Bùi Xuân Phái’s Artistic Career
Bùi Xuân Phái was born in 1920 and died in 1988 in Hà Nội. He graduated from the Painting Section of the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine (1941-1945 class), joined the Resistance, took part in many group exhibitions in the free zone. In 1952, he came back to Hà Nội and lived and worked at Nº87 Thuốc Bắc street until his death.
From 1956 to 1957, Bùi Xuân Phái taught at the Hà Nội Fine Arts College. As a sequel to the Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm (Humanism – Belles Lettres) movement, he was sent to reeducation labor at a joinery workshop in Nam Định; at the same time, the direction of the Fine Arts College suggested that he should submit his resignation.
Bùi Xuân Phái formed part of the last generation of the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, contemporary with Nguyễn Sáng, Nguyễn Tư Nghiêm, Dương Bích Liên, those great painters who together with himself had a profound influence on the evolution of Vietnamese modern art. He specialised mainly in oil painting and his favorite subject-matter was Hà Nội old streets. As early as in his lifetime, his works on this theme were affectionately styled Phố Phái (Phái’s streets) by the art-loving people. Bùi Xuân Phái’s streetscapes are at the same time antique and realistic, superbly expressing the soul of Hà Nội streets in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s. In his paintings, the outlines are deeply marked, the street thus not only becoming itself, but also getting closer to everybody, both the painted surface and the surroundings show an inner depth. Watching Phái’s streetscapes, the viewer can sensethat the artist conveys his nostalgic memories filled with vague regrets and indefinite melancholy in every brushstroke, like an omen of the imminent disappearance of every of these roofs and people that embody the soul of the past. Besides old streets, he was also very successful in other subjects such as chèo, portraits, rural landscapes, nudes, still lifes… Many of his works won prizes at national and Hà Nội exhibitions. He painted on canvas, paper, cardboard, wooden plates, even on newsprint when he ran short of materials. He used various media: oil, watercolor, pastel, charcoal, crayon… His works profoundly reflect the Vietnamese people’s soul, humanist character and love of freedom, combining humor with compassion for unhappy fates. He made an immense contribution in the domain of illustration for newspaper and book cover design and in 1982, won an international (Leipzig) prize for his design of the book Hề chèo (Chèo jestlers)
As a result of his joining the Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm movement, , from 1957 on, his activity suffered severe restrictions. To make both ends meet, he had to take orders for illustrations and comics for newspapers, using any pen-names that came to mind: PiHa, ViVu, Ly… Not until 1984 did he have his first and unique solo exhibition, which was highly appreciated by both the public and his colleagues. With 24 paintings sold right at the opening, this was the most successful one-man show so far in Việt Nam. And it was also the first time the central television devoted a whole programme to highlight Bùi Xuân Phái’s life and work.
Despite hard living conditions, with his love for art, his thirst for beauty, Bùi Xuân Phái always managed to overcome the hassles of everyday life to create soulful works vibrant with simple, unsophisticated beauty and emotional depths. Wrote art critic Thái Bá Vân: “Bùi Xuân Phái’s intepid and tight-lipped journey with his brush and palette is magnificent and full of significance for Hà Nội and for us eternally. Rather than being historic evidence, it constitutes the humanistic proof of an artistic consciouusness ”
In 1996, he was posthumously awarded with a Hồ Chí Minh prize.
Hà Nội Old Streets – Oil 1972
Hà Nội in Resistance – Oil 1966
An Ox Cart in Old Street – Oil 1972
Deserted Street – Oil 1981
Make-up Before a Chèo Representation – Oil 1968
A Chèo Representation – Oil 1968
A Chèo Couple – Oil 1967
Before Curtain Time – Oil 1987
Prizes and Awards:
Hồ Chí Minh Prize in Literature and Arts, 1996
Prizes at the 1946 and 1980 National Art Exhibitions
Prize at the International Graphic Exhibition in Leipzig (Germany)
Prizes at the 1969, 1981, 1983 and 1984 Capital City Art Exhibitions
Medal “For the Cause of Vietnamese Art”, 1997.
Nguyen Sang (1923-1988) was a painter who had the ideal to solve great social problems with refined and subtle paintings which have modern, simple colors but not dry or trite and hollow because of the true-loved heart together with diversified and versatile talent. Together with Nguyen Gia Tri and Nguyen Tu Nghiem, he was a great and old tree of Vietnamese lacquer. If Nguyen Gia Tri climaxed lacquer of visionary and fairy sights with gold and snobbish palaces then Nguyen Sang brought lacquer to another peak with hard-working class, woeful and majestic battle, revolution war and strong conflicts in modern life. He supplemented yellow, green and chlorophyll color to lacquer with endless expressions. The most successful works of Nguyen Sang lied in lacquer and that is the biggest contribution of Nguyen Sang to painting both in material and reputation.
Works of Nguyen Sang have great stature of skills, which bring a great message about human destiny and he is a potential great talent of modern creativeness for Vietnamese Arts. He lived and painted, threw himself and was drastic to devote his file to the noble ideal of arts. In despite of that, until his death, he was still in destitution and silence as a death of a wanderer who had no relatives before the moment he died.
The most emerging period in arts creativeness of Nguyen Sang was in 1960s, 1970s. That was also the period that all people in the North had to live in very reduced circumstances for the reason that all energies were being used for the war.
To Nguyen Sang, he was not only poor but he did not have a wife or children. He was always alone on the half-storey of about 10m2. One time he talked for friends: "Man was born with two empty hands and gentle as a child sucking his mother's breast. When they grow up, they give the ring to each other and the first kiss in their wedding. I have nothing but my heart and two empty hands". When being asked his conception about assets, he said: "If it is not for the arts, I shall step on money spreading in the streets; But if it is for the arts, I shall be ready to earn every coin for the living".
With character of a Southerner, Nguyen Sang was very obstinate, thorny and not easy-going. Every day he still came to pub Thuy Hu at corner of Ngo Si Lien street, sitting alone in a hidden corner with his dirty cap and the wrinkled-up cotton coat. Nguyen Sang looked like a countryside old man. By that time, very few people realized the famous painter Nguyen Sang, who would leave an invaluable legacy of arts. And if there had been someone who could realize his talent and rushed to buy his paintings at that time, surely his difficulties of life would have been reduced so much. Now I have learned that the painting Admit to the Communist Party of Nguyen Sang, when a foreign museum wanted to borrow from the Vietnam Fine Art Museum, was guaranteed with an amount of USD 2 million!
About Nguyen Sang private life, he once had a wife who was half Vietnamese and half French. When the war occurred (1945), his wife left Vietnam for France and Nguyen Sang lived alone to the year 1978, then he met Ms. Thuy and got married to her. On the day of Nguyen Sang's wedding, attended guests just saw the bridegroom holding a flower bouquet with tears in the face because the bride had just been taken to the hospital for her chronic illness, which interfered on their wedding day. They lived together for one year then Ms. Thuy passed away due to heart disease. Nguyen Sang was distressed about his wife's death until he died. Any time while drinking with friends, he often twisted the face and cried when someone reminded of Ms. Thuy through he was over 60 by that time.
In the time of Nguyen Sang and Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Sang was more miserable and had to try more because he was alone with artistry nature, so salary was just enough for several days and the rest of the month he had to lived in miserable and debts. He often brought his paintings to Lam Toet's to mortgage for money, and brought really beautiful pictures to Duc Minh and sold with the price set by this collector.
In the whole life of Nguyen Sang, people knew the painting that he sold with highest price (the record price for Nguyen Sang and painters in that time, around 1982) that was a portrait he painted for an overseas Vietnamese living in France. Nguyen Sang asked this person to pay for the painting by a French rub-out motorbike, which valued about USD 2000. Nguyen Sang used to use this motorbike to carry Bui Xuan Phai around and he also let his friend to try it out. Nguyen Sang set behind Bui Xuan Phai, who drove fast in streets on Hanoi City which made people keep looking at them with admiration. Sitting behind, sometimes Nguyen Sang shouted "Be careful, a car is coming. Phai, careful, or the country shall lose two great talents!” But Nguyen Sang used the motorbike for a short time then he sold it (actually he both sold and gave it as payment for a debt of painter Le Chan) and he turned the whole green Peugeot 102 into wine. He enjoyed wine with his friends and once again ran out of money.
Nguyen Sang was frank but also emotional and easy to be moved. He was always with himself in a crowded place. I remember when I met him at the party on the occasion of French National Ceremony (1986); he stood alone in the hidden corner and nobody paid attention to him. I went to take champagne and brought food for him. Nguyen Sang drank all and I went to take more champagne. After that, because I did not want to go too much in the party, I took him the whole bottle of champagne. That time he drank almost the bottle and drunk. He kept telling me "Phuong, it's joyful, isn't it!" I also felt joyful because of his artistry character. In the whole evening, he did not contact anybody, did not participate in any activity, he just stood alone with nice champagne and said "It's joyful, isn't it?"
Nguyen Sang's personality and habit were also very artistry. One day he came to visit Bui Xuan Phai, he was squatting and thoughtful. I told him:
- Uncle Sang, why don’t you sit on the chair?
Nguyen Sang startled, he was awaked from the thought. He chided:
- I shall not be able to think of something if I sit on the chair because it shall make me sleepy.
Another time he came as our family was about to have dinner, Bui Xuan Phai invited him to enjoy with us. In friendly atmosphere, when people were talking about funny things, suddenly Nguyen Sang put down the bowl and covered his face by hands and started crying. Bui Xuan Phai slapped Nguyen Sang's shoulder and asked:
- Sang, what's the matter with you?
Nguyen Sang replied:
- I want to have a family as you do. I crave for a bowl of hot soup every day.
In 1984, the first and unique private exhibition of Nguyen Sang was organized. On that day, many friends and Nguyen Sang's painting lovers came to the exhibition. While Nguyen Sang was very happy for his friends had come and congratulated his success, suddenly writer Nguyen Tuan discovered one thing, he asked thoughtfully:
- Why doesn't Nguyen Sang have any medals?
People all laughed about Nguyen Tuan's discovery.
That day, Nguyen Sang talked to his friends:
- Now if I come to my village to visit relatives then they shall ask me why I do not have any medals through years of being Communist Viet Minh, then I do not know how to answer them. I am so sad about this!
Though Nguyen Sang did not have any medals but his art has contributed significantly to the art treasure of our nation with deep impressions recognized for his creative achievements in this life.
The last time I saw Nguyen Sang was the time he came to say goodbye to his close friend Bui Xuan Phai before I went to the airport to leave for Sai Gon (1987). In the time of separation between two close friends who had shared their lives, happiness and sadness for a half of a century - from the day they were students of Indochina Art School, perhaps they had inspiration that they would never meet again. Bui Xuan Phai and Nguyen Sang held each other's hands tightly in silence. Finally, Nguyen Sang told Bui Xuan Phai that:
- We are adults, so we do not care about trouble things that life has brought to us.
(Both of them were victims of an injustice in the Nhan Van – Giai Pham affair (1956) and both suffered from its social ties for almost of their lives). Almost one year later, in 1988, my father, painter Bui Xuan Phai passed away because of a serious illness and two months later, painter Nguyen Sang also passed away in Sai Gon. In the legendary four people Sang - Nghiem - Lien Phai, three passed away in 1988 and only one of them, painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem, still holds on to life until today.
A story about painter Duong Bich Lien
Duong Bich Lien (1924-1988) threw himself and dedicated for art to a level that he almost ignore and forgot his private happiness and emotion. He lived alone and self-contained and almost separated from the outside world. When startling and wishing to get married that his hair was almost white as lime.
However, there was a paradox that he also had some private, secretive loves in his artistry but emotional life. In last years of life, his health collapsed quickly. This was largely because of strong wine which partly destroyed the slender and miserable human body of the artist. Some days before death, he drank interminably and almost ate nothing. He died as a dream. His death was only discovered when his neighbors knocked the door but they would never hear his answer.
Born in a rich and authority family, Duong Bich Lien was the only son of a district chief. When he was 17, suddenly he wanted to give up the comfortable life and experienced a difficult life. He met painter Hoang Lap Ngon in 1941 when Hoang had just finished designing a horse cart which was named "Distinct Writer". The painter used this cart as means of transport to go around painting landscape everywhere. Duong Bich Lien was allowed to join the cart with painter Hoang Lap Ngon for the trans-national journey. They had thought that they would travel together for a long time, but when the "Distinct Writer" arrived in Thanh Hoa province then the district chief assigned people to find Duong Bich Lien. Servants of the district chief found the "Distinct Writer" and escorted the dude home. After the journey of destiny, Duong Bich Lien decided to learn at the Indochina Art University. From that moment, Duong Bich Lien started entering a game of art.
With an eccentric and don't-care style, he was a lonely and strange painter: "Life does not understand me and neither I understand it, therefore I would like to reduce myself". Duong Bich Lien was a stammering person. Some of his words were repeated many times. And each time he thought out an interesting sentence by himself or cited of the other's, then he would repeated it every some minutes. And every time he repeated the sentence, he once again stammered that made the listener remember the sentence by heart. For example: "As you play more, you shall paint better", or "there is no progress in art".
In lifetime, Duong Bich Lien used to visit Bui Xuan Phai's. Two of them had been friends from the time they were students at Indochina Art University. They understood and sympathized with art viewpoint of each other, even sometimes they had different thoughts and conceptions of art.
Duong Bich Lien was very "atopic" with strangers or with persons who did not have the same "channel" with him. If there was someone came when he was talking with Bui Xuan Phai, he just stood up and left in silence. And each time he came, he always walked on tiptoe to look over the windows to see if there was any other person inside Phai's house, if yes then he would hop it in silence again. It was not because he was arrogant but it was because of his personality. That day, apart from artists, almost nobody knew who Duong Bich Lien was, and if somebody knew then they mistook that Duong Bich Lien was a...female singer because his name was the same with singer Bich Lien, a very famous singer of the time.
One time, because he was so surprised and did not sympathize when seeing Bui Xuan Phai keeping accompany with guests who were not "adequate" with him. Duong Bich Lien asked:
- I cannot understand why you can stand with such good-for-nothing guys? And why you can still paint with your hands while your ears are listening to their gossip?
Bui Xuan Phai smiled gently and replied:
- Because you do not know that each guest of mine is also a model for me to paint. They just sit and talk what they like while I use them as models for painting.
That is the reason why Bui Xuan Phai had a thousand of portraits of people who come from different classes and careers.
Duong Bich Lien had an impressive way while talking about painting. He assumed that painting was a private world where showed one's emotion. Each work must have its own mark of the soul and it was no problem if someone did not understand or did not like it. He just painted on his favorite problems and after he had thought deeply about them. On the other side, Duong Bich Lien's art was influenced significantly by theories that he had researched very deeply.
Most of books he researched were in French. Perhaps that was the reason why he became fastidious with himself. He painted more slowly with more difficulties if compared with painting style and viewpoint of Bui Xuan Phai.
The most emerging period in arts creativeness of Duong Bich Lien was in 1960s, 1970s. In these years, he sent his works with fervor for participating in exhibition but they were all rejected, such as the "Hao" and "Uncle Ho talking to a National Defense Corp". For the second painting, people would never see this anymore after it had been rejected and nobody talked about it again. The painting described scenery of Ho Chi Minh talking to a National Defense Corp in Viet Bac base. It was rejected because the soldier was closing his eyes while the great leader talked. But according to explanation of Duong Bich Lien, only when people are in extreme, they often close their eyes. He wanted to explain that the soldier was very happy when listening to instructions of the great leader. But by that day, the explanation of the painter failed to convince the board of selection because they assumed that the great leader was talking when the listener was sleeping, that why this work was rejected right at the time when they saw it. People said that Duong Bich Lien was self-price and distressed about the indifference of orthodox people on his works. Therefore he almost had no interest in creating during his last years in life. He felt down to be disheartened and almost gave up. People then saw no more excellent work by the painter. In 1984, the State officially invited the four "Sang, Nghiem, Lien, Phai" to organize private exhibitions. Duong Bich Lien refused because he had no painting in his studio then.
I remember the last time Duong Bich Lien and Bui Xuan Phai drank with each other. That day he came from afternoon, Bui Xuan Phai told me to buy white wine twice for him and Duong Bich Lien to drink. Duong Bich Lien drank too much as he talked more and more to about 2am. On seeing that Bui Xuan Phai was tired to death, I led Duong Bich Lien to stand up and said to him "Let me take you home". At night, nobody was on the street, just two of us leading each other. He put one hand on my shoulder while the other hand was still holding his hat. On the way, I told him that I wanted to have one of his paintings for collection. Duong Bich Lien seemed to be awake from wine, he told me as if he was scolding me: "If you are a painter then never think of collecting paintings of another painter, because if you admire his art then you shall never be able to paint a nice work. Being a painter, you needn't to be jealous of any other painters and if you do, you should be jealous of Gauguin's or Van Gogh's. Only with that spirit then you may improve yourself".
That night, I saw off Duong Bich Lien to Ba Trieu slope. At that place he told me to let him go home by himself because his house was right below the slope. I stopped and looked to the inclined gait of the painter who had been considered one of the four legendary people "Sang - Nghiem - Lien - Phai" with first-order reputation in Vietnamese painting circle. The last image about Duong Bich Lien to me was the image of a drunk person walking disorderly and hiding gradually under the dip slope of Ba Trieu street.
On watching remaining works of Duong Bich Lien people can see that the theme of Girl's portrait was considered the most successful theme and the idiom of admirers "Pho Phai - Gai Lien" (Phai's Streets - Lien's Girls) had confirmed that.
Before death, Duong Bich Lien had expressed his aspiration to his friends: "Later on, in the day I go in the underworld, I do not want to see any adults. I want to have two kids, one boy and one girl, dressing correctly to escort me to the last place. Only two kids follow the horse cart carrying my soulless corpse to the cemetery, no adults shall follow us". But when Duong Bich Lien died, people could not do what he had wanted. Several years after Duong Bich Lien's death, film makers re-arranged all details in aspiration of this famous painter: two kids, dressing in European style, walking behind the horse cart which was carrying the coffin. They sprinkled petals to the road sides in an autumn afternoon. The film was titled "Silent yellowness"
A story about teacher Dam
Bui Xuan Phai was famous for his portraits of his friends, colleagues and painting admirers such as writer Nguyen Tuan, photographer Tran Van Luu, writer - film director Luu Quang Vu, painter Nguyen Sang, teacher Vu Dinh Lien, composer Trinh Cong Son, especially the series of portraits of teacher Dam. It is possible to say that the person with the most number of portraits painted by Phai was teacher Dam. The teacher often visited the painter every day from the time that Phai was living in poor and humble conditions. From the 1960s, 1970s, this collector was painted with over 200 portraits by Bui Xuan Phai with all kinds of materials. The most special and impressive ones were the series of portraits of teacher Dam painted on match-boxes. These twelve tiny portraits, maybe the smallest portrait series in Vietnam, were painted on twelve match-boxes.
In my memory, I thought that old teacher Dam was the one who was close and understood Phai's innermost feelings deeply. Behaviors of old teacher Dam with Phai were most reasonable and full of gratitude in compared with other collectors that time. Old teacher Dam was also a strange person. He was formerly a teacher of history, with exemplary and modeling appearance. But he could still make friends with many poor students by that time, it was strange. Old teacher Dam was close-mouthed but often smiled gently and his personality was also moderate as his own name. Teacher Dam used to visit Phai's and so Bui Xuan Phai used old teacher Dam as a model for painting. Sometimes old teacher Dam asked Phai to give him the painting that he felt interesting because it seemed that both Phai and teacher Dam had had tacit agreement about that. They considered that a way of rewarding to teacher Dam for his visits to get more knowledge about painting from the painter while sitting as a model for him to paint.
In respects of the mutual mental relation and position of these two persons, there was a quite big difference about art viewpoint. Therefore I had never seen any argument about art between Bui Xuan Phai and old teacher Dam. They came together for emotion, sympathy and understanding.
One time in 1964, my mother told Bui Xuan Phai to ask his friends if he could borrow them money to build a half-storey for him to have more space for the studio. Phai came to meet Mr. Lam "Cafe"; Lam shook his head and said "What a pity! I wish you came to see me yesterday because I have just lent my grandchild from countryside all of my money". After that Bui Xuan Phai came to old teacher Dam and Dam couple not only agreed to lend him but also assigned relative to take Bui Xuan Phai home. That was the only time I knew Bui Xuan Phai had to borrow money from his friends for his wife's will for that he felt so broken-hearted and complex. That was really a strong punishment to the painter's inner soul, which was very sensitive and self-respectful. With the amount of money borrowed from old teacher Dam, my family successfully built a half-storey for Bui Xuan Phai. From that time, Phai officially had his own studio although it was short of light and very narrow with only 8m2. Poet Vu Dinh Lien did compose a poem about that half-storey. Because poets of that day just read poems to each other then nobody could remember it now:
In Phai's 8m2 half-storey
There is a poem with waves and wind...
After having paid debt for teacher Dam, for dozens of years later Bui Xuan Phai still told people that story and he considered the friend as his benefactor. Perhaps for that reason, Bui Xuan Phai did paint so many portraits of old teacher Nguyen Ba Dam.
However, the fact is that at the beginning these collectors just wanted to have several beautiful paintings of the painter, but gradually these paintings were like the addictive heroin that attracted them, especially paintings of Bui Xuan Phai. People had had some beautiful paintings at home, then each time visiting studio of the painter if they found more beautiful ones then they would buy these paintings at any price. And later on, if teacher Dam wanted to have a valuable painting with large size, he could not ask for it but had to order or buy it. It is possible to say that the reason why teacher Dam became a painting collector and had deep knowledge about painting was originated from Bui Xuan Phai.
Recently I met old teacher Dam, still with high and big figure with bright eyes, high nose. Dam still kept his hale and hearty appearance like in the portraits painted by Bui Xuan Phai in the old days. Old teacher Dam had a gentle and soft voice. When I met him, he told stories about Bui Xuan Phai, he said:
- Phai's spirit was very deep but very fervid and humorous. He had a very great creative power though his stature was thin and tall. Such power was so strong that it turned moss-grown walls into valuables.
Paintings given to teacher Dam by Bui Xuan Phai have become an important motivation for him to continue his collection of ancient money. Old Dam devoted his time to collect ancient money notes that he once became penniless. Dam had to sell very beautiful portraits of Phai to supplement ancient money notes with big value in international market. Collection circles have called him a "The strange man of ancient notes in Hanoi". Today, it is painful that the series of teacher Dam's portraits painted by Bui Xuan Phai have been mislaid in over the world. Though teacher Dam often explains that "it was difficult to keep myself, let alone my things", from his deep mind teacher Dam also acknowledged that he is the person who feels regret at most and suffered from biggest loss when he could not keep the whole series of teacher Dam's portraits painted and given by Bui Xuan Phai.
A story about Mr. Duc Minh
With conditions, background and position of a capitalist helped him earn a lot of money and when he came to painting art then he seemed to be charmed with it. Painting took him almost of capital that he had created for a very long time. Sometimes he had to sell invaluable ancient objects or had to borrow to buy paintings. If he liked any painting then he would not care about the price.
Early in 1960s, Mr. Duc Minh came and started buying paintings to add to the number of paintings he had had before but with not large amount. They were paintings he bought during his trip to France such as: "Choi o an quan" by Nguyen Phan Chanh, "Thieu nu ben cay phu du" by Nguyen Gia Tri and some paintings of the world famous painter Fujita (a Japanese painter buy he lived and was famous in Paris). The "Ben hoa hue" was bought by Mr. Duc Minh from the time the France occupied Hanoi. Just with some of the mentioned works were enough for art admirer circles to have regard for him.
Mr. Duc Minh had real name as Bui Dinh Thanh (1920 - 1983). He was formerly a trader in the area of "jewellery". And he was famous as a great aristocratic family in Hanoi in that time. He was the owner of seven silver and gold jewellery shops in Hanoi before 1954. Today, Trang Tien Plaza (Hanoi) is one of the former shops of Duc Minh family before.
With conditions, background and position of a capitalist helped him earn a lot of money and when he came to painting art then he seemed to be charmed with it. Painting took him almost of capital that he had created for a very long time. Sometimes he had to sell invaluable ancient objects or had to borrow to buy paintings. If he liked any painting then he would not care about the price.
Mr. Duc Minh owned a large and beautiful villa near Thuyen Quang Lake. From the 1960s to 1980s, he exhibited all art works that he had collected before. And perhaps that was the earliest place for art paintings exhibition in Vietnam from the date of capturing the Capital. During those decades, painters and students of Art School used to visit there to watch and exchange art information. That place was a very impressive address for foreigners to visit. That day, foreign visitors were often the ones introduced and taken there by a State officer. Therefore, Mr. Duc Minh felt very assured and proud of his special position because only him was allowed to contact with Westerners. I remember that Mr. Duc Minh was very fond of boasting about each time he had a contact with foreigners. When listening to Duc Minh talking about his stories with foreigners at his house, painters all wanted to know if their paintings made any impression the that foreigner or not. Mr. Duc Minh often talked slowly with important gestures:
- Well, "moi" saw "luy" stopped for a long time in front of paintings of "toi".
But he would never tell them whether the foreigner was impressed by their paintings or not.
In the 1960s, 1970s, together with the establishment of Fine Art Museum, the emergence of collector Duc Minh's art gallery had a beautiful meaning and was useful for the cultural life of the time. It helped people have a different view about another dimension of art. That was the non-socialism dimension (in simple explanation, works collected by Mr. Duc Minh were not on theme of serving for policies and guidelines because his collected paintings did not have contents for working and struggling). People made a comparison that if anyone had seen paintings in Duc Minh's collection then they would never want to come back to the National Fine Art Museum. In 1965, Mr. Duc Minh once suggested to give all the paintings he had collected to the State under a condition that his villa would become a museum named Duc Minh. But his suggestion was not considered that time, and the dream together with his aspiration to dedicate for Hanoi a museum under the name Duc Minh went with him to the Hades.
After his death, the villa nearby the lake was sold and replaced by a high building. The majestic collection became heritage assets and was divided for his children. Of these people, some still keep the paintings but some have sold with easy-to-buy price. Especially, the collector Danh Anh once told that he had to transport many times by cyclo for the works he had bought and he just paid average price for all paintings, not for quality of each one. That was really a great anguish! That was really a huge loss for Vietnamese Art because just in some days, the greatest and most famous art collection in Vietnam had been damaged and separated in silence. The secret auction that year created subsurface waves in art market. Many fake paintings also took use of this occasion to mix with the collection because many gallery owners considered the event a chance for them to swear with foreign customers that this one or that one was bought from collection of Duc Minh family. It is fortunate for the dream of collector Duc Minh that his dream is being continued by his son Bui Quoc Chi today. He did not sell the paintings divided for him from the great collection and for years, Chi has spent money to redeem precious paintings sold by his relatives.
I did not know a lot about Duc Minh. Because when he visited Bui Xuan Phai, I was a very young child then. However, I have retained a lot of his impressive images in my mind. I cannot forget the way he bought paintings when he visited Phai’s painting studio, it was very unique. Not only did he always bargain, but when he paid for the painting, he also looked around (In fact, this is an occupational habit of collectors, and all of those who visit the painting studio look around carefully) and found a suitable painting and asked for being given as a promotion (Such painting agreed to be “given” may be more beautiful and valuable than the one bought). Never have I seen that Duc Minh failed to satisfy his wish every time he bought paintings in that way. And he also had another habit. He often visited Phai in the last days of lunar years (very closed to Tet). Since in these days, the artist badly needed money in order to pay for necessary things for Tet in his family. Therefore, once Duc Minh had selected his desired paintings, he could success in bargaining with the artist over the paintings price that he wanted. Another tactic hat Duc Minh used in buying paintings was that, before buying them, he brought them home in advance and contemplated them. During that time, he often invited other artists to contemplate the paintings and asked them for their opinions on whether he should buy them or not. Because of his careful and strict selection, art works in his collection at that time was all excellent. It should be accepted that artists living in 1960s and 1970s often considered Duc Minh their savior of their lives. I remember that, once Duc Minh visited Bui Xuan Phai, before asking to buy his paintings, Minh had told a story of the previous day. He had to meet artist Thang Long in his private house (I had not heard a words of this artist for a long time. He had fully disappeared with his name). He visited Duc Minh to tell him about his situation at that time. The artist told that in some previous days, he had had to sell his blood to a hospital in order to gain money to buy rice. Then, he had used up the rice, and he was exhausted because of alimentary abstinence for several days while was so weak. Consequently, the hospital rejects to buy his blood. Minh told that:
-Thang Long brought a bulk of paintings to my house and asked me to buy them. Feeling pity for him, I bought one to help him. I remembered Phai’s visual appearance after listening to Duc Minh’s story. He was nearly shocked; he could not say a word and bent his head. He was sad as if he had been guilty to his colleague. Duc Minh’s painting collection had paintings created by all famous artists in Dong Duong Collage of Fine Arts. The artist who has the most paintings in Minh’s collection was Bui Xuan Phai. The number of paintings was so many that by 1970s, Minh had to shout:
-My collection has had too many paintings of Bui Xuan Phai. So now I will only buy actually impressive paintings at low price.
Minh had kept his words. He only visited Phai’s painting studio once every several years. And from 1974, he stopped buying Phai’s paintings. In 1975, Vietnam was integrated into one; Ming went to live in Ho Chi Minh City. In 1969, when I was thirteen, starting to move into painting world, I had my first paintings posted in Van Nghe Newspapers. When Minh visited my family, Phai showed off the newspapers with my paintings and commented on his son:
-I see something so strange in his paintings!
After listening to the persuasive “marketing” words, he immediately asked to buy my three paintings at the same time. The feeling of ecstasy when I first earned money from my favorite job was unforgettable. And I remember clearly that after paying me, Minh turned to Phai and asked for … another painting as a promotion (he bought my paintings and ask for my father’s one). Phai had no other choice but to satisfy the collector. He selected a satisfied painting and gave to Minh in order to offset his “marketing” for his son’s paintings. Afterwards, as I remembered about that, I still think that their purpose in doing that was mainly to cheer me in fact. In 1994, however, I recognized that one of my paintings bought by Minh had been formally posted in a Hong Kong art magazine. Someone had brutally shaved my signature in the painting and replaced it with Phai’s. If the bad person had known about the story I told, he would have realized that he had insulted many people at the same time. Another memory remaining forever in my mind is that one day, after my wedding, Duc Minh accidentally visited my family from Saigon. Minh was surprised to see a new member in my family. Phai introduced:
-She is Phuong’s wife, they have just got married.
Minh offered his congratulation to me and suggested:
-I do not know about this so I do not have a gift for you. But I have a wine bottle and keep it for use when I have good occasion. On this occasion, I invite you three to visit my home by the way.
That was the first and the only time I have had a chance to see more than 1000 paintings of different types created by the most famous artists gathering in Minh’s house. I was so honored and moved to be a guest, together with my newlywed wife, moving in the middle of two people, a “legend” Bui Xuan Phai and a “legend” Duc Minh. We were shown around art galleries. Minh introduced the painting to us, named every author and also expressed his thought about them. The person by his side, Bui Xuan Phai, also added his opinions to Minh’s words on every authors and works. After that meeting with Duc Minh, I never met him again. He suddenly died in 1983 in Ho Chi Minh City.
A story about Mr. Lam Coffee
Lam Café was the familiar Café of Hanoi poor students in 1960s. The Café owner was Nguyen Van Lam. He was friendly called Lam “Toet”, sometime Lam “Khoi” by customers to the Café. Lam was small and thin. In fact, his eyes were not watery, but they were often half-opened and often wet and blurred. Ones who met him for the first time often thought that he was very poor and he also took advantage of the “poor” appearance to give the “grief tactic” (he often pretended to be a poor in order to buy paintings at extremely low prices as cost-free). Lam loved painting by nature, and became a reluctant collector. Obviously, he is considered a leading and excellent collector at present, and also a predecessor of current painting collectors in Vietnam. By his natural sensitivity, Lam can tell the difference between beautiful and unsightly paintings, creative paintings and those that follows existing motives.
Lam had eagle eyes in sensing the beauty, who was more or at least the same excellent to professors and fine art critics at that time. Lam Toet especially loved artists, especially those create paintings. Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Sang, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Trong Kiem, Luu Cong Nhan, Van Cao, Nguyen Si Ngoc, etc. were all his regular customers and also his life-debtors. Nguyen Tuan writer joked that “In the right bank of Saine River is Louvre Museum, in the left bank of Red River is Lam Café”. Poor artists often owed him money when they drank coffee in his café and credited in his book. Lam never urged them to pay. When the artists gave him their paintings as payments for their debts, he never bargained. They give him their paintings; in turn they received breakfast including two omelets and bread. Then they were also given coffee and cigarettes to enjoy. The poor artists can call foods and beverages freely without paying in cash. All were credited in Lam’s debt book. When Lam thought that their debts were relatively big, he would pat their shoulders and said: “Hey man, all were enough to exchange for a painting”. He did not strict about the types of paintings and accepted any types. Realism, surrealism, wild beasts or partridges were the same to him. He quite believed in artist’s responsibility.
Lam Café was actually a type of “stealthy salon” at that time, an unofficial exhibition where paintings of Hanoi artists were displayed to serve for the need of the public during decades from 1960s. It was not until 1980s that Vietnam artists were permitted to exhibit their paintings – the spiritual children. And it was not until 1990s that chances were actually opened to Vietnam artists to display their art creativity merit to the public, while they had chances to send their paintings to foreign countries for exhibition. Therefore, recalling such strict and difficult time, should the history of Vietnam art was recorded, the merit of Lam Café should not be forgotten I think. There are nearly not any reliable documents and writings about Lam Café. However, anecdotes and embroidered stories are plentiful. In fact, no matter how generous Lam was, he could only take at most several paintings of each artist. If he had taken more, the paintings could not have been put in his house with limited area. Lam’s way of enjoying paintings was the same to that of bonsai collectors, they tried to seek for bonsai that they have not had, and stop seeking ones they have had.
At that time, painting were enjoyed naturally and purely. People enjoyed paintings simply because they liked them and not because of their own interest or fame. Painters at that time were considered to be eccentric and other people who enjoy paintings were even considered to be more eccentric. Imagine that if Lam had gone bankruptcy because of debt and had had to mortgage the paintings, no one would have bought them. This was simply because no one would buy paintings when people across the country were all “miserable people”. And Vietnam at that time was almost separated from the outside. Even at present, customers of painting who are affordable for paintings are mainly foreigners. There are also many Vietnamese people who buy and collect paintings. But their purposes were mainly to re-sell to foreigners to earn profits. As I can see, Lam had about five oil paintings of Bui Xuan Phai at relatively large size. Of the number, the smallest one has a size of up to 60cm x 80cm. (That was the painting Hang Bac Street). At present, it is owned by collector Tran Hau Tuan. This guy told me that many people offered to buy the painting, and they have offered to pay for it up to USD 25,000. But he decline selling it. He explained: “With that amount, I cannot buy another one created by Phai that is as beautiful, large and magnificent as that one”.
All Phai’s paintings presented at the Café were excellent. All were tinged with time and space of Hanoi at that time. I was touched as I review them. It is just a formal way of saying to use “tinged with time”. In fact, the paintings were tinged with … smoke released by customers to Lam Café. Customers released smoke in the Café every day. And for decades, the paintings obviously got dark.
Almost all artists living in the same time with Lam who enjoyed paintings die. Lam died several years ago, too. That has roped the Café of its inherited charm and romanticism. Visiting the Café today, I feel that both the owner and customers are so sly. Paintings, coffee and the café itself remain unchanged, but excitement and people love seem to fade a lot.
I had a comic and tragic memory with Lam Café. Lam had sold one of his oil paintings to an American people. When I went to America, I visited his house. The first thing he wanted to show off was a painting created by Vietnam painter Bui Xuan Phai. Oh my god! Is this the painting of such a Vietnam “grand maitre”? It was so bad. I told him that it was a painting with low value created by an artist other than Phai, but the real signature in the painting was replaced with Phai’s. Later, the guy returned to Vietnam and gave the painting back to Lam. Of course, Lam Toet had no other choice but to give money back to him. When Lam Toet met me, his first reaction was a blame which I found so funny. I did not know if Lam was so innocent or he just pretended to be innocent when he told me: “You should have ignored as if you had not known about this! In the past, your father and I had to experience a lot of hardship, invasion and exploitation brought about by capitalists, empires and colonists. Now, it is so usual that we exploit them something”. After listening to Lam Toet, I can only smile and suddenly realized that the thought of those who often sold counterfeit paintings to foreign visitors was just so simple and natural.
A story about Mr. Bong Hang Buom
Bong Hang Buom was a name given by artists to collector Pham Van Bong so as not to mistake him for writer Buom the author of the novel "Con Trau" (Buffalo). The writer Bong was also called Bong Con Trau. Bong Hang Buom was also called by Phai as "Bon n'est pas bon" in France for fun. However, Phai often gave Bong much of his love. Bong was invited to almost all parties held in Phai’s house. With his initial name as Mr. Bong, after meeting the artists, Bong was given the name Bong Hang Buom who, after collecting for decades, had had an admirable and diverse collection of culture and art forms of Vietnam. The artist having the most paintings in Bong Hang Buom’s collection is Phai. That Bong Hang Buom became an art collector was quite a matter of chance. He was artillery solider during the war against French. In a victory, the Viet Minh military flocked into French’s battlefield. People cheerfully collected war booty such as military instruments and other valuable things. No one paid attention to paintings in the walls. The artillery solider found them rather interesting. So he removed them from their frames, carefully rolled them up and put into his backpack. Bong Hang Buom started his collection career without anything. And the habit had accompanied him during his travel of seeking, collecting art works. In 1960s, Bong moved to Hanoi from his native village and lived in a second apartment in lane 93, Hang Buom Street. The area of the apartment was just 20m2. It was very old and humid. In daytime, anyone who wanted to visit his house had to move through a dark small lane. In order to see the lane, it was necessary to use a torch or light matches. If they did not have these two things, they had to use their hands to seek way. That area was true for the sentence “Night in daytime”.
Initially, painting collectors in Vietnam at that time were a group of people who had some antiques and were antique collectors. They were just sophisticated and knew a lot about antique coins. Later, when they met artists and learn experience from them, many of them became experts with eagle eyes of sensing of paintings. Those who lived in the same time to Bong Hang Buom should be named include: Duc Minh, Ba Dam, Lam Toet, Tran Thinh, Hue Toc Bac, To Ninh, etc. Although there were not many painting collectors at that time, most of them are experienced and very tasteful. It was the people who made great contribution to enhancing vitality, excitement, personality and spirit of artists.
Merits of the collectors could not be measured by the amount of money they had. At that time, all were poor. No example indicated that they had bought any paintings at high price. An important thing about the collectors living in 1960 to 1970 to focus is that, it was those who were supported, viewed and ranked paintings the most exactly and fairly in painting sector. Their knowledge in painting deserved to be learned by new generations. Such collectors in the beginning period were more qualified and quite different from current mixed collectors.
I do not have many stories about the relationship between Bong Hang Buom and Bui Xuan. Since, every relationship that does not originate from sincerity cannot touch the feeling. Bong made friend with Phai with a motto “go to somewhere without anything and back with something” and “go to somewhere with few things and back with many things”. Phai also knew that Bong took advantage of him, but he seemed ignore it. Respecting Phai because of his generosity, Bong always considered Phai his “Dai ca” (eldest brother). He always addressed Phai respectfully and was very dedicated. Almost every evening, Bong Hang Buom came to Phai’s house and asked for the basket containing waste paper. The basket was used by Phai to contain paintings he did not satisfy with. Most of the paintings were painted in paper. Phai’s habit was that when he did not satisfy with a painting, he crumpled it up into a small ball and threw it to the basket put in the corner from about 4 meters away. Every time he did so, Bong Hang Buom clapped his hands and complimented him, comparing him with an excellent champion of basketball. In each evening, Bong often collected about 2 or 3 “balls” like that. Then, he brought the “booty” home, stretched and pressed them by an iron. Finally, he brought them back to Phai’s house and asked him for his signature. Such paintings that had been “balls”, though being small and created in papers, after Phai’s death, were bought by collectors in Ho Chi Minh City at USD 1,000 each “ball” at least.
Another tactic often used by Bong I know is that he lent Phai a set of paintbrushes. He waited until he thought he thought that the paintbrushes had been worn. That was the time that Bong reclaimed the paintbrush set. Phai had no other choice but to but to give “monsieur Bong” his desired painting to offset the paintbrush set. Because it is widely accepted that one should not borrow something new from other people but return the old ones. It was also joked that “After shaking hands with Bong, one should check whether his five fingers remain in his hand”.
Some impressive events remain in my mind. It was the event “Hanoi in Linebacker II”. In 1972, American arm force, in its last efforts, launched B-52 on Hanoi, Hai Phong and Thai Nguyen provinces, attacking crowded residential areas in order to discourage the will to win of Vietnamese people. The entire Hanoi people, with their valiant mind, bravery, cunning and creativity, successfully defeated the strategic air raid using mainly B52 of the American empire, creating the great victory “The Christmas Bombing”. In the vigorous days, life was so faint. One was not sure if he would survive in the following day. Yet, in some night of event, Bong Hang Buom still went to Phai’s house with Duc Minh. Bong asked Phai to light his lamb to show Minh a painting that Bong desired for. Given the successive and sound peals outside, I still saw the two collectors bargaining. Minh wished to have the Kieu painting by Nguyen Tu Nghiem owned by Bong. And Bong wanted Minh to buy the Phai’s painting he had just mentioned so that they would exchange the two paintings. Ones who do not have chance to see the situation on their own, they would think that it was just a scene in a film.
The valuable and also the last painting by Phai gained by Bong Hang Buom thanks to his “persuasion” was given to him when he held his daughter’s wedding (in 1987). Bong brought an invitation card to Phai’s house to invite him and his wife to attend the wedding. When Bong gave the invitation card to Phai, he suggested “In order that you do not have to give lucky money to my two children on their wedding, while it is also their desire that you should give them one of your paintings instead of giving them lucky money as other people do”. Phai agreed happily. When he attended the wedding, he asked me to remove a huge painting in the wall to give Bong’s daughter as a gift for her wedding. When Phai died (24th June 1988), thousands of Hanoi people attended his funeral. Especially, Bong Hang Buom stood in a corner, his eyes filled with tears. I knew that, Bong was one of very few people who understood to detail and greatly admired Phai for his talent and love. I moved toward him. Suddenly, we both touch each other’s shoulders. Bong mumbled as if he was in a dream: “Phai is so great! Phai is so great!”
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