Nguyen Gia Tri (1908–1993) By Scott, Phoebe
Born in Ha Dong, Vietnam, Nguyen Gia Tri was a modern painter, best known for his virtuosity in the medium of lacquer painting. Modern lacquer painting was invented at the École des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine, and was an experimental practice, drawing from traditional Vietnamese lacquer techniques to create a two-dimensional painted surface, akin to an oil painting. While a student at this school in the 1930s, Nguyen Gia Tri developed an expressive style in lacquer, marrying post-impressionist influences with an exploration of the medium’s visual characteristics, such as translucency and sheen. His most common subjects were aestheticized female figures, blending into amorphous backgrounds. Due to his work in the 1930s and 1940s, Nguyen Gia Tri was credited with transforming lacquer from a decorative art to a “fine art” medium. The idea of lacquer as a uniquely Vietnamese form of “fine art” had a special significance in the context of the burgeoning nationalism of colonial-period Vietnam. Following the Vietnamese Revolution of 1945, and the outbreak of the First Indochina War (1946–1954), Nguyen Gia Tri left Hanoi, eventually settling in Saigon, South Vietnam. While he continued to work in his characteristic style, he also experimented widely with the medium, including by exploring its innate facility for abstraction.