AN AERIAL VISIONMarch 17, 2018 Posted by Write about Le Ba Dang
Anthony Janson on the otherworldly works of Vietnam artist, Lebadang
Lebadang is probably the most famous Vietnamese artist working in the West. Technically, his work is spectacular; aesthetically, it is deeply satisfying. At the same time, it does not look like that of a typical Oriental artist. Lebadang’s art retains a decidedly Western appearance that perfectly complements its Eastern character.
How did this happen? Partly by design, partly by accident. Lebadang was born in Quang- Tri, Vietnam, in 1921. At the age of 18, keen to see the world and especially France, he left for Europe. He was then abruptly cut off from his home, his family and financial resources by the outbreak of the Second World War. He enlisted in the French army, but was later captured. Following his release in 1945, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse, an institution which at that time did not require either an identity card or a diploma. For the next six years, he studied art and printmaking, supporting himself in a variety of job, (including assisting in commercial printers) that were to provide the basis of hic later versatility. Lebadang’s first one-man exhibition, held in the Librairie du Globe in Paris in 1950, was highly successful; gradually his work became better known through a series of shows in galleries around France. His international career was launched in 1966, when he had solo exhibitions at the Newman Contemporary Art Gallery, Philadelphia, and the Cincinnati Art Museum. His work has now been shown in galleries throughout the USA, Germany and Japan and has featured in numerous publication since 1989. How, then, does the artist deal with his Oriental heritage in the light of his long experience of the West? “I don’t work for somthing either Eastern or Western”, he has said, “I have both in myself. I think like an Oriental but reason like an Occidental”. His synthesis of the two is most readily apparent in his works from the 1970s, especially the lithographs. The motifs are typically Oriental, but the aesthesis is characteristic of the School of Paris in the 1950s, not only in the bright coloration, but also the bravura, painterly qualities of “tachisme” found in the work of Lebadang’s contemporaries such as Georges Mathieu.
In 1980 Lebadang abondaned this readily accessible style for obviously Eastern manner in the print cycle, The Human Comedy. This explored a theme to which he has often returned over the years. The series also marked a turning point in Lebadang’s career: for the first time, he was truly working for himself. The change is immediately apparent in the style which has a new compactness and clarity. Four years later Lebadang embarked on Space which defined his fully mature art. Extraordinarily subtle in appearance and sophisticated in execution, this series conveys multiple layers of complex meaning.
The term “space” must be understood on several levels at once. It is a landscape space- but one that is specifically Vietnamese. For Lebadang, Vietnam remains a lot paradise: “I have never left my country. Even if my physical being has been taken away, my spirit has stayed attached to it. All of my work is a reflection of that love in a thousand facets.” These memories, strengthened by repeated visits to his former homeland since 1976, haunt his imagination. (Lebadang has donated considerable time and money to rebuilding his native village, and has worked to stimulate the arts in Vietnam). Anyone who has been to Vietnam will immediately recognize the literal impress of its features on the terrain of Lebadang’s landscape. It is, as he says, the reimagined country of his childhood. It is, however, a landscape seen from above, in aerial view so that it appears remarkably abstract. Indeed, Lebadang’s organization of the picture surface also corresponds to the layout of villages in Vietnam. To lend it a further human scale while expressing “the profound relation between Man and the Cosmos”, he frequently incorporates the human figure in an abstract form, derived from the pictograph of a family (the traditional focus of Oriental life) that he has adopted as a logo in all of his work.
Lebadang’s dream of Vietnam is also the stepping stone to a conceptual, philosophical view of art. He has described the spaces he depicts as at once “empty and full”, corresponding to the state of Nirvana, the goal of Buddhist contemplation. Nirvana is the rediscovery of the true or Buddha Self which is empty in the sense that it is egoless; yet it is full, at one with the universe.
The influence of Taoism, deeply rooted in the Chinese heritage, lends Buddhism in China a distinctly different character from that it originally had in India. Lebadang’s work is naturally imbued with both: China dominated Vietnam for 2000 years. For Lao-Tzu, author of Tao- Teh- King philosophical basis of the system, nature – and, for Lebadang, art- is without limits, like the varied shapes of Spaces with often imply another space beyond.
The relation of Lebadang’s art to Taoism is not only conceptual but formal. The first works on paper in the Spaces series were pure white. Almost immediately, however, the artist began making entirely black Space. Light and dark are necessary complements because, as Lao-Tzu state, one can not know the one without the other. Inevitably, however, Lebadang began to incorporate colour into the Space. In part this was an aesthetic necessity to enliven the surface. Sometimes the colour is clear and strong. In most cases, however, it is soft and muted, consisting mainly of deep blacks, dark reds, earthen tones, and sombre blues. Such hues are meant to induce a contemplative state of mind. Lao-Tzu writes of the Tao, “From above it is not bright; from the below it is not dark”. Yet that does not mean that it is colourless- sometimes Lebadang incorporates spots or shafts of light which illuminate the image from within. Light in turn creates texture which, in Lebadang’s art, is characteristically vigorous.
Lebadang is best known for his relief prints. He uses one heavily worked plate for the relief and sometimes for all the colours as well, though he usually prefers a separate plate for each. He does not retouch his prints, which are pulled in edition of 100 to 200, yet each is like an original, since no two are exactly the same. His paper is made to his specification using a method he devised himself. It often has a feel of stone, created by infusing the paper with glue and then stretching it; the mineral quality is completed by the mottled colour. He uses the same paper to create the extraordinary sculptural collages which make his work so distinctive. His paintings likewise incorporate sand and other natural matter, as well as moulded objects. His concern with texture arises from his deeply ingrained reverence for materials, their inherent possibilities as well as their limitations, which he shares with many other Oriental artists and craftsmen.
Labadang has worked in virtually every conceivable medium over the years: in addition to all the major forms of printmaking, he has produce wood sculptures, stone reliefs, watercoloures and jewellery. All exhibit the same technical mastery which is never used, however, to create a virtuoso display for its own sake and acts solely as a vehicle of expression. His art is based not only on a profound spirituality but also a penetrating understanding of life gained from long experience. People respond instinctively to his transcendent vision, which knows no cultural boundaries. Despite its great diversity, his work evinces the unfolding of a consistent personality. In the end, there is no duality, only the seamless unity of a perfectly integrated vision of art and life.