"By removing needless details in pursuit of perfection, Van Den followed in the footsteps of many great artists, writers, composers, and painters."

Juhani Murros made an unexpected discovery during his visits to art galleries when he worked for an organization in Ho Chi Minh City in 1990. A small still life in an unobtrusive gallery commanded the Finnish physician’s attention. “It was an unpretentious oil painting, yet its dark, mysterious colors and the emotional tension of its disciplined composition set it apart.” Thus began a long journey of discovering the art and life of Van Den, a frugal and kind Buddhist of mixed Chinese and Vietnamese ancestry who studied in Paris for less than two years during 1950-52, a volatile period during the first French Indochina War.

Murros’ biography is, by necessity, brief because there is limited knowledge of the artist, mostly in reminisces by family and friends. Many of his impressionist-style paintings did not survive the damp Southeast Asian climate nor the political chaos of his lifetime. However, the author’s research appears to be extensive, as much a years-long spiritual examination of Van Den as a historical one. The artist’s love for country life is apparent in his work, and it is said by those who knew him that he preferred to paint rustic scenes close to his heart and worked as an outsider, uninterested in the more elegant work of academically recognized painters, a trait common with the Vietnamese public. Despite these limitations, Van Den won Vietnam’s most prestigious art award in 1960.

Murros’ fervent appreciation of Van Den glows throughout the small volume, which features many color plates of the artist’s work, along with short biographical entries describing it, often with intriguing historical context. The book is as quiet as the artist’s work, but it is a satisfying read that will pluck heartstrings and pique interest in the trajectory of Van Den’s life and times.

A 2023 Eric Hoffer Book Award Montaigne Medal Finalist

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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