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For centuries, Vietnamese scholars practiced calligraphy and composed poetry. Unlike Japanese, Korean and other Asian counterparts, they did not paint. Vietnamese classical art was the work of anonymous masters who eked out their existence creating for pagodas, temples in villages across the country. When the French opened the Indochina School of Fine Arts in Hanoi in 1925, painting both in a sense of a profession in Western society and as an Eastern Confucian path to self-fulfillment was largely unknown to Vietnamese intellectuals.
The time period from 1925 to 1945 was considered the formative years of modern Vietnamese art. French artist Victor Tardieu, principle founder of the Indochina School of Fine Arts, and his teachers taught a young generation of Vietnamese artists Western art techniques, European oil material, and aesthetic. Different from the craftsmen of the ancient Vietnamese folk-painting streams Dong Ho and Hang Trong, students were encouraged to form their own artistic styles. For the first time Vietnamese artists signed their name on their work, taking credit and ownership for their creations. Many of the works of this first generation of Vietnamese artists and graduates from Indochina School of Fine Arts were very successful at International exhibitions in Paris (1931), Rome (1932), Belgium (1935) and Japan (1940).
Bui Xuan Phai was the last generation of graduates from the Indochina School of Fine Arts. Together with Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Duong Bich Lien, they formed the “Four Pillars” that greatly influenced the development of Vietnamese modern art.
Phai was born on September 1st, 1920 into a typical Confucian family. His father, Bui Xuan Ho, was educated under the French colonial system and held a number of influential government posts. He instilled the pride of the family’s intellectual tradition in his children. Phai’s father was an honest and hard-working official and a philanthropist. He saw that illiteracy led people to backwardness and slavery, and witnessed humiliation and miseries of the less educated people in his time. Bui Xuan Ho wanted his children to have a good education and follow in their grandfather’s footsteps to be a physician in order to help the poor and the sick. This dream was later realized by Phai’s younger brother Bui Xuan Tam.
The desire to become an artist came to Phai at a young age. As a teenager, he drew cartoons for newspapers and with the small royalties received he secretly enrolled in a preparation course at the Indochina School of Fine Arts in 1936. At the time in Vietnam, painting was not considered a prestigious profession. Those who pursued an education to be a man of letters had their names carved into a stone stelae and returned to their home village as heroes after passing the state examination. Up to that time no painter had obtained such an honour. Making a living as a painter was not different from that of a carpenter or any other trade. Perhaps bound by this prejudice, his father was very unhappy with Bui Xuan Phai. But before Bui Xuan Ho passed away he learned that Phai, then a 20-year-old student at the Indochina School of Fine Arts had sold his first painting and that his work had been selected for an exhibition in Tokyo in 1940.
Bui Xuan Phai returned to the School of Fine Arts as a lecturer from 1956 to 1957. However, because of his involvement with the “Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm” Affair (Humanities and Bell Lettres), a movement by intellectuals in North Vietnam demanding freedom of speech, creativity and human rights, he was sent to re-education camp by the North Vietnamese government. Although he loved teaching and the artistic interaction with his students, Phai was asked to resign from his teaching post. This was one of the harshest moments in his life. His loss of a steady income that enabled him to support his family was equally painful. He was not allowed to show his arts in public until his solo exhibit in 1984, almost 30 years later.
Bui Xuan Phai did many self-portraits that served as a purpose for self-reflection. In life, his beard was silvery white and his hair was black. Once he wittily explained, “Our hair is black because our heads are sufficiently enriched and our beards become white because of lack of food!”
While facing many economic difficulties, he remained devoted to art. Painting was a means for Phai to communicate his world to others. Among all of the artists of his generation, Bui Xuan Phai created more art work than anyone else. He painted and sketched thousands and thousands of pieces using any medium that was available to him. His canvas varied from the inside of a matchbook cover, to cigarette packaging, to a piece of cardboard. Some of his most monumental works were painted on newsprint. He believed that an artist needed to be able to paint under any circumstances. If oil paint was unavailable, he sketched with pencils. He thought that even when nothing was available, an artist should always continue to paint in his mind. The most dangerous thing, Phai thought, was an artist losing the desire to paint.
Bui Xuan Phai not only painted, he was one of the rare Vietnamese artists that maintained a journal and meticulously built an archive of supporting material for his work. His recorded, private thoughts reflected his views on art and beauty, how to get closer to the essence of art, and how to make painting more beautiful. Phai never intended to lecture others about art or make a declaration of any sort. The thoughts in his journal were more about self-improvement as an artist and as a human being in general. His writings offer us a glimpse of the complex changes and discovery in his journey, and all the hardship that he overcame. His personal memoir is the hidden part beneath the iceberg, the creative strength and rationale behind the remarkable legacy of the thousands of masterpieces he left behind.
Bui Xuan Phai wrote, “Style is a form of sincerity. Your style is what you are. Hence it is such a bad thing to imitate any style. Your vision (like a pair of glasses) must be your own rather than borrowed!” It’s true that if everyone copied Leonardo da Vinci, then we would never have a Pablo Picasso or the uniqueness of Salvador Dalí. He also said, “Research real life. Only from the thorough research of reality can you go further into art.” Bui Xuan Phai was an artist that understood the intellectual rigor of knowing his subject. Phai only expressed true feelings, he only painted what was real. Through his art, Phai did not talk about things he did not thoroughly understand, never drew things where he had not fully seen the truth. Although, Bui Xuan Phai was very successful with portraits, rural landscapes, nudes and Cheo (Vietnam’s popular opera), he was most well-known for his depictions of Hanoi’s Old Quarter – the art-loving community affectionately refers to it as “Pho Phai” (Phai’s streets).
Bui Xuan Phai lived in Hanoi for a long time. He had intimate knowledge of the structure of the city, the people and society in the 20th century. Every day, Phai was seen strolling the streets of Hanoi and whenever necessary he stopped and made recordings in a small handbook. He rarely painted right on the street, most of his street paintings were from memory. According to Phai, painting is not about taking notes, it’s not about accurately measuring things. An artist uses his heart and mind to analyze reality and transfer the results into works that involve artistic imagination and emotion. He thought if too much emphasis was on making an accurate visual recording then the painting would have little intrinsic artistic character. This purpose is better served by photography. The beauty of the painting primarily depends on the creativity of the artist. Phai’s streets are familiar yet different. People quickly recognize the scenery depicted because they are real, yet different because they are seen through the eyes of Phai, the simple daily life of Vietnam in 20th century society is being told in Phai’s own perspective. Many different stories on the same street were conveyed with Phai’s creative vision and deep sentiment. The walls of the old structures can easily be dismissed as dirty, but those stains, those marks of time, combined with Phai’s imagination and emotion, offer an unexpected sense of beauty.
Phai had great admiration for many European masters such as Picasso, Chagall, Matisse. His wish was to be able to visit the Louvre in Paris as well as the house where Picasso lived and worked. When he finally got an invitation to come to Paris to do an exhibition, and officially received permission from the Vietnamese government to travel abroad, Phai was diagnosed with lung cancer. His health deteriorated quickly and he died within months on June 24, 1988. Perhaps too tired to look up, he drew his feet and a bottle of serum hanging at the end of the hospital bed before taking his last breath. Phai continued to create what was real until the very end.
A lot of things have changed in Vietnam. Many artists can now make a decent living. Hanoi’s Old Quarter may not seem so ancient with KFC and Dunkin’ Donuts signs everywhere as Vietnam rapidly tries to adopt elements of Western culture and ways of life. Through his work, Bui Xuan Phai wanted to stay connected with the previous generations of Vietnamese people. And perhaps to understand the development of Vietnamese modern art, we must try to understand the social and political forces that influenced a generation of art that was personal and expressive. As I have spent most of my life abroad, I may never fully understand all the internal repression, the thirst for cultural liberation, and the hardship from economic isolation that Phai and many Vietnamese artists of his generation endured. But through the heart and soul of Phai’s paintings, I feel privileged to be transported to the ancient streets, the moss-covered walls and the old banyan trees. I can see the beauty of Vietnam through the eyes of someone who truly knew it so well and loved it so much.
Bui Xuan Phai passed away almost 30 years ago but his influence is still felt today. Behind all his masterpieces lies a gentle and sensitive soul surviving the hardship of daily life. Accommodating and generous, Phai was not obsessed with the search for a new language; rather, he was impassioned by the expression of sensations. Although Phai’s style is reminiscent of the Paris school that he greatly admired, his artistic sensibility was unmistakably Vietnamese. In viewing his paintings, both Vietnamese and Westerners have been mesmerized by his interior world, his personal vision. It is the sincerity of Phai’s interior world that makes his arts so profoundly Vietnamese.
Bui Xuan Phai preparing for his first and only solo exhibition in 1984. The event was highly anticipated by both the public and art colleagues. It was the most successful exhibition up to that time, with all 24 paintings sold on opening day. At this exhibition Patrice Jorland, the cultural official from the French Embassy, held Phai’s hand with a promise: “When I am back to my country, I’ll try my best to lobby the French government and other organizations for your exhibition in Paris. As long as I’m alive and you are, too, we’ll surely meet again in Paris.” Bui Xuan Phai answered “I believe in fate.” Jorland made good his promise, but fate did Phai an injustice.