Bui Xuan Phai in his son's eyes
Phai Story (1)
In fact, I was almost his adviser and assistant in most of problems that he found it difficult to solve. When talking to each other he used to call me "buddy", and my mother, for she found this way unreasonable, interfered: "Why do you call him buddy? You've made father-and-son talking the way of friends taking".
There is a memory with father that I could never forget. At that time, I was just seventeen. My eyes started facing with problems. I needed short-sighted glasses to see more clearly, but I could not borrow from anybody to buy. With no other choice, in order to have money for it, I made up my mind to open Bui Xuan Phai's wardrobe to take that amount of money. I wrote a letter, in which I told the reason and promised to pay back money one day. I did hope that I would work for money and would put the money to the place in silence after a week. I would not tell him anything if he did not know about that. Upon having enough money, I opened his wardrobe in confidence to pay that amount of money. However, upon opening it, I found a letter sent to me by Bui Xuan Phai, in which he wrote that in the following time, if I needed money to solve legitimate problems then I could ask him frankly for that. On reading the letter, I was almost crying.
The wedding invitation card valued...USD 4,700
Life is full of strange and confusing things. In order to understand more about this wedding invitation card, I will tell you the story about it. After divorce with the first wife, in 1987, I wanted to remarry. At first, Bui Xuan Phai opposed, I said: "You shall soon divorce and once again you shall make her miserable". But when I explained that my would-be wife was about to give birth a child, his would-be grandchild, Bui Xuan Phai nodded his head in agreement. After that I suggested my family organize a simple wedding party without hiring car for welcoming the bride. In that day, I had a Baberta (a motorbike made in Czechoslovakia, which is now often used for the poor to carry construction materials but I have heard currently that it has been banned permanently from circulation. But in the 1980s, anyone who owned a Baberta was considered a successful person or a man who had tried his best. In that time, however, this kind of motorbike was also called with another name "Ba bét nhè"). On that day, I was alone on the motorbike with a huge flower bouquet going to the bride's to welcome her. On seeing that, relatives in her side seemed to feel sorry for me and cooed confidences to each other: "If she wants to get married with an artistry man then she must accept him like that". But until today, when remembering to that moment, we (my wife and I) are still so proud and happy because we had many memories about the wedding day. We considered it a simple, moved and meaningful wedding.
If it was a worth-telling story, it was because the wedding invitation cards: they were drawn by Bui Xuan Phai, one by one. He pleased his son be agreeing to draw 50 small-size pictures. These pictures describe the bride holding a flower bouquet on her hands. Each of these 50 different pictures was unique because in each picture, the bride was dressed a different long dress (ao dai).
In that time, I was given only 12 pictures for inviting my friends. Bui Xuan Phai also drew 12 other pictures for himself for inviting his friends. The remaining guesses were invited collectively by both two families. The party was held at Phu Gia restaurant and on that day I arranged a twelve-seat table for Bui Xuan Phai to sit with his friends. But because Mr. Bong Hang Buom wanted to have two invitation cards, he called for writer Nguyen Huy Thiep to the party. Therefore, the 13th seat was arranged for that table. I feel regret and sorry that at that time I did not have someone taken a photo of Bui Xuan Phai talking and feasting with his friends, who were sitting around him at that long table. Bui Xuan Phai was formerly referred to as Jesus by his friends because of his beard and thin face, so to me, that image resembles the famous The Last Super by Leonardo da Vinci.
This story was put in an oversea magazine and was named as Hand-drawn wedding invitation cards for the son of Bui Xuan Phai. The editor had a very good intention when he renamed the title, because in the story I had told him I did not clarify that eight months after the party, Bui Xuan Phai passed away unexpectedly due to lung cancer. The reason was that he had smocked too much, both cigarette and makhorka. Therefore, the party on that day was the last party that Bui Xuan Phai had a chance to invite his friends.
After he had passed away, people - one by one - kept these wedding cards. Originally, these cards were worth from USD 100 - USD 200, but by this time the price of hand-drawn wedding invitation cards by Bui Xuan Phai has been marked up to the sky in an oversea bidding website. On such old days, among people who received this invitation card, nobody dared to think that one day, its value would be USD 4,700.
Conception about sex in life and art
Bui Xuan Phai was an old man of Hanoi, so he was known as an elegant and in-measure man. Unlike many people of our generation, who often "stay in one place but miss another one", during his life, he was really an ideal husband. I myself in particular and any others who know Bui Xuan Phai have never heard him talk about any other love-related ladies but his wife, though he was actually a fair man and very attractive to women. He was too “honest” in his behaviors to himself and to women that he knew. And he did complete what he had written in bold in his Diary of Art that “to keep the soul pure is the best way to the art”. But to other people, he seemed to be very open and more modern. I remember when I was young and I dated with my girl friend. One time I took my girl friend to a small room by climbing to it, like the way of guerilla, and turned off the lamp. It was unfortunate for me that we were seen by one of my neighbors and that lady came to see Bui Xuan Phai and told him about what had happened. Bui Xuan Phai understood the problem, he smiled and told her “that is their own problem; you and I have no right to interfere them”.
Bui Xuan Phai was a good and skillful talker. When talking about sex-related matters, he used to create relaxing atmosphere with easy-going laugh. Thanks to that, sex was no longer a very serious matter to people who were talking to him about it. One time, a young friend visited him with a magazine hidden on hand. On seeing that, Bui Xuan Phai asked:
- Buddy, what are you researching by that?
The young man stammered badly:
- Oh, this is Playboy magazine, which shows all bad photos.
Bui Xuan Phai said:
- Is this? Let me see how bad they are?
Upon reading the magazine, he smiled and asked:
- Do you have any thing that is “worse” than this? I wonder in what postures shall they be called “the worst”?
Bui Xuan Phai also thought that there were no bad photos but only no-good ones. He said “I would like to see a very ugly photo, the one supposed to be the worst that I have never seen in life”. Perhaps nude pictures are of no difference to artists regardless how pornographic they are; it means that such pictures shall give no side effects to artists and they are just a kind of material supporting for paintings. In art, Bui Xuan Phai was inspired by the last phase of Picasso when this man painted a series on exrotic topic. Among Phai’s works on this topic, people can see such paintings drawn according to poetic ideas of Ho Xuan Huong (form 1982 to 1986) have clearly revealed Phai’s spiritual state. It can be seen that, in his last years in life, aspiration and passion to life and love were still filled in the artist’s soul.
Memory in life
Mr. and Mrs. Bui Xuan Phai met and knew each other when they were kids. Bui Xuan Phai lived at Thuoc Bac Street while she lived at Dinh Tien Hoang Street, facing with Hoan Kiem Lake. They often visited each other’s because her brother-in-law also had family name Bui. Phai was 7 years older than she was.
When evacuating to Thanh Hoa, they met again. By that time (after 1945), Thanh Hoa was a “Safe area” and so there were many head offices of Interzone IV locating scatteredly at Nua, Sim mountains and Thieu bridge. There was a café near Thieu Bridge where artists used to visit that was the shop of Ms Phai’s family. Phai was then a painter drawing figures for “Save the nation” and “Happy life” newspapers. According to Pham Duy’s memoir, on those days Pham Duy used to come to the café playing guitar and singing while other poets were crooning their poems but they were not noticed by the owner’s daughter because she had selected the artistry guy with brown eyes and the Westerner-like nose, who often sat thoughtfully enjoying coffee with a cigarette. Later, on talking about the memory of the first time of making a date with Bui Xuan Phai, she said:
He came on time, but I was so surprised because he was walking barefoot. I will never forget such an image. His legs were too white but he was actually walking barefoot, what a poor man he was! Then I asked “Why are you walking barefoot?” he was embarrassed on saying that he had forgotten his shoes somewhere and he had been unable to find them, he walked barefoot because he was afraid of breaking the appointment.
After getting married to him, just a few people knew her real name as Nguyen Thi Sinh. Others often called her Ms Phai.
Forget his son for painting
One time I was taken to streets in Old Quarters by Bui Xuan Phai when I was five. Suddenly he met a beautiful corner and artistry inspiration came.
He quickly took the notebook, which was always with him, to sketch the image of the corner. On concentrating in painting, he actually forgot his little son who was taken by him for the purpose of going for a walk in the streets. When finishing the painting, he went home with deliberate steps. It was not until he came home and my mother asked “Where’s Phuong?” that he realized that he had forgotten his little son at the corner. He immediately rushed to the corner where he had stood for painting to find me, but I was no longer there.
I missed the chance of asking Bui Xuan Phai about his feeling that night when I suddenly disappeared.
Because I was so small child at that time that I could not remember so much. I was then told by my mother that I was found accidentally by a childless couple when I was crying in that corner. They took me home and fed me. My parents informed to the police and they found me some days later when I was in a small house at Phat Loc lane with a kind couple.
It has been nearly half of a century and my mother still told the story sometimes. She said after that time she never wanted Bui Xuan Phai to take any children to anywhere.
Mainstay of a talent
In my memory, Bui Xuan Phai had a “life long-lasting childhood”. His whole life was devoted to passion for art. He was natural and gentle. He loved his children but he did not know how to bath them or how to feed them; he even did not know how his children learned and which grade they were at; he knew nothing about money-related problems or housework. Unstable life, Bui Xuan Phai was a free artist; earning from illustrative paintings and funny paintings was not enough to buy painting, let alone feeding a “landing craft” of the family.
I am so surprised and admire the ability of standing hardships of old people. Today, any couple who give birth to 5 children, surely they shall be reduced to destitution. If Bui Xuan Phai could live and create arts, it was because of his wife, Mrs. Phai. My mother was a nurse at the hospital. Every day when finishing work, she came back home and injected medicine for patients. She was very good and lucky at work then she was trusted by people. Customers came to her because she could inject without pain, which was very different if people were injected at a state-owned Medical Aid Station where they were shouted and injected with pain. During dozens of years, that injection tray actually helped Mrs. Phai “feed 5 children and a husband”. Recently, the Central Television (VTV3) has reserved a program to talk about Mrs. Phai whose name is Nguyen Thi Sinh. That film was titled: Mainstay of a Talent.
To visit and supply the painter
In 1958, when Phuong was two, Mother held Phuong in her arms, took elder sister and brother on the train to Nam Dinh to visit and supply Bui Xuan Phai. At that time he was forced to work “3 togethers” with working class for a period of time. Bui Xuan Phai was assigned to joinery to learn carpentry. After this course, a meeting was held at Thong Nhat Square (nearby the Opera House) to synthesize and report on achievements after the “3 togethers” working course. On that day, people were surprised when Bui Xuan Phai reported his achievement by carrying a stool that he had built on his own to the square.
The praying cloth
Two times in life, I held my beloved persons in my arms before the time they passed away and I could feel that they were losing the warmness of life. The first time was my elder brother Bui Ky Anh (1954-1978) who died in a traffic accident. And the last time was Bui Xuan Phai. I say “the last time” because I refused for I do not want to hold my beloved person like that anymore. Both in two times, I bought praying cloth for Ky Anh and Bui Xuan Phai. For Bui Xuan Phai, I bought white canvas – the kind of cloth that Bui Xuan Phai had been very close to and liked - to shroud him. That kind of canvas that people used to make protective gloves for workers. I used to buy this kind of canvas to stretch as a préparer toile for him to paint.
Perhaps that difficult period with Bui Xuan Phai’s spiritual state was put into old quarter paintings which carry a long-lasting sadness. If he lived in today time with comfortable life, I would have become another person and his paintings maybe different as well and so, maybe, he would have not been known and admired as such. Therefore, we should not think whether he was lucky or not, happy or sad, pros and cons because it was the destiny of life.
The watch of Bui Xuan Phai
Many people are surprised and feel interesting when seeing the backside of a paper painting of painter Bui Xuan Phai on which he wrote “I shall need a bicycle and a watch”. That was the most difficult time, both in economy and spirit of an artist. Late in the 1960s, the painter could not afford a bicycle and a watch. Despite of that, for the love of art, the passion of researching and showing the simple beauty of daily life, he ignored all daily worries to create simple but thoughtful, deep-lying works.
I still remember a fine day in my childhood. On that day, Bui Xuan Phai was given an introduction paper of Vietnam Arts Association which introduced him as a State staff. The paper showed clearly the text “We propose the shop to create conditions for comrade Bui Xuan Phai to buy a watch under your standard”. Without money, the introduction paper was meaningless. It took my mother several days to borrow from relatives an amount of 90 dong for Bui Xuan Phai to buy a watch in a shop at Cua Nam Street. That was a Soviet-made POLJOT brand watch, which worth equivalent to two-month salary of an official at that time. My elder brother Bui Ky Anh and I followed Bui Xuan Phai to the shop. Finally, after queuing and doing procedures, the watch was taken out of the shop. Before going to the shop, my mother had given us a handkerchief and carefully told father we kids that we had to wrap the watch with this handkerchief after buying it from the shop because she was afraid that we would be robbed if father wore it on arm. I was just a little kid and tried hard to follow father and my elder brother. My brother put the watch to the handkerchief and wrapped it as my mother had told him to do so then he put into his pocket and grabbed it tightly. Sometimes father and brother stopped; Ky Anh took the watch out from the pocket with care and he was so serious as if he was doing a religious rituals. Three of us, father and sons, gathered to have a tender look at the watch. On the way home, sometimes I wanted to have a reason to see the watch one more time so I stopped and shouted at him “Father, what time is it now?” Bui Xuan Phai was pleased too, he told my brother “Yes Ky Anh, just take out the watch to see what is the time now?”
Bui Xuan Phai lost this POLJOT after a short time when he forgot it in the public bathroom. Until 1979, Mr. Sinh Thanh, who was an art admirer and a well-known watch repair, wanted to have paintings of Bui Xuan Phai and he brought a watch to Bui Xuan Phai and asked to change it for paintings. This watch was called a “Marine” watch because it was very big and quite heavy and because it was manufactured for military and combatants when they had to dive down to the sea. Its value was, told by its owner, about USD 25 at that time. Bui Xuan Phai agreed happily. He told the guest to select any picture in the studio. Mr. Sinh Thanh immediately selected a medium-size oil painting that was the “Hanoi by night”.
Bui Xuan Phai used this watch for several days and because it was designed for military, very heavy and big, Bui Xuan Phai did not like it and he gave it to me. That was the first watch I had in my life.
After Bui Xuan Phai passed away, in 1997 Mr. Sinh Thanh sold the “Hanoi by night” for a Korean named Sambon Koo with a price of USD 12,000. After that, Mr. Koo brought this painting to Korea. Some years later, the painting was sold by auction in an exhibition. A Japanese person bought this painting a very high price of USD 75,000. Some people joked “if that amount is used to buy watches then we must use a sack to contain them”.
Until the 1980s, when the situation changed, life of that painter also changed. Foreign customers were allowed to the studio and bought paintings of Bui Xuan Phai. Therefore, owning a watch was neither a dream nor a big problem to him but he was still haunted by time budget. One day Bui Xuan Phai met a leader of the City in a meeting, this man knew Bui Xuan Phai from a long time ago then he asked intimately:
- What would you wish if you have one?
The painter answered:
- I would wish that one day had 25 hours, therefore each day I will have one more hour for work.
In the diary of this famous painter, people find a poem written about time by Bui Xuan Phai:
Time passes so quickly
And no one can stop it
Let’s paint when your heart is still in beat
Because it can stop at anytime
A story about the painter
In Bui Xuan Phai time, it was about foreign languages that one time he was reflected and worried by his neighbor when this person came to meet the authority: “I have never seen him go to work as other people. He just stays at home, pours out colors then applies them and erases them later. I often hear him arguing with guest, I did not know the reason why these men just spoke to each other in foreign languages?”
You may wonder whether Bui Xuan Phai was “France-support” or not (we should understand he supported France in what aspects?). In general, I think that most of Vietnamese painters are all “France-support”. It means they consider French paintings standard. To list name of well-known painters who have respectful achievements, I realize that all of them had to go through the “Ecole de Paris” gate.
There were often many artists visiting Bui Xuan Phai’s house. In war-time, this was also considered grouping of people and those people might be reminded by local government. For many times these artists argued so loudly that made the neighbors think that conflict was about to come soon and report to the local government. Bui Xuan Phai was also asked to come and he was reminded and noted that: next time, if he still let guests argue loudly like that, the government would assign civil defense group to come and tie one by one. But after that, the local government also asked Bui Xuan Phai to paint two quite large paintings to decorate for the election of the quarter.
There was a painting in an American senator’s house
In war-time, one time Bui Xuan Phai received a letter of notice of Ministry of Home Affairs inviting him to the office. On the day of receiving the invitation, Bui Xuan Phai was very worried and in a divided mind. He was sleepless at night and got up to smock makhorka continuously. He tried to find out a solution but he could not because he could not know what was waiting him at that place. In the following morning, family members saw off him at the gate with sadness and he went to the direction where he was supposed to come.
Late at noon, Bui Xuan Phai came home with less stressful expression; he smiled and explained: “Police heard that there is one of my paintings in an American senator’s house. They asked me to explain about that matter but I told them that I have never contacted with any foreigners at private house to sell or give them my paintings”.
The fact that Phai’s painting was present in an American senator’s house was a quite serious problem at that time and it made people surprise. No one knew how it had come to such a place.
I doubt that I am a talent
Painter Viet Hai told me a story happened from 1958. At that time Viet Hai was a student in the University of Arts in charge and taught by Bui Xuan Phai. In the meeting on “Criticism and self-criticism” in which Viet Hai was a secretary and was responsible for recording self-criticism of his teacher. In that very exciting meeting, Vu Giang Huong (also a student of Bui Xuan Phai) took the chair. “So many problems were discussed but I have almost forgotten all because it has been a very long time, but I still remember the answer of Bui Xuan Phai to the question ‘what does the painter paint for?’, he said ‘I paint to make clear about three things: I am a good man. I am a patriot. I am a talent”.
In 1984, being a guest to attend the opening ceremony of Phai’s first private exhibition, Viet Hai asked Bui Xuan Phai about the story of 30 years before: “What will you answer now if you are asked the same question?”
Bui Xuan Phai replied:
- I still answer the same. However, I want to edit the third sentence: I doubt that I am a talent.
Which hand is left, which one is right?
One day Bui Xuan Phai visited film director Tran Thinh and he drank with his friend until the sun was down then he wanted to come back home. On seeing that Bui Xuan Phai was groggy, Tran Thinh took another bicycle to follow Phai. Bui Xuan Phai was going ahead on his bicycle; he passed an intersection while he ought to turn left. Seeing that, Tran Thinh shouted:
- Hey Phai, turn right.
But Bui Xuan Phai was too drunk at that time, he asked:
- Thinh, tell me which hand is left and which one is right?
A king and the poet
One time poet Vu Dinh Lien happily visited Bui Xuan Phai and told him that Vu had just been honored “a king”. People were so surprised and asked him when and where. Master Vu said:
- Just recently when I was walking in the street then a driver stuck out of his glass door and shouted at me: “Hey guy, you are walking like a king in the street!” The poet seemed to be very enjoyable because “I have never been called a king before’.
On hearing that, someone told him: “A king is not enjoyable as a poet at all”. Vu Dinh Lien was astounded for a while then slapping his hand on his thigh strongly:
- Yeah, I’ve just told you what happened to me in the street. I shall never exchange the title “a poet” for “a king”.
Burn incenses and send to the winds
After each poem composed by poet Vu Dinh Lien, Bui Xuan Phai was always the first one who had to stay and listen to the poem.
And most of Vu’s poems were illustrated by Phai. In that time when photocopy machine was not present, so that if Vu wanted to release a poem volume, he had to copy it manually to give to his friends and once again Bui Xuan Phai was the one who designed the cover. Collectors today are still seeking those manually-copied volumes with figures painted by Bui Xuan Phai with very high price. In such old days, Vu Dinh Lien had a sentence in his poem: “Book has its cover before it is printed”.
Poet Vu Dinh Lien composed some more poems for the topic “School teacher”, including the “Communist School teacher” and he asked Bui Xuan Phai to illustrate. After reading it, Phai said that:
- How can I paint a Communist school teacher wearing a ready-to-ware turban and silk dress while sitting with arms clasping his knees and writing parallel sentences? He refused because he knew he would face with trouble for that. After that, Vu suggested Bui Xuan Phai to paint a peach branch as its figure.
Another time, once again Bui Xuan Phai illustrated for one of Vu’s poems. The painter selected the sentence “To burn incense and send to the wind” in the poem that he sympathized fully. Bui Xuan Phai painted a burning heart. After that, a guest wanted to buy the painting, he refused and said:
- It has the spirit of “to burn incense and send to the winds”, why should I sell it? Then he asked me to bring the painting to Vu Dinh Lien. After that, because Vu Dinh Lien liked that painting so much that he used it as the logo of Huong Lua half-storey at 11 Hang Bong, where Vu and his friends used to gather to discuss arts. At the beginning, the poet intended to name the half-story as Culture Temple but people said it seemed to be overstated then he named his “head quarter” as Huong Lua.
Pretend to be a statue
One day Bui Xuan Phai had to go for an urgent work, but he saw Vu Dinh Lien coming at the gate when he was going to go. Bui Xuan Phai was subtle and he did not want his friend to receive his apology then he immediately climbed up to the stone mortar in the yard. He kept silent and unmoved to pretend to be a statue. Master Vu passed the “statue” without noting it.
Responsibility to figures
One time painter Bui Xuan Phai agreed to paint figures for a short story. The figure was a buffalo. It took him half of a day to find out a suitable buffalo image but he failed. Of course he could paint a buffalo based on his memory, but he felt that he had to be responsible for his painting. He was wavering between ears and horns of the buffalo, which ones were in the front and which ones were behind. After that he went to ask his friends: “The ears of a buffalo are they in front or behinds the horns?” His friends did not know either. Finally, he had someone taken him to the countryside where the buffaloes were grazing on the fields. On seeing the buffaloes, he was so happy and noted carefully position of the ears and horns on to his notebook.
By this story we can see his very high responsibility when creating a works no matter how it was big or small. His most famous theme was about the Old Quarter but very few people knew that he understood deeply about every detail, every structure of old houses. He loved it, felt it and in fact it was imported into his mind.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered a painting
Ministry of Foreign Affairs once ordered the painter to paint a portrait as a gift for a very important foreigner. That time the official of the Ministry brought 2 envelopes, one contained the picture of that person and another thicker one which perhaps contained money. Bui Xuan Phai opened the envelope containing the picture and he was surprised by seeing that it was a picture of a black Westerner. He immediately put the picture back to the envelope and said to the guest:
- I have never painted a portrait of a black person so I am not confident to accept this.
The portrait of Tran Thinh
Film director Tran Thinh once ordered Bui Xuan Phai to paint him a portrait. For the purpose of saving cost, Tran Thinh gave Bui Xuan Phai a portrait painted by another painter. Tran Thinh had been given this portrait but he did not like it then he intended to use this instead of having to buy a new canvas. Tran Thinh told Bui Xuan Phai to paint over it but the painter refused steadfastly, he said:
- This is a spiritual son of a painter. If you don’t like it then you should give it to another person. It is not good to destroy works of the others, but it is worse when one paints over another painting. I am sure no painter could do in such a way.
On hearing that, Tran Thinh immediately took that painting home and he came back later with a new canvas. Bui Xuan Phai accepted to paint a portrait for Tran Thinh. When the painting was complete, Tran Thinh asked Phai to write the “Kiều” letter to the book that Tran Thinh was holding on hands (in the portrait) but Phai steadfastly refused:
Writing “Kiều” letter to that book is not difficult at all but I don’t like because of my conception about arts and because I am the one who is responsible for the painting, not you.
Finally Tran Thinh agreed in happiness because he found it suitable and also because the painting was so wonderful.
Today, the portrait of Tran Thinh is in France in a collection of Mrs. Tham Do Thu who has announced many times that: “When I am still alive, never should anyone ask me combien (how much) this painting is”. However, in early April 2008, the painting appeared at the top painting-bidding house of the world: Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s was once exposed to the public that it was selling a fake painting, the portrait of Tran Thinh, with the price of USD 77,996.
You cannot be hurry in arts
During his last years in life, reputation of Phai was spreading and going far. Quite many foreigners came to buy his paintings and some rich families started ordering him to paint portraits for them. A rich person who was fond of birds and ornamental plants ordered him to paint a portrait with a request that Phai had to paint a television with that person inside. Bui Xuan Phai refused and the rich person resigned himself to accept whatever Phai wanted to paint. Phai said:
- Someday when amenity comes, I shall call you here for painting.
The rich person came back home and kept waiting, but as some weeks passed with no call from the painter, he came to the painter’s and asked:
- Has amenity come to you today?
Several times with such a question, Bui Xuan Phai had to explain:
- If the portrait is just seen by you then it is easy to paint and I can do it right now. But if you want others to see it and like it then it is another problem. You cannot be hasty in arts, my friend.
The story reveals that paintings of Bui Xuan Phai had inspired and stirred viewers because they were all originated from love. He once said: “I can only paint a nice works when I really love and have a passion for the theme that I am painting”.
The portrait of Mai Trang
Another time, a girl name Mai Trang, who was formerly the noodle seller in Hue, ordered Bui Xuan Phai a portrait. When the painting was about to finish, Mai Trang watched it and suggested the painter:
- I would like you to add some gold circles on the wrist and a gold chain on my neck to make me more luxurious.
Bui Xuan Phai said:
- It is not because I do not want to give you some “painted” gold circles but it because if I painted them to the painting then its harmonious color shall be broken for it has been almost finished. For your wish, I shall paint a gold ring on your finger, it is ok?
On hearing that, people and Mai Trang laughed happily together then people advised her to let Phai paint what he like.
“Ore” turns into “crow”
Since then, painter Nang Hien kept away from reporters and he would talk nothing to them because a newspaper once had said that painter Bui Xuan Phai once commented about Nang Hien: “You are a crow”.
I met Nang Hien by chance and when I asked him about the strange article, he complained hastily:
- I was also shocked into a daze when reading that article. Isn’t it enraging! Everyone knew that Phai was a good-natured person and he shall never call his friend a crow. The reason is that I once invited Master Bui to my house on the occasion that I had just finished a new painting series. After watching, Phai kept silence and said nothing. I asked Phai to give ideas, he just said that: “You are ore” then he left. During that night I kept thinking about his comment and when I understood his implication. I was so happy then because the comment assessed my real capacity. My paintings have not emerged because they were just ore!
Ore is precious but it is not a finished product. If one wants to offer something as goods then it must be processed no matter it is gold ore or metal ore. Even diamond, it must be sharpened and cut before it becomes a precious diamond. My paintings that time lacked something that Phai could not explain immediately then he used the word “ore”, which was really a right word.
I asked painter Nang Hien:
- Why did not you explain like that to the reporter to make him understand?
- I did imitated Phai by saying the same sentence like him then I left to make me more inscrutable. I did not know if the reporter was little hard of hearing or she did not deduce about the sentence that she thought Bui Xuan Phai had called me a crow. I did not know why the newspaper posted this, maybe they thought that Phai wanted to make a sublime pun!
The marvelous prediction
Inter vivos, in addition to the fact that Bui Xuan Phai was often forced to be a grudging “model” for photographers to take portrait, he was once an “actor” for a feature film, named The last hope by director Tran Phuong, in which there was a scene of a painter who was working. For this scene, director Tran Phuong immediately thought of Bui Xuan Phai and asked him to act this painter. The director told him:
- You just stand as every day when you paint then there will be a guest coming to find your neighbor’s. When the guest asks you, you answer and point to the third floor. That’s all!
Bui Xuan Phai accepted. On the proposed day, the film makers came to perform the scene. Bui Xuan Phai was working naturally as every day because he had gotten used to it for dozens of years. Then the guest came and asked him:
- Could you please show me where Phuong’s house is?
Bui Xuan Phai stopped painting and replied:
- Phuong is on the third floor. Then he pointed up to the floor.
His job was done then. Bui Xuan Phai also felt interesting, he smiled and said:
- It’s majestic for I am also an actor now!
My mother was happy too, she told Phai:
- That was the film then you should not point to the third floor as there will be someone who actually asks you the same question.
People all laughed because there was a coincidence. The character named Phuong in the film was also my name and the difference was that the third floor was a neighbor’s. My house was just the first floor on those days. However, one thing that nobody could think of at that time that the third floor of the house No. 87 Thuoc Bac finally became my house. In the old time, that whole building had been of my grandfather’s but he had sold it a long time before and just kept the first floor. My grandfather sold it then I redeemed it). I felt marvelous because Bui Xuan Phai had a marvellous “prediction”.
I have seen some young painters who delude themselves by creating a style of great artists. I felt very ridiculous on seeing these amateur “actors” (on TV or in streets).
Some painters at about forties shave their head or have long hair, or grab the hair as a short-pig-tail, wear round glasses like John Lennon or create a tense face of an ascetic Taoist hermit to prove that they are not out of date. On seeing them, I just keep far away. Everyone knows how good their works are then it is no good of pretending like that.
In fact, artistry admirers (in over the world) do not care about the appearance and no one cares how body and nature of an artist. People just pay attention to these artists’ works based on which they will know who and where these artists are. Despite the fact that art is different from real life for it is upgraded from life to a new and eye-catching level and therefore art-related people are often strange, but if you know the four legendary people Sang-Nghiem-Lien-Phai then their strange characters, if any, only exist in their innermost feelings. If you contact with these maitres, you will see that they are simple and easy-going. If there are some “artistry features” then they should be considered their habit, or we better call their nature. They do not have to “act” as actors.
Maitres that I have known are all in disregard of their appearance and they are rarely close-shaven and smartly dressed. Clothes are often convenient they use what are available to them. In addition, in their time, there was no pressure of mass media as it is now. Such artists perhaps did not have any pictures in newspaper or any interview. Then why did they have to “act”? They could live naturally then it was because of the context of the country? And if they had not had a quiet process with very hard working spirit, would their works have been so successful like that? More important, in my opinion, they were audacious artists who swam against the mainstream flow to find their own ways in creating arts, making works that were welcome hesitantly and indifferently but now become the ones that have been acknowledged by the whole society. Living in poor and constrained conditions, which flame would be strong enough to create “fine gold” of the nation if there was not a history like that?
An artist was mistaken with a ward official
Early time after liberation in the South, painter Duong Bich Lien visited Sai Gon. He was surprised when coming to the red-lamp area of debauchees in Sai Gon because all girls ran away and kept far away from him as immediately as possible. So confusing then he met a person to ask about what was happening there. Then he knew that he was wearing a military-color hat (Southerners never wore this kind of hat) so he made those beautiful girls panic-stricken because they had thought that Duong Bich Lien was a ward official going on a patrol.
Habit of artists
Painter Nguyen Sang had a funny habit that he liked squatting although he had many chairs. People felt compassion for him and told him to sit on chair; he was surly and almost shouted:
-If I sit on chair, I can never think of any nice things.
The image that Nguyen Sang always squatted near the sofa when he came to my house always made me feel funny.
Strangers are not welcomed
One day the artistry critic Thai Ba Van visited the famous painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem together with an overseas Vietnamese. On seeing that the door was closed, Mr. Van knocked the door and said:
- Hello Nghiem, please open the door.
Seeing through the lock hole, painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem recognized Mr. Van and a stranger then he did not open the door and said from inside:
- If you come alone then I shall open the door now.
That was a habit of the four Sang, Nghiem, Lien, Phai. They hated sitting with strangers, except Bui Xuan Phai because he was formally natural and hospitable. However, he had to be careful with each sentence talked to a stranger. In that time, these artists used to doubt strangers as “indicators”.
Poets were often “eccentric”
Poet Vu Dinh Lien was also famous for his being “eccentric”. He often dressed casually and carelessly. One day he was invited to attend the National Celebration at the Embassy of France. He was about to go when his friends told him:
You should not go to the Embassy with this dress. With this dress, there shall be nobody who can recognize who you are; no one shall recognize you as the author of “School teacher” poem and no one can measure your inside heart. You should wear a vest to be suitable with the ceremony, if not you may be asked to come back as you first appear at the door.
The poet said:
-But I do not have a vest.
His friend said:
-We shall lend you one
The poet replied:
-I do not care to anything that you can lend me. Anything that is not mine shall not by mine forever.
As a result, he was stopped right at the door because it was written clearly in the invitation that “Dress: Smart Casual”.
My ideal of life
One day, while sitting together and discussing arts and poems, suddenly poet Vu Dinh Lien asked Bui Xuan Phai about standpoint, which made others startle: “Phai, what is your ideal of life?” After a moment of thinking, Bui Xuan Phai answered: “My ideal of life is to make people happy”.
Isn’t that much complication enough to you?
Author of “School Teacher” poem was a talkative person who liked to read his own poems very much. When reading his poems, he wanted people to keep silence and listen to him. I remember one day he came to my house but it was unfortunate for him that on that day painter Nguyen Sang also visited Bui Xuan Phai. As usual, the poet took the draft out from a bag and started reading it.
Painter Nguyen Sang stood up pat and shouted loudly:
-Just stop now! Life has been so importunate, isn’t that much complication enough to you?
He is my husband
Inter vivos, painter Luu Cong Nhan was quite proud, accomplished and very humorous. One time he visited Bui Xuan Phai and told a story that: One day he had a rush work and he had to meet his wife for direct discussion before making an important decision and so he was forced to go to an organization which was strictly protected and his wife was the manager there. When Luu Cong Nhan came to the office, he was stopped by a guard and told be keep standing there to wait for the manager. On being reported about the event and identification characters of the guest, the manager smiled and said tenderly: “Just tell him to come in”. The guard hesitated and, to make sure, he reported again: “But this man is wearing shorts, long hair and he looks quite swaggering…” The female lady was angry: “I’ve told you to let him in and please do that. He is my husband”.
Painting portraits with coffee
One time gathering with friends at Lam café, when highly inspired with tea and wine and also with the eyes and smile of beautiful girls, Bui Xuan Phai performed a series of “Nga’s portrait” as suggested by his friends.
On that day, because of lacking facilities and colors then the painter made up his mind to use black coffee and ink to paint. When he finished painting, there were total 30 paintings counted. The painter gave these paintings to people there. Ms. Nga was give preference for selecting first and she took 5 paintings for herself; poet Duong Tuong took twelve and painter Luu Cong Nhan and others shared the remaining paintings.
Many years ago, people sold one of these paintings on domestic arts “floor” with fall-back price of USD 2400 and Ms. Nga, who had owned 5 portraits of herself painted by Bui Xuan Phai, was the model in the memorable afternoon and was hunted actively by rich people who wanted to perform “retrieval order”, as they might say in a funny way.
I also want to know the fate of Ms. Nga’s portraits painted with coffee by Bui Xuan Phai, whether they are still in Vietnam or have gone to a certain faraway place?
I miss you every day!
Visiting the Capital one day, composer Trinh Cong Son suggested Bui Xuan Phai paint him a portrait as memory and, as to please the painter, Trinh promised to send the painter a paint-box once he came back to Sai Gon. Phai was very happy to hear that and he accepted immediately. He took out tools and painted Trinh Cong Son’s portrait as an oil painting with a quite large size. After that, Trinh Cong Son came back to Sai Gon with the painting and the painter Bui kept waiting the gift, the paint-box, at home but it did not come. He thought that the composer had forgotten the promise because he was also too busy every day. Then one day, painter Bui was very happy when receiving a letter sent by Trinh Cong Son from Sai Gon, in which Trinh wrote: “I miss you every day!”
As a mischievous man and because he also wanted to remind the composer of the paint-box, painter Bui Xuan Phai replied by writing that: “I miss Son (Oil) every day too!”
Why you take me to the red dust?
Mr. Thieu Bao (formerly director of Minh Duc publishing house) came back to a difficult life without relatives after 15 years in prison (for involved in Nhan van – Giai pham affair). Mr. Thieu Bao was then a quite old lonely man with no career for the living. It was fortunate for him that he had a very small flat at Bat Dan street with an area of only about 4 meters, which was enough free space for only 2 persons. Mr. Thieu Bao opened a café there.
At first he also sold breakfast but it was expensive and not delicious then customers did not like it. He was no longer selling breakfast but only café and refreshment drink. His style and service was so surprised and funny because coffee was poured to a very tiny cup, like the cup for kids playing together, for every customer. But to a man who had spent years in prison, he felt it was quite enough and asked for no more.
I used to take my friends to this shop. It was mainly because I wanted to support him and also because his shop (No. 5 Bat Dan) was very near my house.
Sitting there while peaking at a coffee cup and listening to his talking about difficult years. He often said that: “Life is just as short as a nap”. Normally, Mr. Thieu Bao was a gentle and optimistic person. After coming back from prison with no assets, no money but he still had a dream for publishing. I often listened to his talking about development and strategies on publishing. I knew he was just boasting but for I felt pity for his difficult situation then I used to agree and encourage him. Sometimes in afternoon, he used to visit my house to have a gossip with Bui Xuan Phai. Others asked him “Why do you let your house unnoticed to come here?” and the ex-director answered: “Because I know that no one shall come to my house at this time”. Bui Xuan Phai valued Mr. Thieu Bao too because both of them had nice memories from old days. They often talked about the old time and laughed happily together. Someday I saw they were reading loud a poem which was like a song:
“Don’t care for what happens
How it happens is also of good for nothing
Don’t care for what we do
Whatever we do is also no matter at all”
I remember one time Mr. Thieu Bao asked my mother to give his letter to a widow who lived in the same street. Several days after that Mr. Thieu Bao received a reply letter. Nobody knew what the widow wrote to him in that letter, people just saw him seemed to be disappointed and blamed: “At this age, people need each other more than ever, why does she ask ‘why you take me to the red dust?’”
After the unfulfilled dream with that widow, perhaps Mr. Thieu Bao was disappointed in life. From then, I never met him again for he had moved to an unknown place. People said that he died for illness somewhere.
The wound of life
In 1982, Bui Xuan Phai made his last career “accident” in life. It was about the hand-writing draft of Hoang Cam’s poem volume. By that time, Mr. Thieu Bao (Tran Thieu Bao, director of Minh Duc publishing house) brought that poem volume to Bui Xuan Phai and asked him to paint supplement. Bui Xuan Phai agreed with his friend. He painted 6 paintings. After Bui Xuan Phai had read the volume, I took that and read. I found no big political problems and I did not know why it was called “reaction”? Then Mr. Thieu Bao came to receive six paintings used as supplement for the poem volume Back to Kinh Bac of Hoang Cam. The volume’s supplement paintings were painted by Bui Xuan Phai and its cover was presented by Van Cao. Several days later, poet Hoang Hung met complications (I also heard that by that time they wanted to transfer the volume to a French publishing house for printing and publishing). Poet was arrested while he was holding that draft on the road and he was condemned the crime of “storing reaction publications”. This poet was then gathered for re-education in 39 months for the case. The draft and supplement paintings of Bui Xuan Phai were confiscated. It was fortunate that Bui Xuan Phai was not convoked for examination. However, I knew that he was very worried and in anxious suspense. I want to note that Bui Xuan Phai’s six supplement paintings are very nice and valuable paintings today. If one has still kept these paintings, they should be transferred to Vietnam Fine Art Museum instead of lying silently in a strongbox.
I did not know why Bui Xuan Phai was “ignored” for his supplement paintings for the poem volume “Back to Kinh Bac” of Hoang Cam while related people were examined and some were put in prison. On those days, we were really worried when hearing Hoang Hung and Hoang Cam arrested, Thieu Bao examined…In this case, poet Hoang Cam was arrested and imprisoned for 18 months. Bui Xuan Phai was then like a fish put on the cutting board…
I did think that, the direction in 1982 was different from that in 1956. When talking with friends about this matter, one of them said that it was even good-natured in Vietnam in compared with Chinese Cultural Revolution. Let say if the situation happened in China then perhaps Bui Xuan Phai had been killed from the beginning let alone he had chances to practice his painting job for dozens of years like that. Moreover, by the 1980s, the name Bui Xuan Phai became so popular with mass people in Vietnam and in the world. If Phai was just a new painter in the case with no reputation, he would be surely suffered from punishment or deterrent words.
The case of some supplement paintings in 1982 was the same with a case in 1956. It means that Bui Xuan Phai also painted figures as his friends asked him to because I had never seen him say no with his friends. The case in 1956, due to the fact that he painted some figures for his friends then he was sentenced him to “faute” (involved in the VNGP group) and that punishment was not imposed on him but also on us (children of Bui Xuan Phai). All of us, five children of Bui Xuan Phai, were considered the problem social background and were not admitted to the Union. In the education system of Vietnam at that time, a pupil who was not a union member also meant that his chance to the university had been closed. If I had been allowed to the university, my destiny would have been different, maybe better than now or worse but it must have been different.
A time of meatless wine but long drunk
Any time being invited to a “friendly” party then masters would talk about the party during some days later and so did Bui Xuan Phai. After attending a party, if his friends came then they would have to listen to Phai telling them about the party with listing dishes. The listener also craved for the party then they sometimes washed down a sip of tea. And some days later, one of those listeners came back and “revenged” Phai by telling his party with specific dishes. Apart from listing dishes, these people also told the discussion contents at the party they had taken part in.
One time guests had come but they had to wait for another person, writer Nguyen Tuan could not stand waiting for a long time, he asked doctor Lan:
-Why does the “people-catching guy” come too late?
People all laughed for Tuan’s joking words. The “people-catching guy” in his sentence was Mr. Hung who was called “fish Hung” because he had been formerly a police officer.
I missed the chance to ask: How could doctor Lan afford every party each month for the three: Rook, Cracker, Horse – Nguyen Tuan, Van Cao, Bui Xuan Phai to drink into drunken state to talk out all? And why every time, they wanted the “people-catching guy” to participate in?
During parties at doctor Lan’s, Nguyen Tuan was always the center of the universe. Mr. Tuan often told funny stories with humorous comments to make the others laugh into death. Once he told the story about the time he was drunk in his friend’s house. On coming home, he walked on foot and took a rest after every short moment. It was unfortunate for him that, that day he took a rest right at the gate of an Embassy of a capitalist country while his mind was dreaming of the sky. He stopped telling the story and took a sip of wine. People kept quiet and waited for him to continue. One person asked what happened then. Tuan asked him:
- Have you seen anyone who can have a long dream in this Hanoi city?
Then he smiled and continued:
- When I was dreaming on the sidewalk then I startled because someone had kicked strongly to my buttock. The kick made me awake from wine and at that time knew that I was sitting at the gate of the Embassy of a capitalist country. A young police, maybe at my grandchild’s age, asked me seriously:
- Why do you sit here?
- I am tired
- Why are you tired?
- I am old
- Why are you old?
Tuan stopped telling and laughed loudly and happily then said:
I intended to tell him that old is old and ask him if he saw me a young person. That was the truth but that was also what they did not want to hear. Then I had to tell him the truth that I had just drunk with my friends.
Painting on a bamboo tape fan
After Bui Xuan Phai passed away, domestic and international collectors are very interested in objects that he had used such as the hubble-bubble, glasses, watch…and especially his bamboo tape fans on which he had painted. Today, these fans are considered of big value. Recently, painter Van Duong Thanh has given me a photo in which she was standing near two works presented on bamboo fans by Bui Xuan Phai, which are now being exhibited in a museum in Swede. Ms. Thanh told me: Bui Xuan Phai has become a Vietnamese painter having the longest exhibition in Swede which is named “Phai” and at the Ostasiatiska Museum in Stockholm. The exhibition lasted for nearly 4 months. An interesting feature is that paintings in this exhibition are all owned by the Swede. Director of Ostasiatiska Museum said that: in Swede, there are about 200 works of this painter. He borrowed 120 paintings and only exhibited 80 of them in the exhibition. These paintings were bought by Swede experts from Vietnam in the 1980s. According to the Director, the exhibition was successful beyond expectation. After having returned the paintings to their owners, there were still a lot of people coming with a wish to see such works of this talented painter.
Offspring of the famous painter
In several times I participated in exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings in Asian countries such as Korea, Hong Kong…(and this year shall be Japan), there was a fact that the presence of the painter’s offspring was always considered important and necessary while in Vietnam this role is not really important. Visitors seeing paintings often met me to ask questions that made me exhausted to explain and then took photos with them. Especially, if there was any works attracting collectors (professional) then despite of very high price, they would agree to buy it provided that there must be offspring of the painter to take photo with them near the selected works. This was so important that the organization board asked me not to be absent during exhibition time.
The film "Phai's street"
Ukraine (formerly Soviet) film makers made the film "Phai's Street" in 1983 to introduce career and life of painter Bui Xuan Phai. The film introduced a lot of works and described life and composing environment through periods of the painter. Not many people in Hanoi watched this film and the only person in the painter family watched this film was Bui Ngoc Tram, a daughter of Bui Xuan Phai. In 1983, when Tram was working in Russia, she watched the film on Russian Central Television. Tram was very moved and proud because that was the first time she saw her parents on TV in a Cultural and Arts Program of Russian Federation.
Bui Xuan Phai did not have a chance to see how he "acted" in the film. But he had complained several times about the case he "acted" in this film:
- They made the film then ran away. I got nothing while my half-storey was broken.
The half-storey was broken because two Ukraine film makers were too big and heavy climbing at the same time. The wooden floor being made of boards could not stand the over-weight then it collapsed. It was fortunate that nobody was wounded but people were startled by the fierce noise together with the cries of film makers.
Now my friend Tran Hau Tuan and I are trying to contact with the Ukraine producer to buy this film.
Bui Xuan Phai concentrated all his emotion and passion on the lines and he kept doing so until he had cancer. He became weak and could not leave his bed, the brush started to leave his hand. One day, all of us had to face with a grief that: He died. When all relatives and friends had left, I came to his bed and took his notebook up. There was his final line "IT'S DANGEROUS" scrawling near his self-portrait at the time he passed away. I will never forget that moment because I knew that I was witnessing an immortal love