A visit last month by Vietnamese photographers who came to discuss donating their 1980s photos of Cambodia to the Documentation Center of Cambodia has yielded an unexpected result: the return of a rare painting by Nhek Dim, one of the country’s most acclaimed painters of the 1960s.
The custodian of the painting had been one of the Vietnamese soldiers who marched into Phnom Penh in January 1979, sending the Khmer Rouge fleeing to the Thai border, DC-Cam Director Youk Chhang said Thursday.
“He had found the painting in the Royal Palace compound,” and in spite of the vertical gash in the middle of the canvas, had taken it home to Vietnam when his tour of duty in Cambodia ended, Youk Chhang said.
The donor is now a retired photographer and cameraman who wishes to remain anonymous, he added.
It was a casual conversation about Nhek Dim that led the retired soldier to send the artwork to Youk Chhang as a personal gift on March 12.
Nhek Dim’s painting features a young woman demurely bathing. Her arms are raised to hold her hair, half of her upper body is showing through a filmy bodice, and there is a small waterfall in the background—all done in delicate tones of grey, brown and orange. In the 1960s, this sort of racy work was a first, and the painting still retains its original wooden frame and rice-sack matting.
“Nhek Dim was an important painter of the 1960s, the painter of reference for modern painters and part of this first generation of artists” that emerged after Cambodia’s independence, said Ly Daravuth, director of the Reyum Institute and co-author of the institute’s book “Cultures of Independence.”
“[Nhek Dim] is to painting what Vann Molyvann is to architecture,” he said.
“There is a Nhek Dim style” that can still be seen in the works of today’s landscape artists, he added.
Cambodian Painter Chhim Sothy said he knows the Nhek Dim style intimately.
“At first, one notices the matte colors, and then the strokes—one always recognizes Nhek Dim’s strokes,” he said. “He did cartoons from time to time, but he was a realist painter who used both oil and watercolors,” he added. “It should be noted that he studied in the US: His influence was American.”
Born in Prey Veng province in 1934, Nhek Dim spent four years in the US studying animation at the Walt Disney film studio, returning in 1967 with the studio’s student-competition first prize, according to Lors Chinda’s 2001 book on the painter titled “Nhek Dim.”
“His technique was close to sketching, all colors like illustrations,” contemporary artist Leang Seckon added. “He especially painted the life of the people.”
Famous in his own time, his paintings were often used as state gifts by Cambodian delegations going abroad. Four months ago, Youk Chhang told how he had discovered a large Nhek Dim landscape in the basement of Luang Prabang’s Royal Palace Museum, a forgotten gift from Cambodia to Laos’ royalty in the 1960s, he said.
Nhek Dim disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime.
Little is known about his death, although Lors Chinda’s book mentions that the Khmer Rouge may have killed him in December 1978 along the Takeo-Kompong Speu province border.
Lors Chinda, who is himself an artist, spent about 20 years tracking down Nhek Dim’s works in order to produce a book on the subject, he said.
“Sometimes I got the actual painting from various sources…and other times I got photographs from friends,” he said Wednesday.
The painting that has just resurfaced appears on page 105 of Lors Chinda’s book and is dated 1974. Lors Chinda said he was only able to find a photograph of it in 1980.
The large color book that Lors Chinda published through his firm of Vichet Silapak Printing House contains more than 150 artworks by Nhek Dim. The works include watercolor illustrations Nhek Dim produced for a book of songs by then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk; political cartoons featuring US President Lyndon B Johnson; album covers of popular singers such as Sin Sisamouth; and peaceful images of the countryside or the seashore.
As with the donated painting, there are sketches of Cambodian women, some of them partially nude but still looking modest and dignified.
After browsing through the book it is clear that non-traditional painters continue to draw inspiration from Nhek Dim. His nearly monochrome approach to color and softened, slightly embellished representations of people and rural life still are used by many artists today.
Lors Chinda has collected several Nhek Dim works over the years, which would be difficult to do now that the price for his paintings has soared, he said.
According to Gareth Dodd of Red Raven Arts—an Internet-based art gallery with an office in Southeast London—last year the owner of a 1965 Nhek Dim painting was asking for a minimum of $2,000 although he believed the work was worth around $4,000.
“His paintings are rarely available,” Dodd wrote in an e-mail.
Red Raven is now advertising a Nhek Dim on the Internet, a blue-grey image of an Angkorian face trapped in giant tree roots. Believed to have been painted in 1972, “chances are that it was purchased, perhaps from Nhek Dim’s gallery, by an English visitor to Cambodia at the time,” Dodd wrote, adding that he had acquired it from an art dealer.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)