Vietnamese painter Mai Trung Thu (1906-1980), known by his artist name, Mai-Thu, calls forth the compassionate and joyful world of childhood and of women’s domestic activities in a timeless Vietnam. Finely drawn with gouache on silk pongee, a light silk fabric commonly used in clothing, this piece has been widely distributed via copies, made popular through its collaboration with UNICEF. Filmmaker and amateur photographer, Mai-Thu is also an accomplished player of doc-huyen, a characteristically Vietnamese monochord musical instrument. It is therefore unsurprising that he regularly depicts musicians in his work.
In an orange-green space that merges the horizontal plane of the ground and the vertical plane of the background, Mai-Thu depicts two leisurely young women. One, dressed in a traditional Vietnamese blue dress lined with orange, arranging wild flowers in a cracked celadon vase. The other, sitting on the opposite end of the table on which the bouquet is placed, is dressed in an eggplant coloured tunic lined with emerald green. Her hands are clasped as she gazes into the distance in a manner that indicates that she is still captivated by the book that she has just been prevented from reading; a book with a title that reads “Kim Vân Kiêu.” Written in the early nineteenth century by Nguyen Du (1765-1820), this famous Vietnamese poem recounts the trials and tribulations of the beautiful Kiêu, who sacrificed her virtue to save her family. “More than three thousand verses depicting the Vietnamese soul in all its sensitivity, purity, self-abnegation,” the qualities which make up the very essence of Mai-Thu’s work and make of our painting, a masterpiece of his later years.