Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes – Part I

The letter in wardrobe

In fact, I was almost his adviser and assistant in most of problems that he found it difficult to solve. When talking to each other he used to call me “buddy”, and my mother, for she found this way unreasonable, interfered: “Why do you call him buddy? You’ve made father-and-son talking the way of friends taking”. There is a memory with father that I could never forget. At that time, I was just seventeen. My eyes started facing with problems. I needed short-sighted glasses to see more clearly, but I could not borrow from anybody to buy. With no other choice, in order to have money for it, I made up my mind to open Bui Xuan Phai’s wardrobe to take that amount of money. I wrote a letter, in which I told the reason and promised to pay back money one day. I did hope that I would work for money and would put the money to the place in silence after a week. I would not tell him anything if he did not know about that. Upon having enough money, I opened his wardrobe in confidence to pay that amount of money. However, upon opening it, I found a letter sent to me by Bui Xuan Phai, in which he wrote that in the following time, if I needed money to solve legitimate problems then I could ask him frankly for that. On reading the letter, I was almost crying.

The wedding invitation card valued…USD 4,700

Life is full of strange and confusing things. In order to understand more about this wedding invitation card, I will tell you the story about it. After divorce with the first wife, in 1987, I wanted to remarry. At first, Bui Xuan Phai opposed, I said: “You shall soon divorce and once again you shall make her miserable”. But when I explained that my would-be wife was about to give birth a child, his would-be grandchild, Bui Xuan Phai nodded his head in agreement. After that I suggested my family organize a simple wedding party without hiring car for welcoming the bride. In that day, I had a Baberta (a motorbike made in Czechoslovakia, which is now often used for the poor to carry construction materials but I have heard currently that it has been banned permanently from circulation. But in the 1980s, anyone who owned a Baberta was considered a successful person or a man who had tried his best. In that time, however, this kind of motorbike was also called with another name “Ba bét nhè”). On that day, I was alone on the motorbike with a huge flower bouquet going to the bride’s to welcome her. On seeing that, relatives in her side seemed to feel sorry for me and cooed confidences to each other: “If she wants to get married with an artistry man then she must accept him like that”. But until today, when remembering to that moment, we (my wife and I) are still so proud and happy because we had many memories about the wedding day. We considered it a simple, moved and meaningful wedding. If it was a worth-telling story, it was because the wedding invitation cards: they were drawn by Bui Xuan Phai, one by one. He pleased his son be agreeing to draw 50 small-size pictures. These pictures describe the bride holding a flower bouquet on her hands. Each of these 50 different pictures was unique because in each picture, the bride was dressed a different long dress (ao dai). In that time, I was given only 12 pictures for inviting my friends. Bui Xuan Phai also drew 12 other pictures for himself for inviting his friends. The remaining guesses were invited collectively by both two families. The party was held at Phu Gia restaurant and on that day I arranged a twelve-seat table for Bui Xuan Phai to sit with his friends. But because Mr. Bong Hang Buom wanted to have two invitation cards, he called for writer Nguyen Huy Thiep to the party. Therefore, the 13th seat was arranged for that table. I feel regret and sorry that at that time I did not have someone taken a photo of Bui Xuan Phai talking and feasting with his friends, who were sitting around him at that long table. Bui Xuan Phai was formerly referred to as Jesus by his friends because of his beard and thin face, so to me, that image resembles the famous The Last Super by Leonardo da Vinci. This story was put in an oversea magazine and was named as Hand-drawn wedding invitation cards for the son of Bui Xuan Phai. The editor had a very good intention when he renamed the title, because in the story I had told him I did not clarify that eight months after the party, Bui Xuan Phai passed away unexpectedly due to lung cancer. The reason was that he had smocked too much, both cigarette and makhorka. Therefore, the party on that day was the last party that Bui Xuan Phai had a chance to invite his friends. After he had passed away, people – one by one – kept these wedding cards. Originally, these cards were worth from USD 100 – USD 200, but by this time the price of hand-drawn wedding invitation cards by Bui Xuan Phai has been marked up to the sky in an oversea bidding website. On such old days, among people who received this invitation card, nobody dared to think that one day, its value would be USD 4,700.

Conception about sex in life and art

Bui Xuan Phai was an old man of Hanoi, so he was known as an elegant and in-measure man. Unlike many people of our generation, who often “stay in one place but miss another one”, during his life, he was really an ideal husband. I myself in particular and any others who know Bui Xuan Phai have never heard him talk about any other love-related ladies but his wife, though he was actually a fair man and very attractive to women. He was too “honest” in his behaviors to himself and to women that he knew. And he did complete what he had written in bold in his Diary of Art that “to keep the soul pure is the best way to the art”. But to other people, he seemed to be very open and more modern. I remember when I was young and I dated with my girl friend. One time I took my girl friend to a small room by climbing to it, like the way of guerilla, and turned off the lamp. It was unfortunate for me that we were seen by one of my neighbors and that lady came to see Bui Xuan Phai and told him about what had happened. Bui Xuan Phai understood the problem, he smiled and told her “that is their own problem; you and I have no right to interfere them”. Bui Xuan Phai was a good and skillful talker. When talking about sex-related matters, he used to create relaxing atmosphere with easy-going laugh. Thanks to that, sex was no longer a very serious matter to people who were talking to him about it. One time, a young friend visited him with a magazine hidden on hand. On seeing that, Bui Xuan Phai asked: – Buddy, what are you researching by that? The young man stammered badly: – Oh, this is Playboy magazine, which shows all bad photos. Bui Xuan Phai said: – Is this? Let me see how bad they are? Upon reading the magazine, he smiled and asked: – Do you have any thing that is “worse” than this? I wonder in what postures shall they be called “the worst”? Bui Xuan Phai also thought that there were no bad photos but only no-good ones. He said “I would like to see a very ugly photo, the one supposed to be the worst that I have never seen in life”. Perhaps nude pictures are of no difference to artists regardless how pornographic they are; it means that such pictures shall give no side effects to artists and they are just a kind of material supporting for paintings. In art, Bui Xuan Phai was inspired by the last phase of Picasso when this man painted a series on exrotic topic. Among Phai’s works on this topic, people can see such paintings drawn according to poetic ideas of Ho Xuan Huong (form 1982 to 1986) have clearly revealed Phai’s spiritual state. It can be seen that, in his last years in life, aspiration and passion to life and love were still filled in the artist’s soul.

Memory in life

Mr. and Mrs. Bui Xuan Phai met and knew each other when they were kids. Bui Xuan Phai lived at Thuoc Bac Street while she lived at Dinh Tien Hoang Street, facing with Hoan Kiem Lake. They often visited each other’s because her brother-in-law also had family name Bui. Phai was 7 years older than she was. When evacuating to Thanh Hoa, they met again. By that time (after 1945), Thanh Hoa was a “Safe area” and so there were many head offices of Interzone IV locating scatteredly at Nua, Sim mountains and Thieu bridge. There was a café near Thieu Bridge where artists used to visit that was the shop of Ms Phai’s family. Phai was then a painter drawing figures for “Save the nation” and “Happy life” newspapers. According to Pham Duy’s memoir, on those days Pham Duy used to come to the café playing guitar and singing while other poets were crooning their poems but they were not noticed by the owner’s daughter because she had selected the artistry guy with brown eyes and the Westerner-like nose, who often sat thoughtfully enjoying coffee with a cigarette. Later, on talking about the memory of the first time of making a date with Bui Xuan Phai, she said: He came on time, but I was so surprised because he was walking barefoot. I will never forget such an image. His legs were too white but he was actually walking barefoot, what a poor man he was! Then I asked “Why are you walking barefoot?” he was embarrassed on saying that he had forgotten his shoes somewhere and he had been unable to find them, he walked barefoot because he was afraid of breaking the appointment. After getting married to him, just a few people knew her real name as Nguyen Thi Sinh. Others often called her Ms Phai.

Forget his son for painting

One time I was taken to streets in Old Quarters by Bui Xuan Phai when I was five. Suddenly he met a beautiful corner and artistry inspiration came. He quickly took the notebook, which was always with him, to sketch the image of the corner. On concentrating in painting, he actually forgot his little son who was taken by him for the purpose of going for a walk in the streets. When finishing the painting, he went home with deliberate steps. It was not until he came home and my mother asked “Where’s Phuong?” that he realized that he had forgotten his little son at the corner. He immediately rushed to the corner where he had stood for painting to find me, but I was no longer there. I missed the chance of asking Bui Xuan Phai about his feeling that night when I suddenly disappeared. Because I was so small child at that time that I could not remember so much. I was then told by my mother that I was found accidentally by a childless couple when I was crying in that corner. They took me home and fed me. My parents informed to the police and they found me some days later when I was in a small house at Phat Loc lane with a kind couple. It has been nearly half of a century and my mother still told the story sometimes. She said after that time she never wanted Bui Xuan Phai to take any children to anywhere.

Mainstay of a talent

In my memory, Bui Xuan Phai had a “life long-lasting childhood”. His whole life was devoted to passion for art. He was natural and gentle. He loved his children but he did not know how to bath them or how to feed them; he even did not know how his children learned and which grade they were at; he knew nothing about money-related problems or housework. Unstable life, Bui Xuan Phai was a free artist; earning from illustrative paintings and funny paintings was not enough to buy painting, let alone feeding a “landing craft” of the family. I am so surprised and admire the ability of standing hardships of old people. Today, any couple who give birth to 5 children, surely they shall be reduced to destitution. If Bui Xuan Phai could live and create arts, it was because of his wife, Mrs. Phai. My mother was a nurse at the hospital. Every day when finishing work, she came back home and injected medicine for patients. She was very good and lucky at work then she was trusted by people. Customers came to her because she could inject without pain, which was very different if people were injected at a state-owned Medical Aid Station where they were shouted and injected with pain. During dozens of years, that injection tray actually helped Mrs. Phai “feed 5 children and a husband”. Recently, the Central Television (VTV3) has reserved a program to talk about Mrs. Phai whose name is Nguyen Thi Sinh. That film was titled: Mainstay of a Talent.

To visit and supply the painter

In 1958, when Phuong was two, Mother held Phuong in her arms, took elder sister and brother on the train to Nam Dinh to visit and supply Bui Xuan Phai. At that time he was forced to work “3 togethers” with working class for a period of time. Bui Xuan Phai was assigned to joinery to learn carpentry. After this course, a meeting was held at Thong Nhat Square (nearby the Opera House) to synthesize and report on achievements after the “3 togethers” working course. On that day, people were surprised when Bui Xuan Phai reported his achievement by carrying a stool that he had built on his own to the square.

The praying cloth Two times in life, I held my beloved persons in my arms before the time they passed away and I could feel that they were losing the warmness of life. The first time was my elder brother Bui Ky Anh (1954-1978) who died in a traffic accident. And the last time was Bui Xuan Phai. I say “the last time” because I refused for I do not want to hold my beloved person like that anymore. Both in two times, I bought praying cloth for Ky Anh and Bui Xuan Phai. For Bui Xuan Phai, I bought white canvas – the kind of cloth that Bui Xuan Phai had been very close to and liked – to shroud him. That kind of canvas that people used to make protective gloves for workers. I used to buy this kind of canvas to stretch as a préparer toile for him to paint. Grey period Perhaps that difficult period with Bui Xuan Phai’s spiritual state was put into old quarter paintings which carry a long-lasting sadness. If he lived in today time with comfortable life, I would have become another person and his paintings maybe different as well and so, maybe, he would have not been known and admired as such. Therefore, we should not think whether he was lucky or not, happy or sad, pros and cons because it was the destiny of life.

The watch of Bui Xuan Phai

Many people are surprised and feel interesting when seeing the backside of a paper painting of painter Bui Xuan Phai on which he wrote “I shall need a bicycle and a watch”. That was the most difficult time, both in economy and spirit of an artist. Late in the 1960s, the painter could not afford a bicycle and a watch. Despite of that, for the love of art, the passion of researching and showing the simple beauty of daily life, he ignored all daily worries to create simple but thoughtful, deep-lying works. I still remember a fine day in my childhood. On that day, Bui Xuan Phai was given an introduction paper of Vietnam Arts Association which introduced him as a State staff. The paper showed clearly the text “We propose the shop to create conditions for comrade Bui Xuan Phai to buy a watch under your standard”. Without money, the introduction paper was meaningless. It took my mother several days to borrow from relatives an amount of 90 dong for Bui Xuan Phai to buy a watch in a shop at Cua Nam Street. That was a Soviet-made POLJOT brand watch, which worth equivalent to two-month salary of an official at that time. My elder brother Bui Ky Anh and I followed Bui Xuan Phai to the shop. Finally, after queuing and doing procedures, the watch was taken out of the shop. Before going to the shop, my mother had given us a handkerchief and carefully told father we kids that we had to wrap the watch with this handkerchief after buying it from the shop because she was afraid that we would be robbed if father wore it on arm. I was just a little kid and tried hard to follow father and my elder brother. My brother put the watch to the handkerchief and wrapped it as my mother had told him to do so then he put into his pocket and grabbed it tightly. Sometimes father and brother stopped; Ky Anh took the watch out from the pocket with care and he was so serious as if he was doing a religious rituals. Three of us, father and sons, gathered to have a tender look at the watch. On the way home, sometimes I wanted to have a reason to see the watch one more time so I stopped and shouted at him “Father, what time is it now?” Bui Xuan Phai was pleased too, he told my brother “Yes Ky Anh, just take out the watch to see what is the time now?” Bui Xuan Phai lost this POLJOT after a short time when he forgot it in the public bathroom. Until 1979, Mr. Sinh Thanh, who was an art admirer and a well-known watch repair, wanted to have paintings of Bui Xuan Phai and he brought a watch to Bui Xuan Phai and asked to change it for paintings. This watch was called a “Marine” watch because it was very big and quite heavy and because it was manufactured for military and combatants when they had to dive down to the sea. Its value was, told by its owner, about USD 25 at that time. Bui Xuan Phai agreed happily. He told the guest to select any picture in the studio. Mr. Sinh Thanh immediately selected a medium-size oil painting that was the “Hanoi by night”. Bui Xuan Phai used this watch for several days and because it was designed for military, very heavy and big, Bui Xuan Phai did not like it and he gave it to me. That was the first watch I had in my life. After Bui Xuan Phai passed away, in 1997 Mr. Sinh Thanh sold the “Hanoi by night” for a Korean named Sambon Koo with a price of USD 12,000. After that, Mr. Koo brought this painting to Korea. Some years later, the painting was sold by auction in an exhibition. A Japanese person bought this painting a very high price of USD 75,000. Some people joked “if that amount is used to buy watches then we must use a sack to contain them”. Until the 1980s, when the situation changed, life of that painter also changed. Foreign customers were allowed to the studio and bought paintings of Bui Xuan Phai. Therefore, owning a watch was neither a dream nor a big problem to him but he was still haunted by time budget. One day Bui Xuan Phai met a leader of the City in a meeting, this man knew Bui Xuan Phai from a long time ago then he asked intimately: – What would you wish if you have one? The painter answered: – I would wish that one day had 25 hours, therefore each day I will have one more hour for work. In the diary of this famous painter, people find a poem written about time by Bui Xuan Phai: Time passes so quickly And no one can stop it Let’s paint when your heart is still in beat Because it can stop at anytime A story about the painter

Story artists

In Bui Xuan Phai time, it was about foreign languages that one time he was reflected and worried by his neighbor when this person came to meet the authority: “I have never seen him go to work as other people. He just stays at home, pours out colors then applies them and erases them later. I often hear him arguing with guest, I did not know the reason why these men just spoke to each other in foreign languages?” You may wonder whether Bui Xuan Phai was “France-support” or not (we should understand he supported France in what aspects?). In general, I think that most of Vietnamese painters are all “France-support”. It means they consider French paintings standard. To list name of well-known painters who have respectful achievements, I realize that all of them had to go through the “Ecole de Paris” gate. There were often many artists visiting Bui Xuan Phai’s house. In war-time, this was also considered grouping of people and those people might be reminded by local government. For many times these artists argued so loudly that made the neighbors think that conflict was about to come soon and report to the local government. Bui Xuan Phai was also asked to come and he was reminded and noted that: next time, if he still let guests argue loudly like that, the government would assign civil defense group to come and tie one by one. But after that, the local government also asked Bui Xuan Phai to paint two quite large paintings to decorate for the election of the quarter.

There was a painting in an American senator’s house

In war-time, one time Bui Xuan Phai received a letter of notice of Ministry of Home Affairs inviting him to the office. On the day of receiving the invitation, Bui Xuan Phai was very worried and in a divided mind. He was sleepless at night and got up to smock makhorka continuously. He tried to find out a solution but he could not because he could not know what was waiting him at that place. In the following morning, family members saw off him at the gate with sadness and he went to the direction where he was supposed to come. Late at noon, Bui Xuan Phai came home with less stressful expression; he smiled and explained: “Police heard that there is one of my paintings in an American senator’s house. They asked me to explain about that matter but I told them that I have never contacted with any foreigners at private house to sell or give them my paintings”. The fact that Phai’s painting was present in an American senator’s house was a quite serious problem at that time and it made people surprise. No one knew how it had come to such a place.

I doubt that I am a talent

Painter Viet Hai told me a story happened from 1958. At that time Viet Hai was a student in the University of Arts in charge and taught by Bui Xuan Phai. In the meeting on “Criticism and self-criticism” in which Viet Hai was a secretary and was responsible for recording self-criticism of his teacher. In that very exciting meeting, Vu Giang Huong (also a student of Bui Xuan Phai) took the chair. “So many problems were discussed but I have almost forgotten all because it has been a very long time, but I still remember the answer of Bui Xuan Phai to the question ‘what does the painter paint for?’, he said ‘I paint to make clear about three things: I am a good man. I am a patriot. I am a talent”. In 1984, being a guest to attend the opening ceremony of Phai’s first private exhibition, Viet Hai asked Bui Xuan Phai about the story of 30 years before: “What will you answer now if you are asked the same question?” Bui Xuan Phai replied: – I still answer the same. However, I want to edit the third sentence: I doubt that I am a talent.

Credit to www.buixuanphai.com

Exhibition “Little Joy” by Artist Ly Hung Anh


Exhibition: 27 Jan – 27 Feb 2016, 9.30 am – 6 pm

Dong Phong Art Gallery

03 Ly Dao Thanh Street

Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi

Dong Phong Art Gallery is pleased to present the exhibition “Little Joy” by artist Ly Hung Anh. The show will be held from 27th January to 27th February, 2016 at #3 Ly Dao Thanh street, Hanoi.

… Lightly

It is a harmony of a song

It is a peaceful quietness

It is to listen to vibration of touching

It is a little happiness


Welcome to the exhibition to enjoy the gentleness and leisureliness in the artist’s little joy.

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Event: 3D Painting Exhibition “World, Magic & Fun”

Exhibition: 20 Feb – 17 Apr 2016 (Weekday: 5 pm – 9 pm, Weekend: 10 am – 9 pm) 5th floor, Hanoi Creative City 01 Luong Yen, Hanoi Following four successful editions in Belgium (one in Brussels and 3 at the Belgian coast during … [Continue reading]

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The photo by Nguyen Minh Tan.  "Light up the darkness" by French photographer Fabio Manca. July:

VietNamNet Bridge – Let’s take a look at the most dramatic moments of Vietnam photography at international photography awards and international media in 2015.Of the top eight photos selected by National Geographic in February 2015, one … [Continue reading]

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The Girl & the Elephant – This image of a little M’nong girl was taken in Dak Lak Province, in the Central Highlands. It’s from the same series as the photo chosen for the cover of Conde’ Nast Traveler.

Photography Life Magazine recently posted 20 fascinating images of Vietnam taken by four photographers on its website in a piece entitled Visions of Vietnam – 4 Photographers, 4 Styles. Circle of Dreams – A young woman naps in a round … [Continue reading]