Lebadang was born in 1921 in Bich-La-Dong, a village along the Huong River in Quang-Tri Province of Hue, Vietnam. He expresses himself through a variety of media, including painting, watercolor, sculpture, jewelry and graphic works. He often combines various media, creating sculptural, highly textured artwork.
Founder and CEO of Park West Gallery, Albert Scaglione, has known the artist for more than 30 years. Even though Lebadang is more than 90 years old, he knows he cannot stop creating. His wife, Myshu, tells Mr. Scaglione, “Life is a sinking ship and work is a lifeboat.” This fits her husband perfectly.
“I don’t just use brushes to paint on canvas, but mix pasteboard, paint and limestone and spread my works on large pieces of thick burlap,” Lebadang once said. “So, my paintings usually look rough and irregular in shape, but I think they are strange in a beautiful way. It is often a marriage between different kinds of art, painting, and sculpture, as well as installation art and architecture.”
He’s been in Paris since 1939, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts in Toulouse for six years until his first one-man show in 1950. He found his first marketable success painting hundreds of cats on ceramic plates, still in high demand. Already an established artist by the 1960s after starring in an exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum, Lebadang always strove to create what was new and exciting. He created large-scale abstract oil paintings with vivid blues and glowing puddles of orange and red. He sold to tourists and collectors, quickly establishing himself as a serious artist with never-ending creativity. Most recently, he has used pure foam board as a medium, using a knife to cut out intricate designs. He places the finished foam between two pieces of glass, creating a frame that allows light to shine through, producing ornate patterns and effects.
Painting and printmaking are Lebadang’s most frequently used media but he also works in terra cotta and a variety of other media, such as “Vessel” (1994). Whatever he creates, each piece speaks to the entangled roles of man and nature.
In his 1981 “La Comédie Humaine,” he writes, “In my work, I use the circle, the magic symbol of life, to enclose reliefs and landscapes. It symbolizes that nature is inseparable from man. Man finds sustenance and spiritual nourishment in every source.”
The artist’s cast paper reliefs from the 1980s demonstrate this power of the circular shape. The handmade paper he designs is used as a pseudo-frame, ornately surrounding the paint and symbolically playing nature. And while the human form was not represented figuratively in his work until the late 1970s, he confirms that man was always present.
“Until now… it was a familiar shape, a simple component in the universe but deprived of its human essence. […] Thus, it is that my new work has evolved,” he writes.
By examining paintings like his untitled works of the 1960s – abstract, brightly colored, and almost ethereal – you get the sense that Lebadang’s memories are pushing through to the surface. His oil paintings of the sixties are ambiguous at first glance, yet the faint outlines of boats, bridges, and horses gently float to the top. After his shift in style, bringing definition to his paintings, these dreams are made more lucid. Many of his figures become emotive and highly dramatic, this time with visible faces. By the time he approaches the 1990s, he demonstrates a new pictorial theme that is topographical and textured. Mixing media, he paints aerial scenes of mountains and oceans where the viewer is stationed in the heavens. These paintings elaborate on man’s relationship to the natural world, continuously presented as a flurry of memories.
And memories, objects that haunt the entire oeuvre of the artist, are a familiar subject to Lebadang. From growing up in Vietnam in the early 1920s to enlisting in the French Army for World War II (even before he had learned French) and taken prisoner by the Japanese, his experiences have triggered responses to his past, present, and future.
“Art, in all its forms, whether literature, philosophy, or the visual arts, expresses an attempt to understand the riddle of life and helps lessen the fear of death,” he writes.
From some of his painting, it’s easy to tell that Lebadang has been inspired by a legacy of French painting, though his work is more mysterious, cavernous, and delicate. But the French are not his only inspiration. Vietnam’s millennium under Chinese rule soaks through his art: the mountains, the fog, and especially his square red signature provide parallels to early Chinese painting. Lebadang’s “signature” acts as his own logo and closely mirrors the calligrapher’s square red seal of a Song Dynasty hand scroll. Their size, shape, and color are virtually identical.
After dozens of successful exhibitions, Lebadang has been sending his money back to Vietnam to rebuild his devastated village, from the schools to the hospitals, until his village became the best in the country. He was honored by the Vietnamese government with a sponsored Le Be Dang foundation and museum, the first arts foundation in Vietnam. Splitting his time between Vietnam and Paris, the artist claims that one day he will retire. But nevertheless, his creativity continues to flourish.
His work is exhibited in many public and private collections, including the Cincinnati Museum of Art in Ohio, the Phoenix Art Museum in Arizona, the Rockefeller Collection in New York, the Foundation Museum in Kenya, the Lund University Museum in Sweden, the Loo Collection in Tokyo, and the Museum of Arts and Letters in France.
Lebadang has been honored with numerous awards and accolades during his career. He also designed an award for the International Institute of St. Louis. The Lebadang Award is presented biannually to an individual who has demonstrated extraordinary volunteer service. The award program was established by the institute in 1989 to recognize organizations and individuals who exemplify “Peace within you, your country, and the world.”
“My artwork is often strange but simple,” Lebadang has said, “so everyone can hopefully feel happy and relaxed, and that’s why they like them.”