War shaped the life of Lebadang (Lê Bá Đảng.) Sometimes called Hoi Lebadang, this painter’s experiences in colonial-era Vietnam and WWII-era France flow into his work.
Working at the turning point between 19th-century bohemianism and 20th-century modernism, he existed in two worlds simultaneously.
Today, we’re looking into the life of one of France’s most exciting artists.
Come along for the ride!
The Story of Hoi Lebadang
The path that brought Lebadang to France in 1939 and secured his place in art history is complex. Looking at his childhood, you would never guess that this young Vietnamese boy would have such an impact on the art world. After shortening his name in 1950 to Lebadang, he only used Hoi when making lithographs.
In colonial-era Vietnam, the French ruled Vietnam from the 1880s until 1954; France beckoned like a beacon for art and culture. Lê Bá Đảng (surname, middle name, given name), born in 1921, grew up with his eyes fixed on France.
He grew up in a middle-class peasant family and, after primary school, felt the pull to travel. Lebadang signed on with the French Ministry of Labor, and when his father couldn’t cancel his underage son’s contract, he left for Marseille. What awaited him in Marseille wasn’t work. However, it was forced labor.
Forced Labor and Prison
Lebadang and his fellow shipmates became part of the war effort for World War II-era France. The ship unloaded its cargo into the prison at Baumettes and then into arms and munitions factories around the country.
The government assigned him to 14 months of indentured servitude on arrival. After several attempts to escape, Lebadang found himself in the Lannemezan camp for discipline. Focusing on escape, he finally made it to the free zone in Toulouse, and this is where he began his art education.
With nothing else to do and no resources, Lebadang signed up for an art class at École des beaux-arts (The School of Fine Arts) to fill the time. After his terrible experience as an indentured servant and prisoner, the free air of art school set him loose.
He started working in graphic design for the local opera house and other organizations. When he graduated in 1948 from art school, he entered a design contest and won. With the funds from the competition, he did what every good artist did at the time and moved to Paris.
Bohemian Paris proved a fertile creative ground for our young hero. His studio along rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève in the Latin Quarter’s heart provided him space to grow. In the 1950s, Lebadang started to exhibit his work around France. Then, in 1966, the well-established painter made his debut in the U.S. at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Lebadang worked in a wide range of media, including paint, watercolor, sculpture, jewelry, and graphic design. His most potent work combines mediums. Paint on rough burlap instead of canvas or foam-core paper carved and sandwiched between panes of glass.
Is Hoi Lebadang Still Alive?
Lebadang’s career showed a serious artist unwilling to stop growing and changing. He worked up until his 90th year when he passed in 2015. Known for his painting and printmaking, his work powerfully captures his memories and impressions of life. A quote attributed to him by his wife Myshu captures him perfectly, “life is a sinking ship, and work is a lifeboat.”
What Inspired Lebadang’s Art?
Lebadang’s work shows a vast range of creativity. His memories inspired him the most, from abstract paintings to more defined pieces. Lebadang’s work from the 1960s is brightly colored and ethereal.
By the 1990s, his work became textured and used mixed media to show aerial views of landscapes. You can see the impact his schooling had on him, but his work also contains elements of Chinese and Vietnamese art.
What Are Some of Hoi Lebadang’s Art Pieces?
Examining Lebadang’s paintings is a rich experience. His wide-ranging use of media and subject matter is just as engaging to viewers today as it was in the 20th century.
Horse At Sunset, from Lebadang’s 1960s abstract period, Horse At Sunset is a visual feast. Painted in shades of red, blue, and yellow, the glowing eye of the horse immediately draws attention.
Moving out from there, the horse appears aflame in the center of the frame. Faint rectangular shapes portion off the painting and set off the sun setting in the background. The image has a pointillistic texture; the dots give a depth of shadow and highlight.
Buddha and the Cosmic Family
Lebadang found inspiration in religious imagery as well as the natural world. He traveled to the Angkor Vat temple in 2002 and began a new series upon returning. The Bouddha (Buddha) series flowed into the Cosmic Family series in 2010, elements of the earlier work informing the latter.
The Bouddha series provides the viewer with a meditation on peace. Each image in the series focuses on the face of the Buddha, eyes closed, painted in muted cool and earth tones. Lebadang continues his use of drips and dots in the series.
Following his shift towards more religious and contemplative work, the sculpture Bouddha captures five figures in meditation. Four figures within the body of one larger figure make up this 2006 wooden sculpture.
Part of a series of wooden sculpture figures, Bouddha’s four figures represent the Four Noble Truths, Buddhism’s foundation. Lebadang’s words echo the truths, “Art…expresses and attempts to understand the riddle of life and helps lessen the fear of death.” Through his art, he attempted to ease his viewers’ worries about life and death.
Where Can I See Lebadang’s Art?
Lebadang’s paintings and prints fill the collections of some of the world’s finest institutions. Of course, you can find his work online with excellent analysis. But these are just a few spots where you can find his work in person.
A fitting place to find Lebadang’s work, the Cernuschi Museum holds a vast collection of Asian art and sculpture. Located in the heart of Paris, the Vietnamese art collection has several pieces by Lebadang, including the Cosmic Family, nature-inspired paintings, and several abstract works.
While you’re there, make time to explore the over 1800 pieces in the collection. Frequent exhibitions mean you’ll always have something new to see at the Cernuschi Museum.
Lebadang Memory Space
Fully immerse yourself in Lebadang’s visions in this Vietnam exhibition space/architectural experience. One of his long-term dreams, the Memory Space, fully realizes the environment Lebadang wanted for his body of work. The building opened to the public in 2019.
First conceived in 1985, the building provides a place of contemplation and meditation. Like much of Lebadang’s work, the impressions one gathers are part of the experience. Working with his widow, designers used one of his aerial landscapes to inform the museum’s design.
An Incredible Legacy
Lebadang lived through some of the most difficult parts of modern history. Despite a rough beginning, he overcame the challenges of a new country, prison, and war. He provides a welcome respite from a chaotic world through his meditative paintings. A vibrant and never-stagnant artist, his place in the art world is certainly secure.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
We’ll also be offering pop-up shows and collaborations with small museums, so be sure to follow us to discover the where and when!