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Dreamy Indochina in print

The rare book can now only be found in a handful of locations. PHOTO SUPPLIED
The rare book can now only be found in a handful of locations. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Dreamy Indochina in print

In 1923, when French bureaucrat and artist Andre Joyeux published a book of colour illustrations and poetry about his beloved adopted land of Indochine, he might have guessed that the fine watercolour would one day fade away from the page.

La Terre de Bouddha, printed in limited edition by a Paris publisher and inspired by some 33 sonnets by his friend poet Pierre Rey, who was killed in WWI, reflects the dream of dreamy Indochina: ancient Angkor Wat, in striking inky blue-violet, golden robed monks squinting against the sun, saturated skies and rice field silhouettes.

What Joyeux would not have guessed was that 90 years later, a fellow lover of Southeast Asian art (this time of Cambodia, specifically) would discover his book, tattered and worn in a Bangkok library, and find a way to release the lovingly painted work back into the world.

In Les Bronze, Joyeux depicts monks swathed in ochre robes. PHOTO SUPPLIED
In Les Bronze, Joyeux depicts monks swathed in ochre robes. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“This is a strange and interesting story,” agreed Joel Montague, a former public health advisor in Cambodia and collector of eclectic art (as well as researching the French colonial period, Montague has donated a large collection of Cambodian hand painted shop signs to the Fowler Museum of Art at UCLA).

Montague had already discovered Joyeux’s work as a cynical yet strangely sympathetic cartoonist, lampooning Saigon’s colonial classes, and he had even gone on to write a book about it: The Colonial Good Life: A Commentary on Andre Joyeux’s Vision of French Indochina.

“I knew that he had done another book but I was unable to find it,” explains Montague over the phone, from Boston. “There was only one copy available in a wonderful library in Bangkok by an expert on art. I finally found it and bought it through the internet - it was pretty ragged [but] I could see it was as beautiful as I had expected.”

Unlike the sharp tone of his cartoons, the Joyeux who painted La Terre de Bouddha was more mellow.

“There wasn’t much he could do about [colonial injustice] other than to do wonderful cartoons and wonderful caricatures of the French government and military officers. La Terre de Bouddha is a different type of thing entirely - that’s from a somewhat older, romantic gentleman towards the end of his career and his life.”

To get the book re-issued, Montague approached independent US publisher DatASIA, run by Kent Davis, a man whose obsession with colonial figures such as George Grosslier as well as the riches of Angkorian art, mirror Montague’s.

“It was so vibrant, and so obscure, that we convinced ourselves to put an enhanced edition back into print,” says Davis of the book. “There were 440 copies [of La Terre] originally printed, which is actually quite a large run for such an expensive full colour book. Joel and expert collectors suspect that Joyeux shared many of these with friends he knew from his colonial service.

Almost all of the copies seem to have disappeared over time. Global library resource Worldcat.org only shows one original library copy of this book in the world at Cornell University in New York. Rare book seller Libraire l’Opiomane has two copies for sale in Paris ($700 and $1400 dollars),” he said.

American graphic artist Rebecca Klein retouched Joyeux’s Art Deco-style images – of Tonkin, Annam, Cochinchine (all part of Vietnam), Cambodia and Laos – and Rey’s lyrical sonnets were restored to the page, along with the original foreword of the book, by Albert Sarraut, founder of the National Museum of Cambodia.

The best person to describe its purpose is still Sarraut, from his original introduction: “Anyone who has drunk the water of the Mekong or the Red River will love this book, and feed his nostalgia for Indochina.”

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