Bui Xuan Phai – The artist of Ha Noi

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From Art Works by Bui Xuan Phai from the Collection of Van Duong Thanh

Phai: The Artist of Hanoi brings together a range of works produced by Bui Xuan Phai in the twenty years of his friendship with the artist Van Duong Thanh, whom he first met in 1968 when she was a sixteen year old art student at the Hanoi Fine Arts College. Bui Xuan Phai’s reputation as one of the most prolific modern painters of Vietnam echoes a practice that informs of serendipitous moments, of free artistic association, and of purposeful intuition. On that note, there is melancholy – one that tells of an artist’s lament and tender relationship – to the detail of his art.

Bui Xuan Phai was born on the 1st of September 1920 into a typical Confucian family of Hanoi. His father, Bui Xuan Ho was educated under the French colonial system, held a number of influential government posts and instilled the pride of the family’s intellectual reputation in his children. His typically feudal father, with whom Phai did not share a close relationship, did not favor his lack of interest in following the medical tradition of his grandfather and uncle, or at the very least become a man of letters – a choice that would have carried great prestige. However just before his death in 1940, Bui Xuan Ho received news that Phai, then 20 years old and a student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Hanoi had sold his first painting and that his paintings had been selected for an exhibition in Tokyo, Japan.

The idea of becoming an artist came to Phai early. In his youth he drew cartoons for newspapers and with the royalties that he earned, he enrolled himself into the introductory course at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine. In July 1941 he officially joined the 14th course, together with another artistic icon Nguyen Tu Nghiem. The principle foundation of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was to train artists within the traditional thematic principles encompassing traditional arts. Phai was in constant critique over this identity and found himself often charged in difficult discourse with the principle instructor of painting, Joseph Inguimberty who did not advocate the invasion of the Western influences such as Matisse and other modern European painters of the time into the realm of Vietnamese art. On another level, To Ngoc Van – the noted Vietnamese art educator at the college encouraged the expansion of expressive realism. Such simulation of artistic schools became important, for it bound up the spirit of nationhood with a Western aesthetic.

The political turmoil that was to envelope North Vietnam in the following years shaded the balance of art. When the Japanese ousted the French in 1945, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts was closed down. Culture and politics would be reworked into becoming mere vehicles for communication of political content, reinforced under the new leadership of Ho Chi Minh, who in September 1945 became the first leader of a newly independent North Vietnam. Phai along with other young artists contributed willingly and eagerly to the political moment of the time by painting portraits of Ho Chi Minh and his comrades during the cultural week, held in conjunction with the Declaration of Independence.

The celebration of the revolution brought about a romantic fascination shared by many on the cultural front, who saw the new political agency as a positive development that reinforced a sense of nationalistic collectivity. Bui Xuan Phai together with Nguyen Tu Nghiem were amongst the cultural intellectuals who joined the patriotic resistance exodus from Hanoi into the countryside. This organization established a new paradigm. It imposed a shift from the romantic expressionism associated with French colonial Indochina, supplanting it with socialist realism that included circuiting the new Vietnamese identity with politically useful propaganda poster art, mostly dedicated to the revolution.

Given the controlled order of the revolutionary experience, the promise of liberation inspired many artists. For others, it created an intellectual vacuum. Resisting this model of representation, Phai eventually returned to Hanoi in 1952 and back to his paternal home at 87 Thuoc Bac Street, together with his wife whom he had met and married while still attached to the resistance movement.

In 1953, Phai converted part of his small home, which by this time was just a small room, into a studio. This was open to his artist friends with whom he shared the same challenges of pointing to the true meaning of art. While many of these artists occupied a variety of positions within the field of art at the time, it was Bui Xuan Phai who stood astride the threshold of Vietnamese contemporary art more than anyone else.

With a personal history – filled with pathos and weak health, which tracked across several decades until his death in 1988 – brought about the oeuvre of Bui Xuan Phai, one of the greatest South East Asian artists of the twentieth century. Unwilling to recognize the conventional boundaries between his art and the political agency of Ho Chi Minh’s revolution, Phai refused to bow to political culture, instead submitting himself to the free association of artistic expressionism, which was an integral part of the rhythm of his life. Though Phai would live most of his life in poverty, he was never distant to the artistic developments and activities that encompassed Hanoi. This included a short teaching stint at the Hanoi Fine Arts College, which was re-established in Hanoi in 1955. Though Phai loved teaching, he was asked to resign from his teaching post, as he obviously did not fit the required revolutionary mould. This incident represented one of the harshest moments in his life, as he truly loved the artistic interaction with his students. His loss of income to enabling him to support his family was equally disparaging.

Phai’s return to his artistic roots provided venue for exaggerated attention by the revolutionary government, though he himself was totally disinterested in politics or the entanglement of cultural and political agency. His intellectual dynamism characterized the totality of his artistic activism that is best documented through his lifelong association with Hanoi’s cultural icons and artists with whom he would spend many hours discussing or debating the agency of art – often in the small cafes of Hanoi. Together with Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Duong Bich Lien and Nguyen Sang, Phai constituted the “Four Pillars” – a collective that represented the demarcation between the French influenced romantic period and the indigenous influenced art.

Phai was an artist understood the intellectual rigor of knowing his subject and that the sensuous practice of drawing and painting need not be separate activities. Phai’s Hanoi was a city with a painful history that not only evoked heightening emotions for him, but also allowed him to take in multiple images and ideas.

Well known and well loved by everyone in Hanoi, Phai would roam the narrow streets and alleys acknowledging every detail and mood of the city with a truly authentic experience. His streets were characterized with an unusual cool discipline of architectural grid overlapped with the emotions of romantic landscape painting. Each individual drawing and painting is a beautiful example of Phai’s draftsmanship as he skillfully re-constructed a art historical vocabulary which captured the spiritual essence of Hanoi.

Installed in horizontal rows, the strength of Phai’s street scenes did not solely rest on his draftsmanship, but rather in the originality that they produced – although he would often replicate variations on the same composition: gray brooding vistas at times devoid of life, suggesting both a presence and an absence. However each image was made unique by subtle differences, subliminally emphasizing the contrast between the physical reality and the seductiveness of his personal sentiments of sincerity and angst that continuously swarmed through his art.

However, the casual and charming serenity of his streets provided caustic critique from the officials of the Communist Party who interpreted Phai’s Hanoi’s streetscapes corrosively. This in turn led to the questioning of his motives and his identity, despite the fact that he was totally disinterested in politics or for that matter in anything else other than his art and his family. In Phai’s understanding, his drawings and paintings of Hanoi meant acknowledging part of his collective self: pointing to what made his life worth living and to the infinitive love that was his creative core. It was not necessarily an attempt to recreate anything but more than a scripture of actual place – one that would ultimately be read as profoundly telling, as if these were physical expressions of his personal solitude and marginal circumstances. For Phai, the landscape of Hanoi was emotional and by expressing it in a familiar and simple form – it could be easily understood. But then again, the range of understandability was very complex under the Vietnamese political climate of the era.

Ironically today – Phai’s Hanoi streetscapes have reached new dimensions of reality. The art-historical weaving of his imagery continues to be read as the most subtly poetic art. Along with the explosion of change and the new artistic activity in the altered economic and cultural landscape of modern Vietnam, reproductions have saturated the art market, often questioning the authenticity of some of his “works”.

In 1957, the Vietnam Fine Arts Association was formed. The Communist Party laid down a policy that required artists to relocate to the countryside and partake in manual labor together with peasants and local farmers, with whom they would cohabit. In 1958, Phai was sent to Nam Dinh where he worked in a carpentry workshop thus acquiring useful skills in making his own frames and easels. It was also in 1958 when his mother Madame Tran Thi Van sold the family home at 87 Thuoc Bac Street and distributed the proceeds of the sale amongst her children. Phai leased back one room in the house, where he and his family lived until his death in 1988.

There was much to attribute for the visual muscle of Phai’s art. Like many of his fellow artists, he had to multi-task in order to make ends meet. Drawing and painting allowed Phai to communicate and describe his world to others and through his regular contributions of newspaper illustrations and cartoons, he not only supported his family but coaxed many to reap pleasure from his illustrations, often an amalgam of forms and diagrams as mesmerizing as the narrative itself.

Phai was interested in looking at art from ancient to contemporary as well as from European to Vietnamese, seeking out truths and how it would impact his creativity. He acknowledged the function that art possessed and did not limit himself to any one artistic tradition. Phai was able to enter a similar level of inspiration whether he designed theatre sets or emulated the traditional style of folk art pointing to his individual realization that not only impacted his creativity but more importantly extended beyond his humble ego, which was distinguished by a quiet humanism.

As an artist, Phai was interested in the works of the great European artists and held great admiration for artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Chagall amongst others. In his diaries, he often acknowledged the multiple perspectives that these famous artists addressed and thus reminded himself of the critical importance of the contours of art regardless of his economic circumstances. Without any compromise, Phai did not allow himself to remain pinned to canvass and good paper but created some of his most monumental works on newsprint or virtually any surface on which his drawings and paintings could cling. With such uncompromising determination to negate even the traditional function of materials, he filled his world with his beloved art – often trading drawings and paintings for needs to sustain his home and family.

Drawing enjoyed a very special and close relationship to Phai’s psyche. Often his primary medium, Phai used drawing to inscribe the personal, the subjective and the intimate, which allowed his drawings to speak so powerfully even today. The informality and immediacy with which he addressed his subjects was an essential part of his creative process. Whereas paintings are often determined about layers covering and concealing – drawing is about revealing the artist’s emotion at that moment and through it Phai, more than any artist of his generation, recognized the freedom from historical and critical baggage that drawing allowed. His free-association with drawing was often exemplified with scrawled images and text culled from his thoughts of the moment. And through the very simplicity of his drawing materials, which often was as simple as pencil or paint on newsprint, he created some of his most subtly interesting works.

Throughout his career, Phai explored a dialogue with the human form. His studies of nudes examined the body with grace and certainly bear the mark of his European art education. But it is through portraiture, often depicted in small-scale artworks, where Phai found intimacy with his creative vision. His self-portraits gave form to his varying emotional states through to the allegory of his physical experience. Through the drawings and sketches of his family and friends, which were rife with classical allusions reminiscent of the classical genre of classical French Impressionism, Phai formed a pictorial dialogue that was best understood within the cultural context of his time. Because of his close associations with friends who shared the same understanding for artistic debates regarding the connection between their cultural and ideological positions, Phai was never totally isolated in his personal solitude. Drawing permitted him to capture treasured and tender moments of these friendships, visually striking personal dimensions that would be captured with simple pencil strokes – at times resonating with sparse accents of color. Here Phai was able to revel in uncovering the subtle details of his subjects and provided an insight to the common bonds of their relationships.

Van Duong Thanh first met Bui Xuan Phai in 1968 when she was a sixteen-year-old art student at the Hanoi Fine Arts College. However, she had admired his art since she was much younger, often saving clippings of his newspaper illustrations and cartoons. The friendship that developed between them over the twenty years until his death, originated in art and was built on the intellectual rigor of their shared love of art. And since relationships were at the heart of Phai’s artistic practice, many of his drawings originated in his encounters with Van Duong Thanh. Often they encompassed simple gestures and forms and despite their visual economy, they were always appropriated with a generosity that combined an acute sense of respect and sincerity. In the same formal dimension of scholarly rigor and inner eye, Van Duong Thanh often painted and sketched Phai with contemporary concern that echoed his fragile and gentle demeanor.

By 1982, the Vietnamese Communist Party finally acknowledged that Bui Xuan Phai had never been politically motivated or involved in any subversive activities and finally accorded him recognition of his artistic prominence – though by this stage of his life he had resigned himself to a life of poverty and strife, often subsisting on his wife’s meager salary as a nurse and the generosity of close friends such as Van Duong Thanh, who would often share her own earnings with Phai and his family with whom she continues to share a close friendship to this day. After his death in 1988, he was posthumously honored with the President Ho Chi Minh Medal for his contribution to Vietnam’s art history.

Throughout his life and even now in death Bui Xuan Phai touched the heart and soul of Hanoi through his art. As Van Duong Thanh related “Phai painted in his heart until his dying breath.”

Shireen Naziree

Art Historian and Independent Curator, Malaysia