Culture Vulture (Mar. 13 2013)
(VNS) Unpublished colour illustrations of Luc Van Tien (The Tale of Luc Van Tien), an epic poem by Nguyen Dinh Chieu written in nom (the old Chinese-based Vietnamese script) in the 1850s, are on display until April 6 as part of a new exhibition in HCM City’s Institute of Cultural Exchange with France. They have been discovered after being stored in a Paris museum for more than a century. French researcher Pascal Bourdeaux from the Academy of the Far East (EFEO) in HCM City talks about this important artwork.
How did you discover the illustrations after a century forgotten in the museum?
In November 2011, I accompanied Professor Phan Huy Le on a visit to the Academy of Inscriptions and Letters in Paris. Le discovered quite by chance several precious documents in the academy’s archives and found a book illustrating the folk story. Records show that the book had been offered to the academy by its author on May 26, 1899. Over the past 120 years, almost no one had read it or studied it.
The professor and I were very surprised by the beauty of the 1,200 illustrations in the book, as well as its originality. Surprisingly, it has been preserved in good condition. We dream of discoveries like this. They bring us researchers immense joy.
Where does the illustrated book come from?
Until now, we have not been able to directly study this book in manuscript form because it is still displayed at the academy in Paris. (At the HCM City exhibition, visitors can also see photos of some pages of the book).
Early last year, I went to Paris and saw this manuscript twice. I managed to take photos of some pages and proposed to the academy’s director to digitalise them.
We only came to know that its author is a Frenchman named Eugene Gibert who lived in Viet Nam from 1895 to 1897. He came to know Luc Van Tien through the French translation of the Vietnamese version of Abel des Michels in 1883. Gibert came to Hue to ask a Vietnamese painter known as “Le Dui Trach” to illustrate the poem. Two years later, Gibert went back to France and decided to offer this book to the academy in Paris in 1899. This book stayed in storage until it was restored to life in November 2011.
There are still many questions that we don’t know the answers to, for example: Who are Eugene Gibert and “Le Dui Trach”? Why did Gibert want to illustrate Luc Van Tien and not other books? Why did he hire a painter in Hue and not in Ha Noi or Sai Gon (now HCM City)?
Why did you choose to restore Luc Van Tien while several other documents stored in the academy have not been presented to the public?
Luc Van Tien is a great book in the Vietnamese literary canon. It also has a special cultural significance in the country’s southern culture. So we want to present it widely to the public. Moreover, the EFEO has just opened a branch in HCM City, so we want to do something to celebrate this.
The paintings were created in the late 19th century, so we will learn about Western and Eastern influences on Vietnamese painting.
Collecting, preserving and enriching the heritage of an Asian culture is one of the main reasons of EFEO’s existence.
How do you expect the draft will be studied and used in the future?
We have to digitalise the documents and publish them, so that many people can get to know about them. That is now the task of the EFEO branch in HCM City. After that, we hope other researchers will study this work. We would like professional researchers of fine arts history and painting techniques, literature and literary translation to get together to judge the quality of this manuscripts.
I can only say that, historically, this document is very interesting to get to learn further about the spiritual and cultural life of Vietnamese people in the late 19th century.
Now, we are looking for every occasion to present this book to the public. Those who are interested are invited to go to the library of IDECAF to see them. Others who live far from the city can visit the EFEO’s website: www.efeo.fr/base.php?code 781.
We also plan to take this exhibition to other cities in Viet Nam and in France. — VNS