Vanished Canvases, A Bittersweet Remembrance of the College of Fine Arts in Indochina
In the captivating tapestry of history and travel, I've always been drawn to the allure of beauty that is tragically disrupted by the passage of time. These fleeting moments of ephemeral beauty, which endure only briefly, evoke a profound sense of admiration for both the intrinsic beauty itself and the tragic fate it ultimately succumbs to.
The College of Fine Arts of Indochina (l’École supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine)
Once, I wrote about the exquisite beauty of rural Cochichina in Sa Dec—a picturesque tale that has since become a cherished memory. Today, my thoughts turn to another chapter in time, exploring the long-lost splendor of The College of Fine Arts of Indochina (l’École supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine), officially recognized as the College of Fine Arts of the University of Indochina (l’École supérieure des Beaux-Arts de l’Université indochinoise). This forgotten institution, now draped in the wistful folds of history, unfolds a narrative where art, history, and travel intersect, creating a canvas of poignant beauty and the inevitable sorrow that accompanies its demise.
It's part of the "Grandes Écoles" system within the French higher education sector. The term "cao đẳng" (supérieur) refers to the academic level (university) and the official discipline (public, state). The establishment of such a school must be decided by the ministerial level, and therefore, the school is entitled to a budget provided by the state. Indeed, during its two-decade span from 1925 to 1945, this school independently forged a distinctive style. However, it underwent a transformation when it was later nationalized and repurposed as an institute solely dedicated to serving as a propaganda workshop for the Communist government.
The visionaries, sculptors, and artists of this school ushered in a new epoch of Vietnamese art, the enduring impact of which resonates even today. Every piece crafted by students, regardless of scale, commands significant value and finds itself curated and auctioned at remarkably high prices. In 2022, an exhibition featuring the works of a select few eminent artists from this school unfolded, generously provided by private collectors. Some of these pieces had never before graced public view, and there exists a distinct possibility that they may remain hidden from our eyes for the rest of our lives. These paintings encapsulate the allure of Vietnam's antebellum era, harkening back to its days as a French colony fashioned after the ideals of the Republic of France.
Each of these artworks boasts a distinct style and identity, a harmonious blend forged from the traditional tapestry of Vietnamese craftsmanship encountering the opulence of French affluence. They encapsulate the might of French richness, military prowess, patronage, and modernity. Themes within the paintings range from portraits to depictions of both French and Vietnamese religious and literary motifs, all viewed through the lens of Vietnamese observers navigating the remnants of a neglected Vietnam. The artwork seamlessly transitions from Oriental craftsmanship to the more scientific, modern, and masculine realm of French fine art.
It's a rare opportunity to witness these paintings firsthand, especially considering I've previously admired artworks at the Musée d'Orsay. The contrasting beauty between the two parallel worlds—one of the conqueror and the other of the conquered—is remarkably poignant and exquisitely so.