A story about painter Nguyen Sang


– Bui Thanh Phuong –

Nguyen Sang (1923-1988) was a painter who had the ideal to solve great social problems with refined and subtle paintings which have modern, simple colors but not dry or trite and hollow because of the true-loved heart together with diversified and versatile talent. Together with Nguyen Gia Tri and Nguyen Tu Nghiem, he was a great and old tree of Vietnamese lacquer. If Nguyen Gia Tri climaxed lacquer of visionary and fairy sights with gold and snobbish palaces then Nguyen Sang brought lacquer to another peak with hard-working class, woeful and majestic battle, revolution war and strong conflicts in modern life. He supplemented yellow, green and chlorophyll color to lacquer with endless expressions. The most successful works of Nguyen Sang lied in lacquer and that is the biggest contribution of Nguyen Sang to painting both in material and reputation.

Works of Nguyen Sang have great stature of skills, which bring a great message about human destiny and he is a potential great talent of modern creativeness for Vietnamese Arts. He lived and painted, threw himself and was drastic to devote his file to the noble ideal of arts. In despite of that, until his death, he was still in destitution and silence as a death of a wanderer who had no relatives before the moment he died.
The most emerging period in arts creativeness of Nguyen Sang was in 1960s, 1970s. That was also the period that all people in the North had to live in very reduced circumstances for the reason that all energies were being used for the war.
To Nguyen Sang, he was not only poor but he did not have a wife or children. He was always alone on the half-storey of about 10m2. One time he talked for friends: “Man was born with two empty hands and gentle as a child sucking his mother’s breast. When they grow up, they give the ring to each other and the first kiss in their wedding. I have nothing but my heart and two empty hands”. When being asked his conception about assets, he said: “If it is not for the arts, I shall step on money spreading in the streets; But if it is for the arts, I shall be ready to earn every coin for the living”.
With character of a Southerner, Nguyen Sang was very obstinate, thorny and not easy-going. Every day he still came to pub Thuy Hu at corner of Ngo Si Lien street, sitting alone in a hidden corner with his dirty cap and the wrinkled-up cotton coat. Nguyen Sang looked like a countryside old man. By that time, very few people realized the famous painter Nguyen Sang, who would leave an invaluable legacy of arts. And if there had been someone who could realize his talent and rushed to buy his paintings at that time, surely his difficulties of life would have been reduced so much. Now I have learned that the painting Admit to the Communist Party of Nguyen Sang, when a foreign museum wanted to borrow from the Vietnam Fine Art Museum, was guaranteed with an amount of USD 2 million!
About Nguyen Sang private life, he once had a wife who was half Vietnamese and half French. When the war occurred (1945), his wife left Vietnam for France and Nguyen Sang lived alone to the year 1978, then he met Ms. Thuy and got married to her. On the day of Nguyen Sang’s wedding, attended guests just saw the bridegroom holding a flower bouquet with tears in the face because the bride had just been taken to the hospital for her chronic illness, which interfered on their wedding day. They lived together for one year then Ms. Thuy passed away due to heart disease. Nguyen Sang was distressed about his wife’s death until he died. Any time while drinking with friends, he often twisted the face and cried when someone reminded of Ms. Thuy through he was over 60 by that time.
In the time of Nguyen Sang and Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Sang was more miserable and had to try more because he was alone with artistry nature, so salary was just enough for several days and the rest of the month he had to lived in miserable and debts. He often brought his paintings to Lam Toet’s to mortgage for money, and brought really beautiful pictures to Duc Minh and sold with the price set by this collector.
In the whole life of Nguyen Sang, people knew the painting that he sold with highest price (the record price for Nguyen Sang and painters in that time, around 1982) that was a portrait he painted for an overseas Vietnamese living in France. Nguyen Sang asked this person to pay for the painting by a French rub-out motorbike, which valued about USD 2000. Nguyen Sang used to use this motorbike to carry Bui Xuan Phai around and he also let his friend to try it out. Nguyen Sang set behind Bui Xuan Phai, who drove fast in streets on Hanoi City which made people keep looking at them with admiration. Sitting behind, sometimes Nguyen Sang shouted “Be careful, a car is coming. Phai, careful, or the country shall lose two great talents!” But Nguyen Sang used the motorbike for a short time then he sold it (actually he both sold and gave it as payment for a debt of painter Le Chan) and he turned the whole green Peugeot 102 into wine. He enjoyed wine with his friends and once again ran out of money.
Nguyen Sang was frank but also emotional and easy to be moved. He was always with himself in a crowded place. I remember when I met him at the party on the occasion of French National Ceremony (1986); he stood alone in the hidden corner and nobody paid attention to him. I went to take champagne and brought food for him. Nguyen Sang drank all and I went to take more champagne. After that, because I did not want to go too much in the party, I took him the whole bottle of champagne. That time he drank almost the bottle and drunk. He kept telling me “Phuong, it’s joyful, isn’t it!” I also felt joyful because of his artistry character. In the whole evening, he did not contact anybody, did not participate in any activity, he just stood alone with nice champagne and said “It’s joyful, isn’t it?”
Nguyen Sang’s personality and habit were also very artistry. One day he came to visit Bui Xuan Phai, he was squatting and thoughtful. I told him:
– Uncle Sang, why don’t you sit on the chair?
Nguyen Sang startled, he was awaked from the thought. He chided:
– I shall not be able to think of something if I sit on the chair because it shall make me sleepy.
Another time he came as our family was about to have dinner, Bui Xuan Phai invited him to enjoy with us. In friendly atmosphere, when people were talking about funny things, suddenly Nguyen Sang put down the bowl and covered his face by hands and started crying. Bui Xuan Phai slapped Nguyen Sang’s shoulder and asked:
– Sang, what’s the matter with you?
Nguyen Sang replied:
– I want to have a family as you do. I crave for a bowl of hot soup every day.
In 1984, the first and unique private exhibition of Nguyen Sang was organized. On that day, many friends and Nguyen Sang’s painting lovers came to the exhibition. While Nguyen Sang was very happy for his friends had come and congratulated his success, suddenly writer Nguyen Tuan discovered one thing, he asked thoughtfully:
– Why doesn’t Nguyen Sang have any medals?
People all laughed about Nguyen Tuan’s discovery.
That day, Nguyen Sang talked to his friends:
– Now if I come to my village to visit relatives then they shall ask me why I do not have any medals through years of being Communist Viet Minh, then I do not know how to answer them. I am so sad about this!
Though Nguyen Sang did not have any medals but his art has contributed significantly to the art treasure of our nation with deep impressions recognized for his creative achievements in this life.
The last time I saw Nguyen Sang was the time he came to say goodbye to his close friend Bui Xuan Phai before I went to the airport to leave for Sai Gon (1987). In the time of separation between two close friends who had shared their lives, happiness and sadness for a half of a century – from the day they were students of Indochina Art School, perhaps they had inspiration that they would never meet again. Bui Xuan Phai and Nguyen Sang held each other’s hands tightly in silence. Finally, Nguyen Sang told Bui Xuan Phai that:
– We are adults, so we do not care about trouble things that life has brought to us.
(Both of them were victims of an injustice in the Nhan Van – Giai Pham affair (1956) and both suffered from its social ties for almost of their lives). Almost one year later, in 1988, my father, painter Bui Xuan Phai passed away because of a serious illness and two months later, painter Nguyen Sang also passed away in Sai Gon. In the legendary four people Sang – Nghiem – Lien Phai, three passed away in 1988 and only one of them, painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem, still holds on to life until today.

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