Anh Duong: Painted Glory

In a powerful new show, the artist celebrates the complexities of the human experience.
Anh Duong, “The Gentlewoman or the Aggravation of our Incoherences,” 2022. Courtesy of Anh Duong /Galerie Gmurzynska

By Julia Szabo

The deeply felt portraits of artist Anh Duong—a French woman of Vietnamese and Spanish ancestry, who divides her time between the two great art capitals, Paris and New York—are beautiful and complicated, like the artist who made them.

Currently on view through May 31 at Manhattan’s Galerie Gmurzynska, The Incoherences of a Gentlewoman is Duong’s solo show of paintings portraying herself and others, including Anjelica Huston and Susan Sarandon. Imagine a coalition of history’s greatest artists reborn as female creatives, and you’ll begin to appreciate Duong’s contribution to art history. Her self-portraits steal the show. Here she is a figure out of Degas, solemnly lacing up her pointe shoes (Duong once trained to be a ballerina); there, she’s an odalisque with a turquoise sash to match the blue gown of Ingres’ Princesse de Broglie, or an airborne Chagall lady grazing the rooftops of Paris as she floats across the night sky, her long hair flowing like Leonora Carrington. She wears the high hairdo of a periwigged Gainsborough heroine; then, she’s in full body armor, a latter-day Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, clutching a teddy bear. 

“When I paint my self-portrait, it’s not about ‘Hey, look at me.’ Through me, you will see yourself,” says Duong. “I use myself as the mirror for people, especially women, to experience what I’m feeling. I want the viewer to feel, ‘I know what she’s talking about, because I have felt and experienced that too.’” 

Laying herself bare, Duong goes unflinchingly nude—tan lines and all—as proudly as the redoubtable Alice Neel. “Louse Point II” has her at a Hamptons beach, her chic black sunglasses reflecting the bustling seaside scene like a modern Manet. Wearing menswear a la Frida Kahlo or Tamara de Lempicka, Duong redresses decades of gender inequality with grace and glamour. 

“I’m dressed as a man in many of the paintings,” she allows. “What does it mean to be male or female? It’s all about exploring and embracing one’s human contradictions. As human beings, we all have contradictions, and we have to live with them.” Her aim, she adds, is to “explore the complexity of the female experience; there are so many contradictions between how society is telling us to behave, and what we dare to be.” 

A cathartic must-see, the exhibition is joyously healing for both artist and spectator, particularly older women validated by an artist whose focus is 40-plus femininity, with an unabashed weakness for fashion and beauty. Many are blessed with talent, but few have the discipline that has sustained Duong since fully committing to her art practice some three decades ago. She paints five hours a day, five days a week, although paint isn’t her only medium. Also an accomplished sculptor, Duong calls to mind both Camille Claudel and her lover Auguste Rodin as she calmly conjures 3D portraits in clay, such as the compelling 9-foot figurehead of Diane von Furstenberg, commissioned by Barry Diller for the yacht Eos, and cast in stainless steel. 

With this show, Duong seals her fame. But that isn’t why she did it: “You don’t become an artist because you want to be famous or successful,” she concludes. “It’s not a career choice, it’s a human choice. Painting rescued me emotionally; I felt heard, seen, and loved. And I think that’s why you become an artist: You find a way to be yourself in that safe place. You may try and fail to express yourself, but when you paint, it’s there on the canvas, to be seen and heard.”