Published by Chicago Art Magazine on Jan 11, 2012 in Articles, Featured
On the eve of his ninetieth birthday, Vietnamese artist, Lebadang, is as creative as he was 50 years ago. Albert Scaglione of Park West Gallery journeys to Paris to visit the artist, discovering a treasure trove of his work across the decades.
MONTPARNASSE – Exactly fifty years ago, Vietnamese artist, Lebadang began painting in his studio in Montparnasse. An area in Paris with an artistic legacy that stretches back more than a century, it’s easy to imagine Cezanne or Picasso sipping coffee along the bustling Avenue du Maine. The streets are buzzing, alive with the sounds of the city, setting the stage for the world’s most creative minds.
Although he is approaching ninety years old, Lebadang (Lê Bá Đảng) is nothing but energy. His studio is filled with works of art and drawers with paintings that have not been seen since the seventies. Founder and CEO of Park West Gallery, Albert Scaglione, has known the artist for more than thirty years and begins sifting through the paintings, one by one – a treasure trove for him. “It’s very exciting to have this connection and bring it to our clients,” says Mr. Scaglione. Even at his age, Lebadang knows he cannot stop creating. His wife, Myshu, tells Mr. Scaglione, “Life is a sinking ship and work is a lifeboat.” This fits her husband perfectly.
He’s been in Paris since 1939, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse for six years until his first one-man show in 1950. He found his first marketable success painting hundreds of cats on ceramic plates, still in high demand. Already an established artist by the 1960’s after starring in an exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Lebadang always strove to create what was new and exciting. He created large-scale abstract oil paintings with vivid blues and glowing puddles of orange and red. He sold to tourists and collectors, quickly establishing himself as a serious artist with never-ending creativity. Most recently, he has used pure foam board as a medium, using a knife to cut out intricate designs. He places the finished foam between two pieces of glass, creating a frame that allows light to shine through, producing ornate patterns and effects. The ending results are beautiful.
Painting and printmaking are Lebadang’s most frequently used media but he also works in terra cotta and a variety of other media, such as Vessel (1994). Whatever he creates, each piece speaks to the entangled roles of man and nature. In his 1981 La Comédie Humaine, he writes, “In my work, I use the circle, the magic symbol of life, to enclose reliefs and landscapes. It symbolizes that nature is inseparable from man. Man finds sustenance and spiritual nourishment in every source.” The artist’s cast paper reliefs from the 1980’s demonstrate this power of the circular shape. The handmade paper he designs is used as a pseudo-frame, ornately surrounding the paint and symbolically playing nature. And while the human form was not represented figuratively in his work until the late 1970’s, he confirms that man was always present. “Until now… it was a familiar shape, a simple component in the universe but deprived of its human essence. […] Thus, it is that my new work has evolved,” he writes.
By examining paintings like his untitled works of the 1960s – abstract, brightly colored, and almost ethereal – you get the sense that Lebadang’s memories are pushing through to the surface. His oil paintings of the sixties are ambiguous at first glance, yet the faint outlines of boats, bridges, and horses gently float to the top. After his shift in style, bringing definition to his paintings, these dreams are made more lucid. Many of his figures become emotive and highly dramatic, this time with visible faces. By the time he approaches the 1990’s, he demonstrates a new pictorial theme that is topographical and textured. Mixing media, he paints aerial scenes of mountains and oceans where the viewer is stationed in the heavens. These paintings elaborate on man’s relationship to the natural world, continuously presented as a flurry of memories.
And memories, objects that haunt the entire oeuvre of the artist, are a familiar subject to Lebadang. From growing up in Vietnam in the early 1920’s to enlisting in the French Army for World War II (even before he had learned French) and taken prisoner by the Japanese, his experiences have triggered responses to his past, present, and future. “Art, in all its forms, whether literature, philosophy, or the visual arts, expresses an attempt to understand the riddle of life and helps lessen the fear of death,” he writes.
Back in Lebadang’s studio, Albert Scaglione holds a painting from the late ‘70’s: a woman standing on two horses is set in a dimly lit circular room. She and the horses are masked in costume as she balances herself, the star of the ring. With this painting, vaguely reminiscent of Georges Seurat’s Circus, it’s easy to tell that Lebadang has been inspired by a legacy of French painting, though his work is more mysterious, cavernous, and delicate. But the French are not his only inspiration. Vietnam’s millennium under Chinese rule soaks through his art: the mountains, the fog, and especially his square red signature provide parallels to early Chinese painting. Lebadang’s “signature” acts as his own logo and closely mirrors the calligrapher’s square red seal of a Song Dynasty hand scroll. Their size, shape, and color are virtually identical.
After dozens of successful exhibitions, Lebadang has been sending his money back to Vietnam to rebuild his devastated village, from the schools to the hospitals, until his village became the best in the country. He was honored by the Vietnamese government with a sponsored Le Be Dang foundation and museum, the first arts foundation in Vietnam. Splitting his time between Vietnam and Paris, the artist claims that one day he will retire. But nevertheless, his creativity continues to flourish.