Bui Thanh Phuong: ‘I know who I am’


Bui Thanh Phuong started painting by chance and fortune. Being son of a very famous painter Bui Xuan Phai, he has never been taught painting as traditional ways. What he has today owing to his self-studying and Endeavour in his “big university”- his 2-square metres room in his father’s painting workshop. Here, he started his painting career and built a “Phai’s World”, launched Prize title “Bui Xuan Phai- for a love to Hanoi” and the coming Phai’s House Company.

– Pround of being a descendant of the Bui family- a famous painter  you soon become your efficient supporter, don’t you?
– That’s right. My father is not a painter who can be well aware of the sales of his paintings. At the first time of being putting into publics, his paintings were very modest and I had to consign them in smaller shops near Lake. Then, any transactions of his works are made by me. Some of earnings I use for colors, the rest of which I give to him. He gave some of his earning to his wife and kept some for his allowance.
I have protected him from being confused on valuing his ‘spirit children’ that he does not want. Therefore, all respects in artistic life are for him and urgent matters in selling painting are for me.

– You also understand him best, don’t you?
– Actually, I am nearly his consultant and assistant in any problems that he feels difficult to solve. When we are talking to each other, he always calls himself “mình” (very casual ways), which my mother doesn’t like and often say “why do you call yourself “minh” when you are talking to your son? You are as if you are friends”.

– When Mr.Phai was still alive, who was his best friend?
– Some days before he died, I had asked him about his best friends, he was embarrassed for a moment and told me names of four his friends who are, in his opinion, of best sentiment and became close since the most difficult times. They are photographer Tran Van Luu, Mr. Le Chinh (Arts Paper), painter Nguyen Trong Niet, and collector Nguyen Ba Dam. There is one who he esteemed best is writer Nguyen Tuan. He called Mr. Nguyen Tuan his brother, which I have never seen before. As I could see, writer Nguyen Tuan was his only friend in the year 1960s and 1970s. During this tens years, Mr. Nguyen Tuan, at Tet, presented him with, sometimes pork-pie, a kilogram of beef, a carp, or a bottle of Western wine. During these years, we whether had a very prosperous Tet or not depending on Mr. Nguyen Tuan’s gifts.

I am myself, both good and bad
– You are the only person who succeed your father, have you ever felt tired when you have to stand in front of such a great people?
– I have never felt tired when I stand in front of such a great person who is my father. In stead, I always feel proud of him and try my best to deserve to be a descendant of the painter Bui. I live and work with great belief and love. My father’s saying “I am myself, both good and bad” comforts me.

– However, you also have to give up your favorite topic that is “Pho” (City). Are you afraid that you cannot overcome your father’s image or cannot affirm that besides Phai’s “Pho”, there exists “Phuong’s Pho?
– Street topic, especially Hanoi, is the one that I like best. It is also easy to paint and more beautiful than the others. To have beautiful paintings of ancient streets, there is no ways except views through Bui Xuan Phai’s eyes and points, therefore, what I am wearing is what I took from other, in these years, I am completely in a crises and don’t paint Hanoi ancient streets. On the other hand, now there are no ancient streets in Hanoi. At present, to paint ancient streets, painters have to base on documentary pictures or their own imagination, therefore, not much emotion is shown. In the past, when Bui Xuan Thai painted he never tried to show what called “Phai’s Pho”. I find it funny if I try to affirm a Phuong’s Pho.

– Do you sure that you will be successful in other topics?
– No painters who are so stupid that announce which is the only topic in their whole life. Inspiration of painting suddenly comes like love without any appointment or origin. I remember Mr. Thai said, “For arts, we have to run after it, it never follows us”.

– Did Mr. Phai teach you painting or you study yourself.
– He has never taught me as a traditional way. At the age of 12, I joined a class in Children’s House. I learnt him by sitting next to his palette to see he paints and listen to his ideas about other artists’ styles whenever they visited him. My father’s room was really my big university.

– What do you think about a true artist?
– In the times of Nguyen Sang, Bui Xuan Phai, on judging an artist, they often used phrase “he is good”. It can be considered successful if an artist is judged like this. To praise, these artists often use the word “Hay” (good) not “gioi” (excellent) because excellent is often used to indicate the skills. Norms of a true artist seem to be large and easy to be talked garrulously about. I try and strive every day with a hope that in my whole career I can have one or two good paintings. That is enough.

– Arts require creativeness and characteristics, have you had your own world without any your father’s effects.
– I think that in art, you’d better avoid urgent matters and believe, and affected by foreseen values. It is suggested to avoid following other artists when you see them earn 5000 USD or 10,000 USD.
In artist, it is also strongly recommended that you should not compare two generations. For example, in literature field, we are not sure that current writers write more excellent than the older generation did. We have to accept that not only in Vietnam but also in the world; current fine arts cannot reach to the top as the older generations could.
Many other painters hope to be influenced by my father while I am trying to escape it and I have succeeded. I have not painted about topics that my father had such as Streets, because I know that if I have, I will look the street in the ways that he had. I know that only in his view, the streets can be so beautiful. An in fact, Hanoi has lost all what they had.
A long time with painting, you are recently talked about press. Do you find it a solace?
In fact, I find all praises for me on any kind of media are short-lived and of no use. An artist should know his position. I know who I am whenever I look at others’ painting. I myself find that I am an “unripe fruit” and I have never felt satisfied with my works. Many painters who are highly appreciated, but I think these praises are simply words, which even are for criticizing or praising cannot make the painting more beautiful or ugly. They are what they are. I find that the best paintings of Bui Xuan Phai are those painted in 1960s and 1970s, when press or media had no concern about his arts.

– People now say that any of his works are beautiful, they are what they are, aren’t they?
– For such reason, in some extent, press sometimes do harm to artists. Some people who have passable works, which only bring some strange things to the painting garden, in the last 20 years, were praised constantly for their old works.
I see that ancestors such as Mr. Phai, Sang, Nghiem…who had devoted his whole life for arts are not concerned by press. It is not easy to talk about talent. Like my father, until the end of his life, he still suspected his works. Finishing a work, he stood and kept looking at it, in case of dissatisfaction, he erased it in a way he painted it. Seeing that, I regretted his pain but failed to prevent. I want to say that talented people are always of various suspicions, which are necessary for artists to whittle and give away redundant things.

– What problems of current arts are you worried about?
– At present, many painters only imprison himself in his room to cook up without any interference from real life. Vietnamese painting at present seems to be diverging from Paris School that we enjoyed from French. Painting bases on imaginations, not true or not false, or according to fashion is of no standard. While people’s imagination is rather weak and limited, the best way to avoid bore is to stick to reality and nature. For example, I only paint girls who are my friends, with real name not from the imagination, or at least whom I love secret. I inherit this thought from my father; Bui Xuan Phai’s success resulted from honesty, as in love. Honesty but silliness is still more moved than ornately deceit.
Bui Xuan Phai Prize- For a love to Hanoi

– We heard that you and two of your friends are saving money to establish a prize with your father’s name painter Bui Xuan Phai.
– At the first time when I showed my hope to establish Bui Xuan Phai Prize, I was supported by my friends who are great collectors such as Tran Hau Tuan and Bui Quoc Chi. At first, we estimated that with 30,000 USD at bank, every we would have more than 1,000 USD. This interest will be eternal for “Bui Xuan Phai Prize”. Now we need to discuss more because Tran Hau Tuan wants to increase the value of prize that is the amount of money at bank must be bigger. We expect to award the first prize on the date of birth of my father (1.9.1920 -1.9.2008). On 1st September every year, this prize is awarded.

– Can you give more information about awardees and structure of the prize?
– Structure of prize will be drafted by founders and awardees are who have best works in literature and art of the year. But I think, in the future, this prize will be handed over a prestigious cultural organization.
The establishment of Bui Xuan Phai Prize- For a love to Hanoi is also a way of honoring Bui Xuan Phai. However, norms of this prize remain expected.
I do not say I am not satisfied. In current context, people who are chosen because they have prominent ideas. However, if the prize is only for painting, it is very difficult for us to choose deserved faces. Also be a artist, I always desire beautiful works. Tens year have passed, there hasn’t any significant works.

Information box: 
Award Bui Xuan Phai Prize for 5 works
In the afternoon, 31st August, Sports and Culture Paper and the late painter Bui Xuan Phai’s family, for the first time, announced and awarded “Bui Xuan Phai Prize- For a love to Hanoi” to 5 works.
The date 31st August is also the date of birth of the famous painter Bui Xuan Phai. “Bui Xuan Phai Prize- For a love to Hanoi” will be awarded annually on this date for writers, composers, works, activities, and ideas of high artistic and scientific features, close to all living aspects in Hanoi, and imbrued with love to Hanoi. .
“Bui Xuan Phai Prize- For a love to Hanoi” which is a prize of high socialization is selected and nominated by Examiner Commission and public.
The prize includes Official Award valued 15 million Vietnam Dongs, some awards in cash or presents, an award is nominated by audiences.
In 2008, the prize officially presented before public and awarded the 5 following works:
1. A set of novels about Tran Dynasty in 175 years by writer Hoang Quoc Hai, including “Imperial palace storm “, “Thang Long growing angry “, “Princess Huyen Tran”, and “Collapsed royal dynasty”.
2. Project on Red River City by Van Tho. This project aims at directing the bed of Red River, section over Hanoi and Red River City, resetting and strengthening the dykes and embankment on the two sides around the central plain creating new land for the construction of a new city.
3. Ceramic Road by journalist Nguyen Thu Thuy and her coworkers. The 6-kilometre dyke section along Red River from An Duong to Pha Den will be an artistic wall.
Works displayed along the road carry beauty of various artistic heritage and ceramic painting composed by current Vietnamese and international artists; popular ceramic paintings and children’s’ paintings.
4. The reformed theatre “Imperial concubine with azure” by Hoang Cong Khanh, directed by Quynh Mai, and performed by actors from Vietnam Performed Theatre. There are continuously 70 shows in two months in Hanoi with the attendants of total of 1,500 Buddhist monks and nuns.
5. Enormous painting draft of “Stronghold and flower ” by young painter Doan Son, dimension 2 m15 x 9m3 with unforgettable pictures of the first days of whole country war resistance in 1946. .
Researcher of Hanoi Nguyen Vinh Phuc- one of 5 examiners of Prize said “the material value of the Prize is not high but its spirit one is significant. Prize is concerns from people, artists, and community to the beauty and people with love to Hanoi”.
(http://www.tienphong.vn/Tianyon/Index.aspx?ArticleID=135462&ChannelID=7) Exhibition “Bui Xuan Phai Prize- For a love to Hanoi”
In the afternoon, 22 November, at Exhibition Hall, 45 Trang Tien, Hanoi, there open an Exhibition “Bui Xuan Phai Prize- For a love to Hanoi”. It is the prize that is annually sponsored and held by Bui Xuan Phai Fund and Sports and Culture Paper on the birthday anniversary of famous painter Bui Xuan Phai.
This fund is to award writers, works, and projects, which have great contribution to honour Hanoi and show deep love to the land and Thang Long people.

On the base of mass media, exhibition displayed 5 works which were awarded including the set of 4-volume novels about Tran Dynasty (by Hoang Quoc Hai); “The Red River City” Project; and “The Red River and Duong River Resetting” project (painter Van Tho); “Ceramic Road along the Red River” project (by Painter Nguyen Thu Thuy) ); The reformed theatre “Cung phi Điểm Bích” (by Hoang Cong Khanh, directed by Quynh Mai, and performed by actors from Vietnam Performed Theatre).; Enormous painting draft of “Stronghold and flower “ (by young painter Doan Son).
These works are different in forms but have the same deep love to Hanoi and have strong attachment to Thang Long- a thousand-year-old land.

Bring Phai House into the world
– Property your father left brings you and your family a comfortable life and you are able to fulfill many plans such as the establishment of Phai’s World, Bui Xuan Phai Prize…?
– Property my father left us, to some extent, financially supports us; at the same time we understand that money cannot determine our happiness. In comparison with the time when my father was still alive, our land area has 8 times larger, but happiness does not have such increase. In the past, my father painted while serving visitors because my house, at that time, always was full of visitors; they had tea and talked all the day. Now, that scene becomes rare, anyone who wants to visit us has to call for an appointment with reason. The modern world seems to make our spirit lives and people sentiment poorer, doesn’t it? However, wealth helps I paint more freely and comfortably without any thought of earnings. .

– You have opened the exhibition “Phai’s World” for a long time, not many people know about that. Why?
– The house of “Phai’s World” is in a small alley, so it is not convenient for visitors, if any they are acquaintances or my father’s fans. I want to buy a house on the main street to broaden Phai’s World, but it is state owned and not permitted to sell.

– What is your plan to make Phai’s World more plentiful?
– I want to build more museums, in which I display wax statues of my father and his friends such as Nguyen Tuan, Van Cao, and Trinh Cong Son…Besides, I also exhibit their tools and equipments such as easels, brushes, and others. I also expect to hold parties combining with workshops so that people who concerns can exchange information and contemplate famous works. I think exchanging is very important to our life, without it life will be boring and of no use.

– Giving up painting, you change to trade in paintings, don’t you?
– Simply business is not my target. From the event that Sotheby’s group sold at auction Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings and reality relating to prestige and prices of Vietnam painting works at regional or international auction, I decided to establish Phai’s House Company.

– How will Phai’s house Company be launched?
– I am contacting with lawyer to fulfill the necessary procedure to establish the company with full of legal regulations. I hope to bring Vietnamese painting works to the international auctions. There, prices are much higher than in Vietnam, however, expenses for these works are estimated at from 10,000 USD to 20,000USD. In May 2009, I will bring four of my father’s paintings and my painting of his portraits to a big fine art fair held in Hong Kong. I have paid half of fee for a stall there. Arrow has been shot and I couldn’t undo it, so have to continue. In this game, no permission for mistakes is available, even once, if I want to have success.

– What do you think about such real context?
– Internal painting market is under developed. Collectors, galleries seem to count their blessings and have thought of small wares vendors. Imitation paintings spread, do harm to painter’s prestige and worry both painters and buyers. We still lack of regulations on these activities and environment for professional and learning activities. Vietnamese paintings have been undervalued even though its quality is not second to none. Moreover, there, opinions of Vietnamese painters and experts are not highly appreciated.

– What do you think your company can do by names of these master painters?
– Attending international auctions; holding exhibitions, displaying works of famous international or internal painters; introducing both Vietnamese past and current painters; contributing to values of brand names and prestige of Vietnamese paintings; introducing names of foreign prominent painters to Vietnamese artists and public.

– Your company aims at embracing a large area. Do you think that it beyond your ability?
– I plan to fulfill this target step by step. Because only potentials, prestige, and success can help us continue larger stages. To prepare for the first action, I have entered into a contract on hiring a space for the painting exhibitions of Bui Xuan Phai and Bui Thanh Phuong’s paintings in Hong Kong in the middle of 2009. It is really a big challenge for me because it costs a lot of money while the exhibition lasts only 3 days. How can I do to sell out these paintings to earn parts of expenses? What I really need is experience. I think that to penetrate into large sea, it is necessary to study and avoid the thought of a dealer. I hope that the exhibition can bring a clearer and exact view of Bui Xuan Phai’s works and values in such complicated contexts.
– In Vietnam there have never been such a company, there are only companies trading in paintings operated by collectors, gallery, and painters. Do you think that such a big change will face with plentiful of “the first step is the hardest”?
– Venturing” to initiate, difficulties are indispensable. To fulfill all set targets, it is not allowed to any mistakes; curators must be of good ability, prestige; company must gather and build up various and precise data and information about Vietnamese and international paintings; and continuously grasp as well as analyze international market situations…However the deciding requirement is capacity. I hope to draw attentions of “rich people” to our Board of directors, so that we can have funds for various activities.

Information Box:
To start, in March 2009, at 31 East gate, an exhibition displaying precious paintings, with spirit of “Bui Xuan Phai- A love to Hanoi, of Bui Xuan Phai and his friends’ was established. The exhibition lasted 1 month, bringing a lot of precious and new into public, here people can get close to as well as get to know about artists who had great contribution to honour our nation such as Bui Xuan Phai,Van Cao, Nguyen Tuan…
(sources: Vietimes, VTCnews, Nation, Sành Điệu… and website and Bui Thanh Phuong’s blog)

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