The only speech of Bui Xuan Phai delivered in public
Phai was famous for being quite, gentle and humble. He has never been seen to speak eloquently and loudly in public. Early this year, I looked for his speech delivered in the closing ceremony of Bui Xuan Phai Exhibition in my documents and found it. It was the first and only speech in his life to be delivered in public. Its content is as follows:
I am pleased to meet you today in an early day of year. Another Spring has come.
It is also to day when my art exhibition is closed and once more, I have a chance to participate in a peer talk held by Vietnam Visual Art Association.
One month elapsed. My dream has almost become true. I am very pleased to see that my art exhibition is a great success.
I have thought much of the responsibility of an artist. I am getting older and weaker. In turn, I become more mature in my career, become knowledgeable and gain a lot of experience in the field of art.
I have thought much of my peers who thoroughly understand art. Although I do not have many friends like that, I find that I have some more every day. And it was their ideas that made me think a lot about the way I am going.
I think that artists should have qualification of both career and art. Art and life merge into each other to create a works.
Finally, I remain my belief that the passion for art is an essential factor to develop the talent.
Thank you for participating in the meeting today.
I am sorry for my mistakes, shortcomings during and after the exhibition. finally, I would like to send my thank to leaders of culture sector at different levels, Vietnam Visual Artists Association and all of my relatives and friends who have helped me a lot in successfully developing the art exhibition.
I wish you a happy and effective new year and hope that you would create many interesting and beautiful paintings. That’s all.
Fortune and fame are just like floating cloud, Only love remains with life
On 22nd December 1984, painter Bui Xuan Phai was sponsored by Vietnam Visual Artists Association to hold his first and only personal exhibition during his art life. During the 6 month of preparation, Phai share with his friends: “This important event makes me fell both pleased and worried. I prevented me from sleeping every night”
The exhibition opening ceremony was considered an “untie” day to Phai given the initial stage of the renovation policy made by the Party and State. For the first time, an entire broadcasting program was held by Vietnam Television in order to introduce the life and works of Phai. Since then, the talented painter Bui Xuan Phai, who, during his all life, worked very hard and quietly in art for his love to Hanoi, became popular with all people in and outside Vietnam through articles in newspapers. His reputation started to spread widely across the world.
Every 22nd December, Phai and his family invited his relatives and friends to his party, marking the anniversary of the important event marking a turning point in his career. Regretfully, Phai could only organize another 3 parties, because he died in 24th June 1988.
On this occasion, I would like to talk about the paintings sold in this art exhibition:
108 works were exhibited in the exhibition (oil paintings, pastels and woodcut paintings). Right in the opening ceremony, 24 paintings were sold. 4 oil paintings were bought by Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts. Another 2 oil paintings “Ban Nhac Cong Cheo” (Group of Vietnam Traditional Opera Executants) and “Truoc Gio Bieu Dien” (Before Show) were bought by the Collectors Group of Vietnam Fine Arts Association. Noticeably, the art exhibition was attended by cultural attaché of France Embassy Mr. Patrice Jorland. He also specially admired Phai for his talent. Early in the opening ceremony, he bought 12 oil paintings. So far, that had been an art exhibition in Hanoi in which most paintings were sold.
The representative of Vietnam Fine Arts Association, before opening time, pasted the association’s cards in to the paintings they had bought. After the exhibition, these two traditional opera paintings were transferred to the Association. However, neither Phai nor his family had been given the amount paid for the paintings. I also asked the person in charge of the Association about that. He said that because of the change in currency system made by the State of Vietnam, the Association’s fund for painting collection had to stop its operation since it no longer had money. It has been a long time so far. Recently, I have learned that the Vietnam Fine Arts Association re-sold the two mentioned paintings to Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts. An Association member told that, the amount had been used to support the Association’s members facing difficulties.
In that exhibition, 4 oil paintings were bought by Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts. At that time, the Museum bought painting based on an available norm; no matter by whom the paintings were created, they were paid at the same price. Each painting was paid VND 20, 000 on average. At that time, any artist who had paintings bought by the Museum considered it a great gift and honor. Although their paintings were bought based on an available norm with very low prices, they were very pleased then, because very few people bought their paintings.
Hang Tre Street painting was also bought by the Museum. Although the Museum had taken the painting, it did not pay for it immediately. A short time later, only when it was said that the State planed to change the currency system did the Museum pay for the painting. It asked its employees to urge the artist’s relatives to come and receive the amount. I clearly remember that I was paid VND 20,000 for that painting. The following day, the State implemented currency system change with the rate 10: 1, that meant the amount was only worth VND 2,000 then. It was the precursor of VND 2,000 banknote today. Today, with VND 2,000, you can only buy a cup of tea in a street in Hanoi.
At that time, these issues were also discussed. I know that Phai was afraid of troubles. In addition, he never wanted to talk about trading of his works. He often called them “Ly Tai” (name of a Chinese trader in the past). One of his friends who was a poet read a poem to encourage him. It had a verse meaning Fortune and fame are just like floating cloud, Only love remains with life.
“If two people are predestined for each other, they will find each other despite distance and time”
In the opening ceremony of Bui Xuan Phai art exhibition on the occasion of his 90th birthday (1st September 2010), I said some words to participants. That was the first time I spoke in public. I was afraid of it and did not like it at all. However, when I discussed the method of organizing Bui Xuan Phai art exhibition with the Management Board of Goethe Institute before, I, a descendant of painter Bui, was required to speak in the opening ceremony. As a result, I had no other choice but to do so. It was said that, I was so awkward and embarrassed when I was speaking, which was quite different from my way of speaking in feast (I spoke confidently then).
First of all, on behalf of my family, I would like to convey my thanks to you for your attendance at the opening ceremony of Bui Xuan Phai art exhibition. I would like to thank Management Board of Goethe Institute, Vietnam Fine Arts Association, collectors Bui Quoc Tri and Tran Hau Tuan, those who, together with us, have contributed to forming this exhibition.
I want to talk more about the predestination between Phai and Germany inadequately mentioned by the Director. There were four things:
First: It was the first international gold medal awarded to Phai in his life. It was an international award for painting category, awarded by Germany. In that year, an international books fair was held in Germany. Phai sent his supplements illustrating the book He Cheo to compete in the fair. And he was awarded gold medal for these works.
Second: Several months after Phai was awarded the medal by Germany, in the same year, Phai reached his retirement age. Under the retirement mechanism then, an artist, before his retirement, shall enjoy a two-week travel to Germany. Germany was the first and only foreign country that Phai had chance to travel to in his life.
Third: It was white paint tubes made in Germany. Anyone who are an artist know that, in Phai’s time, there were three main types of paint, including those made in Russia, China and Germany. To Phai, Russian paint was very hard, Chinese one was very loose. Of the three main paint types available in the market then, the German one was his most favorite one. I affirm that almost all of his oil paintings created from 1970s until he died used German paint. It can be said that, white paint tubes made in Germany contributed to forming the painting style of Bui Xuan Phai.
It is this exhibition that is the fourth thing relating to predestination between Phai and Germany I want to mention. I thought a lot about this and find that the predestination is so mysterious. Someone asked me why I do not hold the exhibition in other places than Goethe Institute. I cannot explain, just feel it by a premonition. It seems to be programmed in advance. And I believe that Germany and Phai had known each other previously.
Thank you very much and please watch the paintings.
Bui Xuan Phai used to have the nickname SIPI
May be Phai’s oldest painting was created in 1948 in a war base. It was a self-portrait created by iron pen using China ink signed with the nickname SIPI, dated 12th March 1948. In right corner of the painting was a dedication "Dear Viet Ho, I present you Sipi’s self-portrait. When Sipi is not with you, You should remember him and wish him good health so that he can dedicate to art.
The artist presented this painting was a learner of an autumn-winter painting class in the war instructed by Phai. Now he became a slow and blur-eyed man at the age of 80, the old artist Luu Ly. People and time changed. 60 years passed. Experiencing various unrest of the time, the original painting remains clear with all lines, color gamut, with subtle flavor of history and breath of the author. Listen to Luu Ly’s words about how he has respected and kept the painting: “In rainy days when it was cold and windy, I put this painting in the warmest area. When I had to carry it in the rain, I would cover it by leaving my body suffer from rain and coldness to protect this precious painting”.
Oh! What a courageous and romantic artist; and what a persistent and passionate preserver! Art can exist thanks to not only the talent of artist, but also the heart of people! After 60 years, through various ups and downs as well as changes of the history, this painting has become the treasure of artist Luu Ly. Since, to him, it was a great nostalgia given to him by the master artist, and was a fortune in his life!
When being asked why Phai signed his paintings with the nick name SIPI, the guy Luu Ly replied “Phai told me that Sipi is an abbreviation from the nickname of an aircraft of French military. Once in the air is a fiery Speed Fire, Sipi Phai in the earth is burning with his art!”
It is known that, many collectors have sought artist Luu Ly and tried to persuade the old artist to re-sell them the self-portrait. However, all of them were rejected. Recently, after keeping the painting for a long time, the old artist found that he was very old and may die anytime. So he decided to give it to a skilled collector who has collected paintings of all famous artists in his most prestigious private collection in Vietnam.
Watching Bui Xuan Phai portrays
Painter Bui Xuan Phai was highly admired by friends and fellows for his skillfulness and polish in the area of portray, not as in the ancient street of Hanoi as people thought.
Of thousands portraits by Bui Xuan Phai, all deeply expressed the characteristic and appearance of each person without reiteration. In each portrait painting of Bui Xuan Phai, people realized that it was made by master drawing which was fine and polish and it seemed to understand deep inside the soul and mind, exposing the characteristic of each person, from illiterate farmer, fat militia girl, the old and red-eye lady selling vegetable on the street to the painting collector and writer…All these portrays can be easily understood by the viewer without seeing the title.
People who lived at the same age with Bui Xuan Phai still remember about parties with his presence. As usual, people usually gave him a white cloth or paper with brush. It was the most expected moment of the party. Every people, all of them are painter (it never happens now), were gathered around to see him portray. Bui Xuan Phai did it quick and surprised people by the resemblance and liveliness. It was great honor for those who were chosen as model. At the end of the party, as portray finished, it was given to the host of the party. If that party was in Bui Xuan Phai’s place, the portrait would be given to a guest woman.
I still remember some of girlfriends who had been invited to my house during those days. Now, their children are grown up, even some of them are grandmothers. Every time I met them, they excitingly recalled such memories with gratitude for the portrait given by Bui Xuan Phai. Some of them proudly shown that they still kept the painting of the painter until today, but some, due to hard circumstances, could not fight again the strike of the collectors, had to sell them. I have been told by friends a lot of sad stories about the separation with the painter’s keepsake in tears and inconsolable regret.
Buy one, get two for free
Today, Natasha visits and talks about her plan to organize an exhibition of paintings collection of Vietnamese painter that Natasha collected from 1980s, 1990s of the previous century.
This is very interesting and respectable intention. Natasha opened her camera to show some of my paintings in this period. It was quite a long time and my artistic point of view has been changed according to each period of life. Generally, as seeing the paintings that I made from beginning the journey of the artistic life, I was not contented. These paintings were heavily influenced by Phai’s class. But they had belonged to Natasha. If I still keep them, they would be absolutely blanked. I told Natasha: “Their values are to hold the trace of the past, I do it differently now”. I shown my disappointment and did not want Natasha to display them in the exhibition that she was planning. I did not know whether she agreed or not but I thought that as painters still alive, they have the right to express their ideas about their work and they might agree or not to take part in the public exhibition.
Natasha is the wife of the late painter Vu Dan Tan. They have a gallery at 30 Hang Bong street named Salon Natasha. It can be said that this is the first private gallery in Hanoi. Salon Natasha was established in 1990. Before that time, from 1981, only Phuong’s paintings were presented in this gallery for the reason that Phuong’s paintings were loved by Vu Dan Tan and he encouraged Phuong to send paintings for him to introduce to foreign customer for sale. So it can be said that Phuong is the first painter to work with Salon Natasha.
After talking about the exhibition that Natasha is planning, story goes to Bui Xuan Phai. Everywhere, every meeting or party, if there is someone who lived in the same age or met or knew painter Bui Xuan Phai, stories about him are excitingly told.
Natasha had recalled her memories with Bui Xuan Phai: I still kept all the paintings that he given to me or bought from him. As having friends visited, I shown them Phai’s painting collection and asked them to select the best one. The interesting thing was that they always chose the best paintings that Bui Xuan Phai gave to me for free as I bought painting from him. At that time, Bui Xuan Phai was compassionate about me because I was poor, but I did not want to receive gift painting from him. So every time I visit him I manage to buy a small painting. Every time, before I left, Bui Xuan Phai told me: “Wait for me, I will give you a painting”. The painting that he gave me for free was always nicer and more expensive than the one I bough.
A story about Phai’s street
Since 1956, after getting involved with Nhân văn- giai phẩm affair, Bui Xuan Phai has been banned to compose. His name was not allowed to appear in the papers in this period. To earn his living, Bui Xuan Phai had to used different names such as Vi Vu, Pi Ha, Ly, Pha Y signed in the paintings and comics in the newspapers that time.
From 1950 to 1962, in his lacquer works, he often used the signature with full name BUI XUAN PHAI.
By 1980, he seemed to find the most stable and suitable style for him. Since then, no more change has been made in his signature.
In the early 1960s, writer Nguyen Tuan had punned, borrowing the ancient name of Hoi An which was Phai Pho to change it to Phai Pho (Phai’s street). It had become the word of mouth of people calling his paintings about Hanoi as Phai’s street. Which one is more famous, Phai Pho or Pho Phai? It had been integrated into his works accidentally, because Phai Pho (Phai’s street), for French speaking people, it would be understood as fake painting of Phai: Phai faux (faux in French means fake). And the rumor goes that Phai had been painted a lot, but after his death, “Phai faux” also pained a lot more. Bui Xuan Phai is the most famous painter of Viet Nam. He is also the victim of the fake paintings. People said that his art had kept alive and made fortune for many people after his death in 1988 by lung cancer.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the art connoisseur had changed his name to: Buồn Xuân Pho (sad spring street), because street in his painting was desolate and sad, like an unmanned ancient city. Many of his street paintings were depicted with solitary, silence and dolefulness. Not until the end of his life, in 1980s, did his painting positive. Warm color of sun and red cloth passing street were started to appear. People supposed that the big success of his first private exhibition in 1984 had great influence in his creativity inspiration: the feeling of being convicted had been fully untied and released. For the first time in that year, his life and works had been broadcasted nationwide in Central Television.
Along with such changes, there was an accident like fate had attached the work of Bui Xuan Phai with word and name Phai Pho (Phai’s street). In 1981, Phai has been sent to Quảng Nam- Đŕ Nẵng. As he set foot in Hoi An, he was surprised by the fascinating beauty of Hoi An street. It was totally different with those in Hanoi that he painted before. Because of having no winter here so the sky is always blue and the sun is spreading out all streets. This greatly affected his view and artistic concept which were ancient streets of Hanoi in winter time with heavy and leaden sky. Since that year, his street paintings had been changed to lighter colors, less desolate and lonesome. His streets now have more people. Turquoise was applied more often than grey as previously.
One more meaningful thing is that after he died, Đŕ Nẵng was the first city to name Bui Xuan Phai for a street.
By 1980s, it seemed that his street paintings wanted to say goodbye with Grey and Brown period. Another thing that influenced his style in this turquoise period was that during the end years of his life (from 1980 to 1988), all of his children had grown up and independent, so the economic burden was lifted. The country was started to change to renovation period. At the same time, foreign customer was allowed to visit his workshop and buy his paintings. It can be said that, during the end years of his life, the work of Bui Xuan Phai had been in the hand of customer right after finished.
The uniqueness in Cheo’s painting of Bui Xuan Phai
Beside street topic that contributed to make the name of Bui Xuan Phai spread far and far beyond the border of the country and become a celebrity at international level because of his artistic life and huge number of art works, Bui Xuan Phai still had other “tricky” topic that was Cheo. In this topic, he was also occupied the absolute position in the painting community of Viet Nam. As mentioning about Cheo painting, Bui Xuan Phai is the first painter who should be taken into consideration with outstanding works on this topic. No one denied the fact that Cheo’s Phai has reached the utmost beauty on painting in the point of view of folklore stage. It can be said that outstanding works of Bui Xuan Phai on Cheo have disheartened those who wish to enter into this topic. Before and after his death, no painter had success work in the Cheo topic.
No precise statistic has been made on how many works Bui Xuan Phai has made in the Cheo topic, but people knew that his first work on this topic was signed in 1961. In this topic, his paintings were less meditative and lonesome than that in the street painting topic. Paintings on Cheo topic contained funny folk aesthetic of Northern villages. Drunken clown, stick joker, singer, mirroring young girl or backstage scenes of actors before performing time … are revived by the language of painting which is colloquial and conventional like Cheo’s performance.
Critics assumed that aesthetic reaction of Bui Xuan Phai to the Cheo stage is friendly and humane. Bui Xuan Phai has joined himself into festivities with the sound and rhythm of Northern village, intending to discover one more national painting color. Bui Xuan Phai has made specific language for Cheo by the unique language of painting, imbued with national identity (as people called it). His character, a variation of thousand years of countrymen, appears poetry, deeply and delicately.
In 1961, Bui Xuan Phai decorated for Golden silk cord play. From this, he discovered the good and beauty of Cheo, creating his own view and supplementing an important topic to his gigantic artistic heritage. In contrary with ancient street topic, in the Cheo topic, along with the illustrators for the Cheo clown book in 1981 and illustrators for Ho Xuan Huong poem that made people discover a young and funny Bui Xuan Phai.
I have witnessed one of Bui Xuan Phai Cheo’s paintings was paid 70.000 USD by an international collector, but the owner just smiled and refused to sell. It is common sense that money cannot be used to measure the value of the art, because numbers cannot tell much, even inaccurate. And some works of other Vietnamese painters might exceed the price of Bui Xuan Phai paintings. But taking into consideration in terms of devoting to the national cultural heritage with variety and outstanding as those of Phai, no one can do like him before and after his age. Up to now, personality and talent of Bui Xuan Phai are still the top of mountain pass that challenges other Vietnamese painter and people realize that it is hard to overcome.
Bui Xuan Phai with nude painting
In painting, nude topic has been seen ups and downs and was taken very close watch. Some people like to see, some like to draw, but for some people, as mentioning about nude they sake their head an turn conversation. But this topic still exists for hundreds of years. It can be said that every painter does nude painting more than once.
Nude painting started its journey from Europe to Ecole des Beaux Arts d'Indochine in Hanoi. Nude women topic also infiltrated and occupied the heart and mind of painters who graduated from this school; however, it was not fully exploited as in the Europe. From the beginning, painters just only did “light” topics such as motherhood, Girl by tuberoses… The reason was that during the 1930s, Vietnamese society was not fully liberated from feudal rites. The concept of “no touch between opposite sex” was so prevalent that nude painting was impossible (with the naked figure in the guestroom). Cleavage like Le Mur long dress (Ao dai Le Mur) was also too cool.
In the modern art market, nude painting is always hot and vogue topic. Some artists take nude paintings as a reason or basic to express their aesthetic idea. But some do it not for that purpose, but for describing the beauty of woman, from body to face. That is the case of Modigliani. Among the painters so far, no painter is able to draw woman as beautiful as Modigliani. Talking about this talented painter with nude painting, whoever well-informed of painting is highly admired the talent of handsome and vagabond artist (he died very young, 37 years old).
Did Vietnamese painters like nude painting? The answer was yes. But the lack of condition of model and workshop made them unable to do it or if they could, they did it without model. Nude painting had been seen in some painters, but seeing their paintings viewers had come to realize that they made it up and no model. Therefore, their works are usually superficial, less communicative and hard to be persuasive aesthetically and sexually.
Painter Bui Xuan Phai fond of nude painting topic and he did quite a lot. This topic had been extensively exploited by him during the 1960s of the last century. By that time, Bui Xuan Phai was at age of forty, so he was at the peak of creativity energy as well as passion for the beauty of women body. Almost all of his nude paintings were real (with model). At that time, he usually came to his friend’s house that had workshop to draw. His groups often comprised of 3 to 4 painters. They shared money to hire model for painting. Nearly half century past, but his friends still recalled famous and beautiful models at that time such as miss Thom, miss Hoa…
It seemed contrary that old, good-natured and shy painter Bui Xuan Phai had surprised people by his small nude paintings. Gestures that he drawn by heart had become Phai’s specifics and typical for Vietnamese women: hunching backs, pants under hips while prepare bathing, girls of Ho Xuan Huong poem that makes “gentlemen do not want to leave… ”. He said: “ my nude paintings were just passed ideas that belonged to the past”. However, as seeing his paintings, it was supposed that Bui Xuan Phai was the person who took great pains on practicing drawing. It was said that he was the best painter on drawing. Therefore, his imagination was so magnificent due to the fact that he was so absorbed and familiar with each rhythm and curve in the body of a woman. And we also knew that how powerful as the energy was suppressed. The older the age the more painting on erotic was usual. Picasso is the typical one.
Artist Phuong introduced to you some paintings of Bui Xuan Phai on nude topic that after finishing, he hurriedly faced it down against the wall because the house was small and many children went in and out his workshop, including me.
Abstract painting of Bui Xuan Phai
What is art? Bui Xuan Phai always sought for the answer by different ways, from figurative or non-figurative. He was absorbed in searching for the true value of art with experiments in abstract works. In this topic, viewers recognized that it was not exaggerating to be worldly-wise or it was not using too much art techniques to make it complicated and hard to understand, all abstract works in this topic were carefully and seriously drawn. Seeing abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai, people realized that he was so influenced by Street. Some people wanted to name the series of abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai as “Street unconscious”. It seemed reasonable that Bui Xuan Phai had expanded the feeling of viewer to infinity. You can find the signs of street with roofs, gables, windows, trees, sun and some human figures in the abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai.
There was an abstract paintings exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai in 87 Thuoc Bac street. In this exhibition, for the first time, 37 abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai had been displayed for public viewer of the capital. This topic, together with nude painting, was categorized as “taboo” at the time Bui Xuan Phai lived. By that time, when finished, painter had to face it down again the wall or put it into trunk. I remembered, whenever Bui Xuan Phai finished a series of abstract paintings, he only opened the tin trunk where he kept nude and abstract paintings for very close friends who familiar with art to see them. When seeing these abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai, I suddenly recalled the image of Bui Xuan Phai opening the tin trunk, taking out each painting and introducing to his friends. And I could hear them whisper, discuss and comment excitingly, together with giggle sometimes…
Note: abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai in the art market had become abstract and hard to understand as themselves, because of the surprise it made as it triggering the passion and excitement of the international collector. Almost all abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai were hunted and bought by international collector. Up to now, there are only 2 or 3 abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai in Viet Nam that belonged to collector Tran Hau Tuan who is now living in Sai Gon.
Bui Xuan Phai with Tet painting
It was not known exactly when Bui Xuan Phai drawing Tet painting. It was known that the first painting “Teacher” was done on the Tet of 1957. Since then, as spring comes he often began new-year drawing with various topics: teacher, drunken old man, girl embracing flower, still-life… but mainly teacher painting. In “Teacher” Tet painting of Bui Xuan Phai, viewer realized that he manifested the spirit of the painting according to the mood of each year. It could be the feeling of the viewer so that they categorized and named for each “Teacher” Tet painting of Bui Xuan Phai as: large customer teacher, drunken teacher… In each “Teacher” painting, the most interesting and also valuable thing are the signature of the author.
For the photographer Tran Van Luu, Bui Xuan Phai had given him more favor than other friends by giving him and his family a large-size poster to welcome New Year. About the Tet painting for Mr. Luu, it was funny and lively: if it is the year of the Horse, the painter drawn Mr. Luu leading the hours; if it is the year of buffalo, the painter drawn Mr. Luu riding buffalo; ; if it is the year of goat, the painter drawn Mr. Luu embracing goat. For the year of tiger, because Mr. Luu was passed away, so I missed the chance to ask Mr. Luu how Bui Xuan Phai drawing Mr. Luu by the tiger. It is because that in the 12 animal designation series, tiger was missed.
Not until the country re-united in 1975, as some of his friends moved to Ho Chi Minh city, the hand-drawing greeting card of Bui Xuan Phai began to appear. The reason was that he received greeting card from his friend in the South and he needed to reply to them. He sent the letter with the hand-drawing greeting card with saying Happy New Year to Lưu Công Nhân, Trần Trung Tín, Thái Tuấn. Trần Văn Nuôi...Gradually, friends in Hanoi loved it and as usual habit, before Tet, they passed by Thuoc Bac street to give him pack of tea or bottle of wine and asked him for hand-drawing Happy New Year card.
At the time of Bui Xuan Phai, as Tet comes, people had the habit of buying pre-printed card “New year, New victory”, then write the greeting words on the back. Hand-drawing greeting card was rarely used. Only Bui Xuan Phai did so in this time. But Bui Xuan Phai only gave hand-drawing greeting card for those in the artistic community. For several times, painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem presented Bui Xuan Phai very nice Tet painting of 12 animals. As I remembered the Tet painting class was done for fun and for souvenir. Collectors only paid their attention to the stature works, no one ever asked or ordered Tet painting. Even painter did it, it was not for sale. They did it just for souvenir.
Last year, Sotheby’s had introduced the New year greeting card of Bui Xuan Phai and sold with the price of 6.000 USD. This was the highest price known for the hand-drawing greeting card of Bui Xuan Phai. The size of this painting was just as small as envelop that he did it as new year come for his friends.
Of the 12 animals, there are two which specifically fond of by Bui Xuan Phai and he drawn them quite a lot, that are cat and horse. For horse only, it has presented in many important works of Bui Xuan Phai.
Drunken old men topic was also favorite one of Bui Xuan Phai as spring comes. He often begins new year drawing by drunken old men painting. It was not clear that whether he wanted to be drunk all year around or not, but for the passion of art he was really drunk all the year.
Remembering as Bui Xuan Phai drawing, suddenly comes the voice of writer Tran Le Van from the door:
- Mr. Phai, drunken old men died. This Tet has no fun without drunken old man.
Hearing that, Bui Xuan Phai started, he asked his friend in a thunderstruck voice:
- Who die? Which drunken old man?
Writer Tran Le Van told him:
- Last time, you gave me drunken old man painting. I took it home. As passing by West lake, strong wind blew away the painting. So drunken old man jumped into the lake and disappeared.
Now Bui Xuan Phai understood. He smiled and replied:
- I will give you another one. That drunken old man is still in mine. It cannot be lost. I just wave my hand and then he appears. It is easy.
The first and the last Street painting
Phai’s painting lover is everywhere but very few people has the chance to have their own eyes contemplating these artworks. Recently, a rare exhibition named “Works of Bui Xuan Phai over time” held in Goethe Institute, Hanoi to celebrate his 90th birthday has brought about fresh feeling to viewer. At this exhibition, though 36 paintings from family collection, Tran Hau Tuan and Bui Quoc Chi collector are unremarkable numbers, but it is the great effort of the artwork owner presenting to the painting lover, in which there is meaningful painting: Hang Phen street.
All his life, Bui Xuan Phai draws a lot of paintings with various topics, but the most successful one is the lacquer painting. During his study in Ecole des Beaux Arts d' Indochine, his work has been sent abroad to participate in an exhibition in Tokyo when he was very young in terms of both age and carrier. Lacquer painting “Hang Phen street” has been sold immediately at that time. But it was pretty pity that no one knew where it was and people only knew that this was the first painting he sold and also the first painting about street topic. By that time, he was 20 years old. But it was his deep concern because, until now, nobody knows where the original of “Hang Phen street”. The loss of trace of “Hang Phen street” painting made him so sad.
Later, in the end years of his life lying on the bed, struggling against the lung cancer, he redrew the “Hang Phen street” painting. It was a bit pity that the painting was unfinished. At present, that unfinished painting is in the collection of Tran Hau Tuan collector. Until the end of his life, it was the concern of the artist whose life stick with Hanoi. It was not the sadness about his first one that made the mark to the world painting, but also the sadness about the corner street of Hanoi that could not be seen. Passing by Hang Phen, Hang Mam street … people can see now the poles, roofs and also Hanoi girls, but people cannot find the silence, lonesome of the street corners of the old Hanoi that presented in the painting of Bui Xuan Phai. That is the reason why the Hang Phen street painting would never finish.
From the 1960s of the last century, at the age of 40, he was recognized as the master painter in the Vietnamese painting with the new painting language. Thousands of paintings, ten thousands of houses, hundreds of portrays… under his drawing seem containing strange spirit with specific tempo and hidden love about Hanoi. That is the reason why Phai’s street painting lovers want to seek and keep his drawing. It is just to keep for future generation to see the beauty of Hanoi that has dim sadness but full of memories and love.
The last drawing of Bui Xuan Phai for himself was his foot. The paragraph “while sick, time passes by slowly! Especially dawn” was placed near the foot, on the sketch, expressing slightly as the breath of people setting foot on the boundary of the death and live. That foot has gone through many ups and downs of time.
Emergency exit of Bui Xuan Phai
In a opening ceremony of illustrator and small painting exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai, Mr. Kim Sang Ug – Director of Cultural Center of Korea in Hanoi talked with me via charming and enthusiastic female interpreter.
Mr. Lim Hong Jae said: “I am so impressed with painter Bui Xuan Phai, teacher Bui Xuan Phai and also Bui Xuan Phai humanism, especially his portraits. It shown the special attention as well as the deep understanding that painter dedicated to human. Many of his works seemed made up with a smile”.
As seeing the illustrator for book and magazine, connoisseur all understood that it was the sideline job of Bui Xuan Phai that helped him earn the living during the hardship. By that time, illustrator drawing was considered the main source of income for him. It was very illustrators placed every day in the newspapers that made his name publicly known from long time ago, not the stature artistic works.
The highest international prize that he won was the Gold prize for drawing (Leipzig- Democratic Republic of Germany, prize for drawing, illustrator for “Cheo clown” book in 1982). Therefore, it can be said that, illustrator of Bui Xuan Phai accounted for important part in his carrier. That is also the exit for Bui Xuan Phai to public. When alive, he drew at least 2 to 3 illustrators a week on newspapers. If counting from 1952 to 1988, the number of illustrators was so huge.
There was reason that Bui Xuan Phai had the habit and fond of drawing small-size painting. Today, a lot of people are interested in the “mini-painture” of Bui Xuan Phai, but little knew why the author did it. At the time of Bui Xuan Phai, not only the painter was poor, but also the art lover. Even they were poorer than him. But the art of Bui Xuan Phai had fascinated people, therefore, those small paintings were the answer to respond to the sentiment that people gave to his art. It is easy to understand that small painting would use less paint, quicker and the painter would have more time for other paintings. Right from that time, this small painting was called, in funny way, emergency exit of Bui Xuan Phai.
Guest often asked the small painting that was almost in the palm as souvenir when visited his house. Bui Xuan Phai took out brush and paint, then finish with ease. His way of drawing, for those knowledgeable in art judged that: the faster the drawing, the nicer the painting and especially the most moved paintings was when he was drunk. He said: “when jump into drawing, I need wine just for both igniting and helping myself more confident and venturous”.
Today, experts in Phai’s painting when looking at each painting of Bui Xuan Phai can estimate how much he had drank.
It is an additional information about “mini-painture” on the pack of cigarette, matchbox or on the small carton. Bui Xuan Phai did it partly because of humoring his friend and it was also one of his pleasures that consume less time and material. At that time, fan of Phai’s painting was pleased as he gave them some mini-painture, and they also respected his artistic work. They normally did not take it for free. In return, they gave him a bottle of wine, pack of tea or tobacco. For Mr. Bong in Hang Buom Street, due to the fact that he is painting collector, therefore, the more Bui Xuan Phai gave him, the more Mr. Bong wants. Later on, Bui Xuan Phai though that it was enough, he stopped give him painting. So Mr. Bong found another way. He called each “mini-painture” a coupon (coupon for eating Pho). He visited Bui Xuan Phai each evening. If he saw nice “mini-painture”, he took that painting and shouted: “here the coupon” and put it into his pocket and invite painter to eat Pho at late night.
At present, the price of each coupon (painting on the cigarette pack of Bui Xuan Phai) is up to 1.000 USD. That is the price paid by the collector, and then who knows that painting will be sold at which price.
Some people, due to economic reason, had no choice to sell such “mini-painture” of Bui Xuan Phai for foreign collector. I have heard some moved stories from Bui Xuan Phai’s friends of how they have to break up with these paintings. One of Bui Xuan Phai’s friends, Mr. Sanh Thi, told me in tears:
- I did not believe that Mr. Phai had fed me during the last years of my life.
I remembered such mini paintings were called “mini-painture” in French by writer Nguyen Tuan. Sometimes, Nguyen Tuan visited Bui Xuan Phai and said:
- Please give me some “mini-painture” for the foreign guest who is coming to Hanoi to see me.
The presence of “mini-painture” of Bui Xuan Phai had impressed the foreigners. They love his mini paintings and called it “bijou” (jewelry) as they want to say that though its size is small, but its value is big. According to Mrs. Don Thu, the manager of No.7 Hang Khay gallery (from 1980): Mr. Blanche Maison alone, former ambassador of French, had bought up to 200 mini paintings of Bui Xuan Phai.
I only repainted my dream
Bui Xuan Phai artist painted a painting of a naked young girl sleeping on roofs of Hanoi’s ancient quarter. The picture amazed viewers. People wondered and asked him to explain more clearly about his ideas on the painting. Bui Xuan Phai answered: I only repainted my dream and I myself wondered why I had that dream”.
An officer of Vietnam Fine Art, after submitting France’s invitation letter and Phai’s aspiration to authorities, received a result that Phai was not permitted to exit. The officer advised Phai to refuse the invitation under the pretext of flu.
As a result, Bui Xuan Phai missed the trip to France that year, though his health was in a condition. He therefore has regretted for a long time and I still saw him moaning with his friends. There was time, one of his friends; Văn Cao musician comforted him with a joke: Your flu is a contemporary flu. His friends hearing that burst out laughing.
Several years after that, in 1988 he was permitted to travel to the West thanks to mobilization of CCFD organization and action of French government; however, he failed to realize his dreams! If Bui Xuan Phai said, “I believe in my fate”, then his fate is actually unfair to him! Even when he received invitation from France together with official permission of the Vietnamese State and he did have the flight ticket, the death still brought him away. He died of lung cancer on June 24th, 1988 at the age of 68. Taking about Phai’s missed trip to France, people said “It is a thousand pities for Bui Xuan Phai, art and for Vietnam”. It sounds logical, as French wanted to organize an art exhibition for Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings in Paris at that time.
I know that Bui Xuan Phai missed chances to realize his two biggest dreams in life; one is a Studio – a private room for him to mix painting tools without any outside interference in his own world. He often felt angry when his folks arranged the tools in order. He said, “His disorder was an order to him as he could find what he needed”. He painted thousands of ancient quarter’s paintings, created tens thousands of houses in paintings, but he could not build up a real Studio for his own. After all, Phai’s dreams are not too big for his life and talent to realize, the real reason is due to his time. At the same time of Bui Xuan Phai, numbers of other talents met no less difficulties compared to him. Nowadays, only with some of his paintings sold, they can easily buy a house, which he has ever dreamed about during his whole life.
Visiting France is his second dream. He would visit the most world famous museum-Louvre and paid a visit to Picasso’s house, where he lived and worked. Bui Xuan Phai said he was an excited fan to Picasso’s art. His life dreams could be realized easily in paintings exactly as he said, "I only repainted my dreams".
I only know how to build houses in paintings
I participated in organizing the first and only personal exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai in 1984. This was a successful and impressive exhibition to the public. Never before had any exhibitions sold more paintings and earned more money than his exhibition in Vietnam. 24 paintings were sold out right in its inauguration ceremony.
In those days, people had no concepts of dollar bill and they measured values of art works in gold tael. Normally, a painting of 60cm X 80cm of Bui Xuan Phai was worth two taels at that time, and one tael for a smaller one; however, with one and two taels of gold, one family would be considered rich at that time. And with one troy ounce of gold, the family must explain to authorities why they had unless they would be charged with dubious property storage.
At the end of that day, we collected 2.5 taels of gold. My mother was very happy; meanwhile Bui Xuan Phai was so worried. He said “So much money! I don’t know what to do with the amount?” I therefore replied quickly to calm him down: “I will call some masons to build up our family kitchen tomorrow so that we don’t have to share common kitchen with others as our family’s longing”. Bui Xuan Phai gave a nod of assent.
While the masons were constructing a small kitchen in the yard (our family’s use area), authorities came to stop our construction and summoned Bui Xuan Phai to their offices to clarify issues mentioned in a letter of complaint they received. I explained to them that I myself implemented the construction not Bui Xuan Phai; however, they did not listen to me, because in case of receiving any letters of complaint, in principal, they would summon head of the household.
Bui Xuan Phai came to their offices in bewilderment, as he did not know how to answer. He told them “in my whole life, I only know to build houses in paintings. Building real houses belong to my folks’ business, and only they know answers to solve the problem,” I was then summoned. I explained to them that our living area had a common kitchen for three households; I therefore built up a new kitchen for my family instead of sharing the kitchen with the two other families. Then the authorities told the two other households about the fact and they were so happy because both of them could share the whole big kitchen. Immediately, they and my mansions divided the kitchen in two halves. It proved a fact that no one likes to share anything with the public, collectives, especially kitchens and toilets in daily life.
After solving the issue satisfactorily, in one day, chairman of my ward met me and whispered: “Normally, to reach goals, people should do “something”. I have no intentions, but actually I really want to have a painting of Phai as a souvenir”. In those days, Phai’s paintings were only for memory; his paintings were used for entertainment and no one wanted to buy them. I came back home and told Bui Xuan Phai about his aspiration. Bui Xuan Phai smiled and said “We should know what topic he is interested in to give him a painting “I then came to ask the chairman: “What topics do you like, Street or Cheo (Traditional Opera)?” He said loudly “Street”
The painting that Bui Xuan Phai gave the chairman was “Hang Bac Street”. After Phai’s death, collectors knew the story and often came to persuade him to sell the painting at a very high price. However, the ex-chairman always replied them that “The painting is my memory with Bui Xuan Phai artist.”
The smallest “Studio” in the world of a well-known artist
The house at No. 87 of Thuốc Bắc Street was built a very long time ago that no one could remember exactly the year it was constructed because it was built after Bui Xuan Phai’s birth. Phai lived with his family on Hang Thiec Street before that time. His childhood passed by on Hang Thiec Street, and he learnt at Trí Tri School on Hang Quat Street. The school could be called the oldest one in Hanoi (currently its name is changed into Nguyễn Văn Tố).
When studying at secondary school, his family moved to the house no 87 of Thuốc Bắc Street. Based on the information, we could define that the house was built in 1935, when Bui Xuan Phai was 15 years old. The house was built in French architecture, designed by Bui Xuan Phai’s brother after he finished his architecture study in France.
To know previous “condition” of the house, I redeemed almost compartments in the house (grandfather sold, grandson redeemed), and it is necessary to understand that most of Hanoi’s houses before 1954 were built for each family household to live. Therefore, each compartment has its own functions such as living room, dining room, bedroom, stock... However, when taking over the Capital, people broke down the standard by filling up one compartment with one household. As a result, the households had to extend, occupy outside areas, creating the only chaotic architecture style in the world. After buying some compartments at no 87, Thuoc Bac Street, my first job is to “return the first condition to the house” I had mansions to bust all old parts that did not belong to the house’s first architecture.
Phai’s society was in a too hard condition! People would be very surprised if knowing that Bui Xuan Phai only had more than 1m2 of area – a too “small” working corner for such a hardworking and creative artist with unforgettable paintings like him. He also had a private attic, which was not only hot, dark but also stuffy. Every day, he therefore painted in the house corner on a table and chair set for guests. People visited him at that time often saw him talking with guests, drinking wine and painting at the same time. Almost every day, he was visited by guests of different working fields. After getting drunk, they quarreled with each other. As a host, Bui Xuan Phai had to “tolerate” and stand in between to conciliate.
Many times, he complained: “I wish to have a Studio to paint and to hide myself from people”. Because there was only one room in the house, guests therefore caught Bui Xuan Phai right after they came to the house, and he could not hide. As there was no standard Studio, rarely did Bui Xuan Phai paint oil paintings of big size. Whenever he wanted to paint the big ones, he had to carry canvas and all his painting tools to the common yard to paint. Therefore, he was bothered by neighboring children as they came to see, disturb and steal his painting tools. As a result, whenever he tried to focus on completing a painting of big size (for exhibitions), he would get sick, one part because of losing energy, another part due to anger with the children. His most favorite working place was the house corner, I am sure that is the smallest “Studio” in the world for a well-known artist.
The Studio is a life dream of Bui Xuan Phai, but he missed chances to realize the simple dream forever.
A passed period
Bui Xuan Phai said, “When viewing paintings, do not believe in art critics, as they are wrong right at the first time. They use languages, the tool different from art, not shapes and pigments”. He then smiled in a humorous way. In Bui Xuan Phai’s period, artists hesitated to view paintings with inferences. Any paintings would have some problem and their artist would be involved in complications if people commented the paintings in many different ways. That may be the reason why “maitre” never discusses their paintings and arts whenever they meet. They often comment on art tendencies in the world.
Following are one of Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings, which were commented badly in Nhan Van – Giai Pham’s period. People blamed artists that they described life of new regime with a gloomy and pessimistic look: one wearing a palm-leaf raincoat, stand in rain tremblingly, even a bull has no grass on the field to eat, a banyan without leaves, looks like a monster, ranging its scrubby branches to every where... At present, reviewing the paintings, those things sound funny to us as people inferred them all. All of the ideas were beyond composing concepts of artists. Even they had wanted to; they could not have transferred all in art works.
A friend of Bui Xuan Phai told me about “Ô Quan Chưởng” painting (known as one of the nicest paintings of Bui Xuan Phai), which was commented by an officer before opening an exhibition: “Oh, Is this called a painting?! – crossed two hands after his back, the officer stand long before the painting to view– Is Hanoi the capital of Vietnam, a country developing to Socialism or a dead city? You see: Hanoi city has no person, only blazing sun with full flamboyant felling down like blood, a cyclo also has no rider... If only had the painting some cranes in the background with a hint that we were constructing, we then could accept it, but...!” The painting immediately was rejected from the exhibition. After telling the story, Bui Xuan Phai’s friend commented, “I feel so sorry for our country’s artists at that time. They did not want to oppose or hint at, harass anything. They only wanted to live in peace to do their favorite jobs. Yet they could not realize it!”
Bui Xuan Phai did not like metaphoric painting style or filling up paintings with ideas. He said that a painting should not function as literature to transfer ideas that made it worse, more stressful, easily melodramatic and mediocre.
“In dyeing workshop” painting was displayed in the first personal exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai in 1984. A Mexican viewer asked me a very rare question: “Which painting is the most expensive in the exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai?” I pointed out the painting “In dyeing workshop”. He then asked “Why is it the most expensive one meanwhile in my opinion, it is not the most beautiful one in the exhibition?” I explained: “Simply as I do not want to sell it.”
The “In dyeing workshop” painting has ever been a victim of inference. Firstly, its layout was different, a round shaped machine like a well on the left of the painting, and a male worker was leaning his hand beside it. Viewers commented that, why the male worker did nothing but leaning on the well. His salary was so little for him to live on that he wanted to oppose. Hearing the opinions, Bui Xuan Phai removed the male worker from the painting to avoid complications. Nowadays, looking at the painting again, I feel so pity as its first layout makes the painting more vivid and removal of the male worker “leaning his hand on the well” affected its rhythm balance.
“Hanoi of years 46” painting was painted by Bui Xuan Phai in 1966 and shown in an exhibition in the same year. The painting was criticized strictly on a newspaper at that time writing that its painter still remembered longingly boring, gloomy and old remains. Art of the spirit could not go with development of new time. Finally, the “bad art critic” concluded in one sentence “Two soldiers in the painting bring fuzzy content for the painting only, actually Bui Xuan Phai paint them as a pretext to paint ancient quarter”. The critic was LTD artist (I am still keeping the newspaper). However, it was so funny that the artist in the final years of his life paid regular and close visits to Bui Xuan Phai with his admiration to Bui Xuan Phai’s talent.
There was a time; artistic literature was sensed with inference, which affected negatively on it. What are purposes of the negative inference? The stupid people said so irresponsibly that authors were disappointed, fearful and then lost their creative inspiration.
Oil lamp in Bui Xuan Phai’s painting
Small kerosene lamp were also discovered its art beauty by painter, Bui Xuan Phai. In the time of Bui Xuan Phai, none of artist spent their time and effort to describe things so simple that anybody had several items. And in exhibitions at that time, we never made space for such still-life paintings because they did not even reflect any content, struggle, labor, production or the party. For Bui Xuan Phai, however, it inspired and accounted for a large segment of the massive volume of his paintings.
Talking about the Small kerosene lamp or Miniature Oil Lamp, the younger generation may be bewildered, or even could not imagine what it was. The Small kerosene lamps or Miniature Oil Lamps were almost no longer used because in this era, people have used electric lighting.
From the early 20th century, when the Shell petroleum company (at that time, it is called “shell” firm) from the United States sold oil in Vietnam. Our people were familiar with peanut oil lamps; therefore, firstly it was difficult for “Shell” company to sell oil. But those who sold oil devised a very strange way that we now call “marketing”: Giving the lamp away to the people. They had lamps without oil and if people want to use such “god sent” lamps, it was forced to buy oil. Shell Company sold oil and our people had so handy lamps for lighting. It was convenient for everyone. That lamp have been still called the Small kerosene lamp or Miniature Oil Lamp (in the South) Such lamps quickly became so familiar that almost every family had several kerosene lamps in the house, the kitchen. Although the gas lighter of the modern industry has filled all alleys and streets, but today, in several night tea shops in Hanoi, nostalgic persons still like to get fire from the Small kerosene lamp to light cigarette. And particularly, if that pipe smoking is not lit from such oil lamps is considered uninteresting any more. The pleasure of smokers would decrease by over half.
Antiquarian, for many years, has launched a hunt for ancient oil lamps called elder lamp with their age. These things seemed to throw in the trashcan have made people suddenly startled to hear a “terrible” price for each ancient oil lamp.
Now, there has been no longer life with oil lamps, death with clarinet and drum, but the lamp oil would not disappear for that. On contrast, today, collectors have eagerly hunted aggressively oil lamps for the collections, for expensive interior décor of the restaurants, villas in large cities. Collectors of ancient oil lamps, said: with two hundred thousand, it is able to begin collection of the first oil lamp for his collection, but if you would like to have a sophisticated lamp, it forced more expensive. Beautiful lamps often cost from three to five million. Royal hanging oil lamps originated from the luxurious living rooms of mandarin’s houses often cost two to three thousand dollars.