A story about painter Duong Bich Lien

Duong Bich Lien and Bui Xuan Phai (photo taken in 1984)

– Bui Thanh Phuong –

Duong Bich Lien (1924-1988) threw himself and dedicated for art to a level that he almost ignore and forgot his private happiness and emotion. He lived alone and self-contained and almost separated from the outside world. When startling and wishing to get married that his hair was almost white as lime.
However, there was a paradox that he also had some private, secretive loves in his artistry but emotional life. In last years of life, his health collapsed quickly. This was largely because of strong wine which partly destroyed the slender and miserable human body of the artist. Some days before death, he drank interminably and almost ate nothing. He died as a dream. His death was only discovered when his neighbors knocked the door but they would never hear his answer.
Born in a rich and authority family, Duong Bich Lien was the only son of a district chief. When he was 17, suddenly he wanted to give up the comfortable life and experienced a difficult life. He met painter Hoang Lap Ngon in 1941 when Hoang had just finished designing a horse cart which was named “Distinct Writer”. The painter used this cart as means of transport to go around painting landscape everywhere. Duong Bich Lien was allowed to join the cart with painter Hoang Lap Ngon for the trans-national journey. They had thought that they would travel together for a long time, but when the “Distinct Writer” arrived in Thanh Hoa province then the district chief assigned people to find Duong Bich Lien. Servants of the district chief found the “Distinct Writer” and escorted the dude home. After the journey of destiny, Duong Bich Lien decided to learn at the Indochina Art University. From that moment, Duong Bich Lien started entering a game of art.
With an eccentric and don’t-care style, he was a lonely and strange painter: “Life does not understand me and neither I understand it, therefore I would like to reduce myself”. Duong Bich Lien was a stammering person. Some of his words were repeated many times. And each time he thought out an interesting sentence by himself or cited of the other’s, then he would repeated it every some minutes. And every time he repeated the sentence, he once again stammered that made the listener remember the sentence by heart. For example: “As you play more, you shall paint better”, or “there is no progress in art”.
In lifetime, Duong Bich Lien used to visit Bui Xuan Phai’s. Two of them had been friends from the time they were students at Indochina Art University. They understood and sympathized with art viewpoint of each other, even sometimes they had different thoughts and conceptions of art.
Duong Bich Lien was very “atopic” with strangers or with persons who did not have the same “channel” with him. If there was someone came when he was talking with Bui Xuan Phai, he just stood up and left in silence. And each time he came, he always walked on tiptoe to look over the windows to see if there was any other person inside Phai’s house, if yes then he would hop it in silence again. It was not because he was arrogant but it was because of his personality. That day, apart from artists, almost nobody knew who Duong Bich Lien was, and if somebody knew then they mistook that Duong Bich Lien was a…female singer because his name was the same with singer Bich Lien, a very famous singer of the time.
One time, because he was so surprised and did not sympathize when seeing Bui Xuan Phai keeping accompany with guests who were not “adequate” with him. Duong Bich Lien asked:
– I cannot understand why you can stand with such good-for-nothing guys? And why you can still paint with your hands while your ears are listening to their gossip?
Bui Xuan Phai smiled gently and replied:
– Because you do not know that each guest of mine is also a model for me to paint. They just sit and talk what they like while I use them as models for painting.
That is the reason why Bui Xuan Phai had a thousand of portraits of people who come from different classes and careers.
Duong Bich Lien had an impressive way while talking about painting. He assumed that painting was a private world where showed one’s emotion. Each work must have its own mark of the soul and it was no problem if someone did not understand or did not like it. He just painted on his favorite problems and after he had thought deeply about them. On the other side, Duong Bich Lien’s art was influenced significantly by theories that he had researched very deeply.
Most of books he researched were in French. Perhaps that was the reason why he became fastidious with himself. He painted more slowly with more difficulties if compared with painting style and viewpoint of Bui Xuan Phai.
The most emerging period in arts creativeness of Duong Bich Lien was in 1960s, 1970s. In these years, he sent his works with fervor for participating in exhibition but they were all rejected, such as the “Hao” and “Uncle Ho talking to a National Defense Corp”. For the second painting, people would never see this anymore after it had been rejected and nobody talked about it again. The painting described scenery of Ho Chi Minh talking to a National Defense Corp in Viet Bac base. It was rejected because the soldier was closing his eyes while the great leader talked. But according to explanation of Duong Bich Lien, only when people are in extreme, they often close their eyes. He wanted to explain that the soldier was very happy when listening to instructions of the great leader. But by that day, the explanation of the painter failed to convince the board of selection because they assumed that the great leader was talking when the listener was sleeping, that why this work was rejected right at the time when they saw it. People said that Duong Bich Lien was self-price and distressed about the indifference of orthodox people on his works. Therefore he almost had no interest in creating during his last years in life. He felt down to be disheartened and almost gave up. People then saw no more excellent work by the painter. In 1984, the State officially invited the four “Sang, Nghiem, Lien, Phai” to organize private exhibitions. Duong Bich Lien refused because he had no painting in his studio then.
I remember the last time Duong Bich Lien and Bui Xuan Phai drank with each other. That day he came from afternoon, Bui Xuan Phai told me to buy white wine twice for him and Duong Bich Lien to drink. Duong Bich Lien drank too much as he talked more and more to about 2am. On seeing that Bui Xuan Phai was tired to death, I led Duong Bich Lien to stand up and said to him “Let me take you home”. At night, nobody was on the street, just two of us leading each other. He put one hand on my shoulder while the other hand was still holding his hat. On the way, I told him that I wanted to have one of his paintings for collection. Duong Bich Lien seemed to be awake from wine, he told me as if he was scolding me: “If you are a painter then never think of collecting paintings of another painter, because if you admire his art then you shall never be able to paint a nice work. Being a painter, you needn’t to be jealous of any other painters and if you do, you should be jealous of Gauguin’s or Van Gogh’s. Only with that spirit then you may improve yourself”.
That night, I saw off Duong Bich Lien to Ba Trieu slope. At that place he told me to let him go home by himself because his house was right below the slope. I stopped and looked to the inclined gait of the painter who had been considered one of the four legendary people “Sang – Nghiem – Lien – Phai” with first-order reputation in Vietnamese painting circle. The last image about Duong Bich Lien to me was the image of a drunk person walking disorderly and hiding gradually under the dip slope of Ba Trieu street.
On watching remaining works of Duong Bich Lien people can see that the theme of Girl’s portrait was considered the most successful theme and the idiom of admirers “Pho Phai – Gai Lien” (Phai’s Streets – Lien’s Girls) had confirmed that.
Before death, Duong Bich Lien had expressed his aspiration to his friends: “Later on, in the day I go in the underworld, I do not want to see any adults. I want to have two kids, one boy and one girl, dressing correctly to escort me to the last place. Only two kids follow the horse cart carrying my soulless corpse to the cemetery, no adults shall follow us”. But when Duong Bich Lien died, people could not do what he had wanted. Several years after Duong Bich Lien’s death, film makers re-arranged all details in aspiration of this famous painter: two kids, dressing in European style, walking behind the horse cart which was carrying the coffin. They sprinkled petals to the road sides in an autumn afternoon. The film was titled “Silent yellowness”

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