Alix Aymé

French, 1894 - 1989
Alix Angèle Marguerite Hava was born in Marseilles in 1894. Her father, Nari Jacob Hava, was a prosperous merchant and her mother, whose maiden name was Léonie des Haut Champs, came from an aristocratic family in Brittany. She had a privileged, cultivated childhood and traveled with her parents around the Mediterranean to various countries, including Egypt and Turkey. In 1909, she went to Martinique with her mother whose relatives were sugar cane planters in the French colony in the 19th century.

Alix studied drawing and music at the Conservatory of Toulouse. A prodigy, gifted in music as well as art, she won a gold medal in piano and considered a musical career before deciding to become a painter.

In 1911, when just seventeen, she first made contact with the important Nabi painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943), and spent the summer painting with him in Brittany and later in Paris where her first project was helping Denis on a mural for the dome of the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.

She married in 1920 and went to China with her first husband, Professor Paul de Fautereau-Vassel, who was posted as a teacher of French literature to the Franco-Chinese Mission in Shanghai. Later they moved to Hanoi where they were living in 1921 when she took part as a staff artist in several scientific expeditions to China. She became very proficient in the difficult techniques of painting on silk, reverse painting on glass, and began her mastery of the difficult art of lacquer. Alix proved a skilled printmaker, producing both etchings and wood engravings. She also designed a number of posters, including one for the French government tourist office in Hué.

In 1925 she was made a professor of drawing at the French Lycée in Hanoi. The next year the artist and her husband returned to Paris where their son, Michel, was born. While in Paris, she was commissioned to do the illustrations for a French edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, which she did using drawings she had made on a visit to Ceylon. When Fautereau-Vassel decided to remain in France, his wife, taking her young son with her, returned to the life she had created for herself in Asia.

In 1930, she had an exhibition at the Galerie Portal in Saigon, and then was sent by the French government to Luang Prabang, Laos, to prepare a number of decorative panels and to do research for the 1931 Colonial Exposition in Paris. While there, she became close to the ruling Laotian family and was commissioned to do a series of large murals in the Royal Palace, today a national museum. The murals in what was the King’s reception room depict everyday life in Laos and are considered a national treasure.

While in Paris in 1931, she had an exhibition at the Galerie Druet and continued to work on the impending international exhibition planned as a massive celebration of French colonies throughout the world. L’Exposition Coloniale Internationale opened in Paris on the 6th of May, 1931, and was intended by the French government to serve as a corrective to the idea that the French were exploiting the native peoples of Africa, Madagascar, Indochina, Syria, and Lebanon, while demonstrating the mutual benefits that these colonies and France received from one another. Alix exhibited a number of oil paintings that melded her European academic training with Asian techniques she had explored while living and working in the Orient.



In 1931, Aymé moved back to Hanoi and was named professor at the Lycée Albert Sarraut. There she taught the art of lacquer which she had studied earlier with a Japanese practitioner of the art. In July of that year she returned to Paris and married Colonel Georges Aymé, brother of Marcel Aymé, one of the most popular and prolific French writers of the 20th century. Maurice Denis, who became a lifelong friend, was one of the witnesses at her marriage. The Aymé’s son, François, was born in Paris in 1933.

In Paris, the Aymés frequented distinguished artistic and literary circles. Among their friends were the writer/pilot Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1944), author of the celebrated classic The Little Prince, and his spirited wife from El Salvador, Consuelo (1901-1979), of whom Alix painted a striking portrait.

In 1935 there was a large exhibition of Aymé’s work in Saigon and she was engaged by the School of Fine Arts in Hanoi to teach the art of lacquer. Founded in 1924 by the painter Victor Tardieu (1870-1937), the School of Fine Arts, modeled on the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was one of the most important institutions created to further the French government’s “civilizing mission” in their colonies.

The art of lacquer, which had ancient roots in Indochina, by the 1930s was practiced in that country more as a craft than an art. Tardieu, hoping to revive it, engaged Aymé and another French artist, Joseph Inguimberty (1896-1971), both of whom were skilled in this ancient art, to create a department of lacquer at the school. Aymé and Inguimberty, while teaching their pupils the techniques of lacquer, also exposed them to trends in modern art that they had brought from France.

Aymé was not only instrumental in reviving this neglected tradition, but she greatly enriched it by introducing to her pupils the use eggshell to produce white and gold and silver leaf, techniques she had learned in Japan that had not been part of the earlier Indochinese tradition. Lacquer is once again a flourishing art throughout Vietnam largely due to her efforts and those of her pupils who passed on to later generations the techniques and styles that she taught them.

On March 9th, 1945, the interesting and civilized life Alix Aymé had led for many years in Asia came to an abrupt and tragic end. On that date, the Japanese invaded Indochina. Aymé, her sons, Michel and François, and her husband, General Georges Aymé, by then Commander of the French Forces in Indochina, were captured and put into concentration camps where her older son, Michel, died. Her husband was in one camp; she and François were in another. They lived under brutal conditions until the end of the war some nine months later when they were repatriated to France.

General Aymé, greatly weakened by the experience, never fully recovered and died in 1950. Alix, however, found strength by taking refuge in her art and remained as productive as she ever had been. She sought out and became close to the Franco-Japanese artist Tsuguharu Foujita, perhaps as an attempt at forgiving the Japanese, and he became a major influence on her later work.

In 1948, a nun from the Convent of Notre-Dame de Fidélité in the village of Douvres-la-Délivrande in Normandy, who had seen an exhibition of Aymé’s lacquers in Tours, suggested that she be offered the commission to create a Stations of the Cross as a gift from the sisters to their mother superior on the occasion of her silver jubilee. When she was approached, Aymé at first turned down the commission. A divorced woman, she was not a devout Catholic and she was still suffering from the loss of Michel. However, eventually she was persuaded and spent the next 9 months working on a series of 14 lacquer panels depicting the passion of Christ.

When the work was finished, she wrote a letter to the mother superior telling her how much living with the suffering of Christ had helped her regain a sense of inner peace after the tragic death of her son. Out of her profound grief she had created great beauty. In 2010 the French government declared the 14 panels un monument historique. They are in the chapel of the convent which was already known for its decoration in the 1930s by the celebrated French designer and glass maker René Lalique.

By the late 1940s Aymé was exhibiting her lacquers in Paris and elsewhere. She also wrote articles about the technique of lacquer that were published in the widely read magazines, France Illustration (1949) and Tropique (1950).

She continued to travel and in 1962 she went to live and paint for eight months in Brazzaville in the Congo, the final journey of a life spent largely in travel, exploration, painting and drawing.

Alix Aymé died on her 95th birthday while putting the finishing touches to a lacquer panel.

Her work is found in many private and a number of public collections, including the Cabinet des Dessins of the Louvre and the Musée des Années Trente in Paris, the Musée des Beaux-Arts in La Rochelle, the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, and the Evergreen Museum & Library of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Her first American museum exhibition was held at the Evergreen Museum & Library in 2012. A book in French and English about Aymé was published in France by Éditions d’Art Somogy early in 2012. Subterracon Films has begun work on a documentary film about her remarkable life and art.

Bibliography:

Bénézit, E., Dictionnaire Critique et Documentaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs, Gründ, Paris, 1999.

Heywood, Denise, Ancient Luang Prabang & Laos, River Books Press, Thailand, 2015.

Lacombe, Pascal & Ferrer, Guy, Alix Aymé: Une artiste peintre en Indochine - A French Painter in Indochina, 1920-1945, Somogy, Paris, 2012.

Ménonville, Corinne de, La Peinture Vietnamienne, une aventure entre tradition et modernité, Arhis, Castillon, 2003.

Paris-Hanoi-Saigon, catalogue of the exhibition, Pavilion des Arts, Paris, 1998

Du Fleuve Rouge au Mekong, Visions du Vietnam (From the Red River to the Mekong, Visions of Vietnam}, catalogue of the exhibition, Musée Cernuschi, Editions Findakly, 2012.

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