The Glass Façade: Past Life Portraits by Lee du Ploy
I came to know Lee du Ploy in stages, like scenes of a play that unfold one after another. There is Lee du Ploy the painter, the art lover and dealer, the psychologist or therapist, the European born and raised in Africa, the citizen of Hong Kong and earlier of Paris, Amsterdam and London’s Hampstead, the man in love, the family man, the father and grandfather, the friend of his friends.
And yet my knowledge is not completed, as he keeps writing and sometimes improvising his own play. I am aware the silences, the parts without speech, are still more pregnant with significance…, and I also suspect that he indulges in rewriting the past, erasing or amending as masterly and nonchalantly as he does with his brush.
If he were born again, he says, he would only be a painter. But he would not be Lee du Ploy. Lee du Ploy, or whatever his Nome de guerre or pseudonym, is above all himself, the playwright of his own story, who has never followed the dictation of tradition, family expectations, schools of psychology, art fashions and other isms, mortgages, money and all the trappings of modern life.
Simplifying, therefore, does not make him justice, but it helps, and it is safe to say that painting and psychology are his two lifetime passions.
The serious study of the mind may be less colourfull but never colourless. Lee du Ploy’s research has been rooted on a serious foundation having access to the widest data and most updated discoveries when working for Excerpta Medica in Amsterdam. He eventually became a therapist. His approach is unconventional: his concern is the patient, the fellow human being. And as an old fashioned humanist, well travelled and well read, he knows that science does not hold all the answers.
Finally joining his two interests, he has explored the relations between art and psychology, in particular the therapeutic power of art. As part of the treatment, he set about painting the portraits of his patients, as a form of dialogue. It is crucial to diagnose the problem, to make the right questions, and also let the patient speak. Lee uses this material in his paintings but also lets the patient suggest.
To record this journey he has published The Glass Façade: Past Life Portraits, a collection of his own reflections, the stories of his patients and illustrations of their portraits. These are tales of grief, revenge, anguish and desperation; clinical states like depression or prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize familiar faces, I just learn); or the new ills of modern society, the drive to possess material things, the strains of a world designed by a marketing and promotion department, not small themes − Lee’s own coined aphorism, that we were “ruled by kings and now by things”, underlines the pressure to please, to be accepted and to belong.
The book reads like a book of meditation. At every sentence we are suspended in thought. We learn of Alfreida, unable to recognize her loved ones; Vera, a dejected bride with a broken promise; Letitia, the sailor’s widow waiting in vain for his return; Ahminha, the child of Africa scarred forever by cosmetics in her quest to look pretty; Armand, a crippled war refugee lost in a spiral of despair… Some have no apparent solution, some a reasonably happy end. For others we are left intrigued because we do not know what happened to them. The reader has to complete the moral tale. The disease all these patients have in common is unhappiness and, as in a mirror, we see reflected their search for happiness.
This form of therapy may not be new, but Lee lends something unique: his stature as a true artist and his deep knowledge of art, from the Flemish primitives or the Italian Renaissance to the abstract expressionists, from African art to cave paintings or traditional textiles.
As another legacy of his time in Amsterdam, Lee acknowledges that Van Gogh’s paintings are determinant in his life and career as a therapist and mainly as a painter. This does not mean influence, least imitation or following, but there may be concomitances in Lee’s distortion or exaggeration, the importance of colour and background and, more essentially, the warmth and sympathy that Van Gogh instilled into his paintings.
I was fortunate to see Lee du Ploy’s portraits exhibition at the Link Art Fair-Hong Kong. It was something new and I was not prepared for the experience. At first sight I found the paintings unsettling, strange and unfamiliar, but as I paused over this gallery of portraits I realised a sincere and honest look at suffering, compassion made painting. Art is no longer intended to please and Lee carries in this modern and already venerable tradition.
Oils on canvas and chalks on paper; painted with self-confident brushstrokes or his own hands, for these are highly gestural paintings. There is variety of representation but a personal and unifying style bordering the abstraction. Although the painter does not seek the physical, conventional likeness, we see the contours; eyes, mouth, nose, are schematic and yet these features fulfill the same effects of classical portraiture in their expression, for instance when contracting or enlarging the edges, or in the sfumato blending the pigments in the outlines, leaving more for the imagination.
Sometimes the portrait is not of the sitter but his ghost, like that illustrating the book cover; or the portrait of a shadow; and sometimes, as with James the wooden toy maker, the portrait of his pain.
‘Tragedy is not rare, it can happen to all of us”, Lee du Ploy reminds us. This is why I felt attached to these portraits from the start. I could be one of them.
There is another lesson I take from this book, the need to strive; that a virtue is a habit hardly won, the result of free will and effort step by step, partly the leitmotiv behind Lee’s life and work. Ultimately, these paintings and their stories made me confront ‘life and its purpose’ and touch the substance of hope.
Lee du Ploy’s passion for art drove him naturally into another role, showing other artists’ work to the public. Lee founded his first art gallery in Hampstead some 30 years ago and there he achieved to enjoy a renowned clientele. Arriving in Hong Kong in 2010, he opened the sister ZZHK Gallery, holding graphic work by Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso or David Hockney, and paintings, photography and sculptures by other contemporary artists, reflection of Lee’s good eye and sensibility, and also his own works.
ZZHK Gallery is at 3 Wa Lane, in between 227-229 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong