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Vietnam - Finding a muse


French artist Anne Marie Besancon found the inspiration to start painting on a 1999 journey through Vietnam. She explains how she found her muse. 

Was born in 1945 in a little town in Haute-Loire, France, called Brioude. I was the third child of a family of twelve children - six boys and six girls. The death of my father when I was only 11 years old and the death of my mother ten years later made me completely devoted to my own family. I tried to do exactly as my parents had done, to overcome any hardships that might arise.

It was when I met my husband, Vincent, an architect and painter, that my life was transformed. As well as raising four children, I helped Vincent in his work. Each year we traveled with our children, our luggage full of brushes and sketch-pads. We went to Italy, Morocco, Greece, Spain, New York and Egypt. Then in 1999, our son who was teaching in Hanoi at the time brought us to Vietnam.

With Vietnam came the culture shock of Asia, a different experience for each of us. Vincent published a book of sketches of his travels in Vietnam (Gallimard 2000). It was also at that time that my life changed completely. I discovered painting.

From the moment I set foot on Vietnamese soil, the stupendous beauty of the landscape with its magnificent colors, changing skies, and gentle people were all sources of inspiration for me. It was s shock.

Already on the road leading from the airport to Hanoi the scenes leapt out at me like living paintings. I only took notice of the women. During my journey from North to South I admired how these women worked so religiously in the paddy fields, replanting rice. I saw women on bicycles with baskets full of flowers, fruit and all kinds of implements; women carrying heavy loads to market early in the morning; women who, from daybreak, worked hard physically. I watched women praying in pagodas, women from Ao Cai and Sapa who carried their whole lives with them, a child on their back, finely chiselled silver jewellery, around their neck, and a dress decorated with magnificent embroidery. I saw schoolgirls in Ho Chi Minh City walking on the dusty earth in their white ao dai, all slim-fingered, all beautiful. What a sight!

Quite naturally, I began to paint them. Through these women I could see my childhood. Life in their small houses was just like my own back home, without material wealth but spiritually rich. Some of these women reminded me of my mother who fought courageously for better conditions. I could sense that they had suffered like my mother did, with secret resignation.

I was greatly moved when I met Phuong, a flower vendor in the Kim Lien district of Hanoi. With slow, precise and elegant movements she arranged flowers in a basket on her bicycle. Where is she from? The countryside? Yes, far away. She smiled shyly. She was beautiful.

At the Alliance Francaise in Hanoi a student attracted my attention with her dedication to learn. She let me sketch her as she went about her work. She was preoccupied with her studies and her future.

Hue is a melancholy city, a city of painters, poets and musicians. With its gardens of cherry, frangipani and royal Poinciana, it was the imperial city of the Nguyen Dynasty. Here, I met a mother who, widowed a few weeks earlier, lived on a boat with her nine children. She cared for her family by night and worked as a tourist guide in imperial tombs by day. Her eldest son piloted the boat while she prepared a meal for tourists. From time to time she stopped to push the boat when it got stuck in the mud. I watched her with her younger children and an older lady. It is impossible to describe the elegance with which she set out the food, laying bowls and chopsticks on the deck of the boat.

Near Ben Nghe River I met a cyclo driver and his wife. She invited me into their small wooden house over the water. It must be very cool during the monsoon season. It didn't seem to matter; they loved each other and were happy. She smiled, holding their child in her arms. We entered the single, small room, a bike in one corner, mats hanging up, pans and bowls carefully arranged on the ground. I often think of them. For Christmas 200 I painted a watercolor of the nativity from sketches I made here.

In Sapa, I saw H'mong, Thai and Dao people. What diversity! What clothing! Indigos and reds, an entire palette of colors! At Bac Ha Market a young H'mong woman have me her basket as if we were old friends. In exchange I let her choose one of my shawls in which to carry her baby. What a marvelous exchange!

How can I express all this? It's in the paintings that the feelings, colors and impressions come to me. I feel at peace when painting the people I met in Vietnam. May be I feel a little nostalgic when I think about how the country might change. Vietnam is always changing, opening up to frantic modernization. How will it be possible to preserve Vietnam's tradition?

We've been back to Vietnam three times and I've met many other Vietnamese women. The way I look at them has changed since that first day in 1999. A picture points a thousand words; painting in my life.



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