Hanoi-born (1908) painter and sculptor Vu Cao Dam lived in and studied art in France from the 1930s until his death in 2000. The substantial geographic separation between his homeland of Vietnam and his adopted home of France was not mirrored in his artistic style, as he continued to include elements and techniques of his Oriental heritage in his work throughout his career. Dam is part of a small group of elite Vietnamese painters who are credited for the early 20th century birth of Vietnamese modern art.
He graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine (Indochina College of Fine Arts) in 1931 as a student of sculpture, although he received instruction in all curricular departments. One year after graduation he received a scholarship to travel to France and study sculpture at the École du Louvre (the fine art school at the Louvre Museum), but instead he chose to concentrate on painting. The young painter and three of his fellow alumni and friends, decided to immigrate to France to pursue careers in Paris. Dam’s father, who had visited France as a young adult and was talented in Chinese calligraphy, always encouraged Dam to live in France. Influenced and supported by his father and aware of the opportunities in Paris, the decision to make the long voyage to France was a straightforward one for Dam. He never returned home to Vietnam.
While living in Paris Dam painted mainly on silk using ancient Asian techniques. He also visited a multitude of museums where he viewed and was inspired by the originals of masterpieces he had only read about during his education in Vietnam. Dam painted and took part in the artistic movements in Paris for nearly twenty years before relocating to the south of France, where he lived permanently with his wife, Renee, and continued to paint. His style changed after spending time in southern France studying Matisse, Bonnard, Van Gogh, and other Impressionists, and befriending Marc Chagall (his neighbor in Saint-Paul de Vence) and other artists he admired. Dam now mainly painted figures of women—sometimes alone—other times accompanied by children, musical instruments, flowers, or horses. His style shifted to a combination of Occidental and ancient Chinese art. Colors common to his works of this period are pink, lilac, yellow, light blue, rose, shades of white, and other pastels. Black was most often used for hair and eye color, yet the paintings still remain soft and melodic while simultaneously exhibiting a harmonious balance and blend between two distinct cultures. The Vietnamese people, folklore, poetry, and landscape were the artist’s favorite themes to paint. In a communication from Paris in the mid 1960s the artist said, “I am not interested in individual portraiture or the psychological study of my subjects…in the culture of the Orient, women are jewels set in the midst of flowers and animals.”
Dam displayed his work at annual exhibitions in Paris, such as the Salon d’ Automne and the Salon des Tuileries, as well as at many other shows in southern France. More recently he had exhibits in London, Brussels, Sweden, and Switzerland. An exhibition of Dam’s lithographic work was shown in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012. The color lithographs created in the 1960s feature themes of marriage, motherhood, and the enduring beauty of woman. Well-known fine art auction houses regularly promote and sell Dam’s work. Many collectors seek Dam’s works as well. The United Nation’s Children’s Fund featured Motherhood as the art for the organization’s 1966 Christmas postcard. Dam’s oil painting titled Ladies in the Garden sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction for $230,477 in 2008. The permanent collections of the Museums of Algiers, Beziers, the Musee de la France d’Outre Mer, and the Musee d’Art in Paris, include Dam’s paintings.