tran Phuc Duyen was a pioneering figure in the field of lacquer, being part of the last generation of École des Beaux-Arts students to emigrate to Europe and dedicate a lifetime of study and practice to the craft.

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About Tran Phuc Duyen

To commemorate the centenary of the birth of acclaimed Hanoi-born painter Tran Phuc Duyen (1923-1993), a curated collection of 150 of his exemplary artworks has been transported from Switzerland to Vietnam.

The exhibition entitled “Fated Encounters: Tran Phuc Duyen” is scheduled to take place from July 22nd to August 6th. It will occupy a spacious 600-square-meter exhibition area at the esteemed Quang San Museum located in Ho Chi Minh City.

Painting for the Pope

Duyen was born in his father’s hometown of Phu Xuyen District, while his mother originates from Bach Mai Village in Hanoi. He had the privilege of being a member of the final graduating cohort of the prestigious Indochina School of Fine Arts, which is now known as the Vietnam University of Fine Arts. Throughout his artistic career, Duyen specialized in lacquer painting, and he remained devoted to this particular style for the entirety of his life.

In 1941, he matriculated in the preparatory class at the Indochina Fine Arts College, where he received instruction from renowned painters Nam Son and To Ngoc Van.

 Painter Tran Phuc Duyen has many exhibitions abroad. Photo: Pham Le art collection

After the closure of the school in 1945, Duyen established his own studio in Hanoi. In 1950, he gifted three lacquer works, including a stunning six-panel lacquer painting of Thay Pagoda (Hanoi), to Pope Pius XII. Today, these artworks continue to be impeccably preserved in the prestigious Vatican Museum.

Tran Phuc Duyen began his artistic career in Vietnam, where he primarily worked in Hanoi. His debut exhibition took place in Saigon in 1952. In 1954, Tran Phuc Duyen relocated to France, where he further developed his skills at prestigious institutions such as Jean Souverbie’s workshop and the Paris School of Fine Arts. In 1961, he presented his work at an exhibition in Nice.

Over the next seven years, Tran Phuc Duyen continued to showcase his artwork, hosting solo exhibitions in Spain, France, and Switzerland. In 1968, he made the decision to settle in Switzerland, where he resided until his passing. Throughout his time there, he held an additional 13 solo exhibitions in Switzerland, France, and Canada, leaving a significant imprint on the artistic landscape.

 Painter Tran Phuc Duyen and a lacquer painting presented to Pope Pius. Photo: Pham Le art collection

There are approximately 20 lacquer paintings showcasing European landscapes, while the remaining artwork portrays Vietnamese landscapes, still life, and people.

Since the year 1980, Tran Phuc Duyen has shifted his focus from producing a lesser amount of large paintings in the traditional lacquer style to creating small-scale works that feature elegant ink brush strokes, Zen art, and abstract paintings. As his life approached its final years, he chose to practice his craft in the comfort of his own home, resulting in artwork that possesses a sense of serenity and contemplation.

According to art critic Jean-Claude Piguet, Tran Phuc Duyen’s paintings convey a sense of tranquility, introspection, and contemplation. The artist skillfully depicts the profound interconnectedness of all things, pushing the boundaries of artistic expression. His latest lacquer paintings, executed with meticulous detail, showcase his mastery of the medium. Despite being separated from his homeland, Duyen appears to have found a new sense of belonging through his artwork. This insight was shared during the artist’s solo exhibition in Switzerland in 1983.

Discover the Treasure

In 2018, two esteemed collectors, Le Quang Vinh and Pham Quoc Dat, founders of the prestigious Pham Le art collection, stumbled upon an enlightening article by an American author. The article centered around an extraordinary exhibition known as “The Forgotten Treasure” featuring the works of renowned painter Tran Phuc Duyen. This unparalleled event took place in Switzerland.

 A lacquer painting of Tran Phuc Duyen. Photo: Pham Le art collection

The team promptly traveled to Europe in search of the exhibition’s organizer. There, they discovered that the esteemed painter Tran Phuc Duyen had passed away in Bern in 1993. Due to his lack of descendants, all of his artworks, documents, and artifacts had been carefully packed and stored in the warehouse of a suburban castle.

In 2013, the new owner of the castle stumbled upon a forgotten treasure trove of over 100 artworks and artifacts. Determined to preserve this legacy, they made it their mission to locate the rightful heir of the talented painter Tran Phuc Duyen. After diligent efforts, they successfully reached out to Tran Phuc Duyen’s nephew, Tran Tuong Van, with a proposal to acquire and sell these valuable works.

Once the two Vietnamese collectors gained access to the aforementioned works, they discovered that a portion of them had already been purchased, while the remaining pieces were being stored in hazardous conditions. Additionally, certain artworks had been compromised, lacking proper framing.

Pham Quoc Dat expressed his unfortunate contemplation as he gazed upon the scattered artworks on the ground, among them being two-panel paintings that had been separated for sale. Despite the circumstances, he and his companions made the bold decision to invest their entire savings into reclaiming this tremendous artistic heritage.

Two collectors met Van in Paris, France, with the intention of acquiring all of the artist’s works. Their objective is to preserve the artistic legacy and facilitate the return of Tran Phuc Duyen’s art to Vietnam.

Le Quang Vinh and Pham Quoc Dat, upon bringing the collection to Vietnam, enlisted the services of expert professionals to restore the paintings that had suffered damage.

Tran Phuc Duyen’s paintings posed a unique challenge for repair and restoration due to their innovative combination of Eastern and Western materials. The intricate process involved sourcing materials from multiple countries, adding to the complexity of the project. Furthermore, the restoration effort is crucial in capturing and conveying the artistic vision of the late artist.

We cordially invite you to a special exhibition in honor of the late artist Tran Phuc Duyen. The exhibition, curated by Ace Le and supported by his family and collectors, will showcase a remarkable collection of his paintings in HCM City. Please join us for this commemorative event.

 The scenery of the homeland’s daily life is reflected in the work of Tran Phuc Duyen.

The exhibition examines artworks from various periods in the artist’s career, starting with his graduation from École des Beaux-Arts Class 16 (1942-1945), followed by his atelier period (1948-1954), his time in France (1954-1968), Switzerland (1968-1993), and finally, until his passing.

The artworks are categorized into major themes, spanning from figurative to minimalist styles. These themes include everyday life, landscape, still life and miniature, ink wash and Zen art, abstraction, and commemoration.

We are delighted to announce that alongside the exhibition, a book on Tran Phuc Duyen’s remarkable life and illustrious career will be published in 2023. Thanks to the kind support of the Pham-Le Collection, this publication will feature insightful commentaries by esteemed art scholars from both international and Vietnamese backgrounds.

Tran Tuong Van expressed his great joy in returning to Vietnam to commemorate the 100th birthday of his uncle, the esteemed painter Tran Phuc Duyen. He envisioned this celebratory occasion as a symbolic homecoming after a lifelong pursuit of his passion in Europe.