Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes [Part 1]

Bùi Thanh Phương - Nguyễn Sáng and Bùi Xuân Phái at Lâm cafe

Phai Story (1)

The letter in wardrobe

In fact, I was almost his adviser and assistant in most of problems that he found 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.

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