Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes [Part 2]

Bùi Xuân Phái 1942

Mainstay of a talent
In my memory, Bui Xuan Phai had a “life long-lasting childhood”. His whole life was devoted to passion for art. He was natural and gentle. He loved his children but he did not know how to bath them or how to feed them; he even did not know how his children learned and which grade they were at; he knew nothing about money-related problems or housework. Unstable life, Bui Xuan Phai was a free artist; earning from illustrative paintings and funny paintings was not enough to buy painting, let alone feeding a “landing craft” of the family.
I am so surprised and admire the ability of standing hardships of old people. Today, any couple who give birth to 5 children, surely they shall be reduced to destitution. If Bui Xuan Phai could live and create arts, it was because of his wife, Mrs. Phai. My mother was a nurse at the hospital. Every day when finishing work, she came back home and injected medicine for patients. She was very good and lucky at work then she was trusted by people. Customers came to her because she could inject without pain, which was very different if people were injected at a state-owned Medical Aid Station where they were shouted and injected with pain. During dozens of years, that injection tray actually helped Mrs. Phai “feed 5 children and a husband”. Recently, the Central Television (VTV3) has reserved a program to talk about Mrs. Phai whose name is Nguyen Thi Sinh. That film was titled: Mainstay of a Talent.

 To visit and supply the painter
In 1958, when Phuong was two, Mother held Phuong in her arms, took elder sister and brother on the train to Nam Dinh to visit and supply Bui Xuan Phai. At that time he was forced to work “3 togethers” with working class for a period of time. Bui Xuan Phai was assigned to joinery to learn carpentry. After this course, a meeting was held at Thong Nhat Square (nearby the Opera House) to synthesize and report on achievements after the “3 togethers” working course. On that day, people were surprised when Bui Xuan Phai reported his achievement by carrying a stool that he had built on his own to the square.

The praying cloth
Two times in life, I held my beloved persons in my arms before the time they passed away and I could feel that they were losing the warmness of life. The first time was my elder brother Bui Ky Anh (1954-1978) who died in a traffic accident. And the last time was Bui Xuan Phai. I say “the last time” because I refused for I do not want to hold my beloved person like that anymore. Both in two times, I bought praying cloth for Ky Anh and Bui Xuan Phai. For Bui Xuan Phai, I bought white canvas – the kind of cloth that Bui Xuan Phai had been very close to and liked – to shroud him. That kind of canvas that people used to make protective gloves for workers. I used to buy this kind of canvas to stretch as a préparer toile for him to paint.

Grey period
Perhaps that difficult period with Bui Xuan Phai’s spiritual state was put into old quarter paintings which carry a long-lasting sadness. If he lived in today time with comfortable life, I would have become another person and his paintings maybe different as well and so, maybe, he would have not been known and admired as such. Therefore, we should not think whether he was lucky or not, happy or sad, pros and cons because it was the destiny of life.

The watch of Bui Xuan Phai
Many people are surprised and feel interesting when seeing the backside of a paper painting of painter Bui Xuan Phai on which he wrote “I shall need a bicycle and a watch”. That was the most difficult time, both in economy and spirit of an artist. Late in the 1960s, the painter could not afford a bicycle and a watch. Despite of that, for the love of art, the passion of researching and showing the simple beauty of daily life, he ignored all daily worries to create simple but thoughtful, deep-lying works.
I still remember a fine day in my childhood. On that day, Bui Xuan Phai was given an introduction paper of Vietnam Arts Association which introduced him as a State staff. The paper showed clearly the text “We propose the shop to create conditions for comrade Bui Xuan Phai to buy a watch under your standard”. Without money, the introduction paper was meaningless. It took my mother several days to borrow from relatives an amount of 90 dong for Bui Xuan Phai to buy a watch in a shop at Cua Nam Street. That was a Soviet-made POLJOT brand watch, which worth equivalent to two-month salary of an official at that time. My elder brother Bui Ky Anh and I followed Bui Xuan Phai to the shop. Finally, after queuing and doing procedures, the watch was taken out of the shop. Before going to the shop, my mother had given us a handkerchief and carefully told father we kids that we had to wrap the watch with this handkerchief after buying it from the shop because she was afraid that we would be robbed if father wore it on arm. I was just a little kid and tried hard to follow father and my elder brother. My brother put the watch to the handkerchief and wrapped it as my mother had told him to do so then he put into his pocket and grabbed it tightly. Sometimes father and brother stopped; Ky Anh took the watch out from the pocket with care and he was so serious as if he was doing a religious rituals. Three of us, father and sons, gathered to have a tender look at the watch. On the way home, sometimes I wanted to have a reason to see the watch one more time so I stopped and shouted at him “Father, what time is it now?” Bui Xuan Phai was pleased too, he told my brother “Yes Ky Anh, just take out the watch to see what is the time now?”
Bui Xuan Phai lost this POLJOT after a short time when he forgot it in the public bathroom. Until 1979, Mr. Sinh Thanh, who was an art admirer and a well-known watch repair, wanted to have paintings of Bui Xuan Phai and he brought a watch to Bui Xuan Phai and asked to change it for paintings. This watch was called a “Marine” watch because it was very big and quite heavy and because it was manufactured for military and combatants when they had to dive down to the sea. Its value was, told by its owner, about USD 25 at that time. Bui Xuan Phai agreed happily. He told the guest to select any picture in the studio. Mr. Sinh Thanh immediately selected a medium-size oil painting that was the “Hanoi by night”.
Bui Xuan Phai used this watch for several days and because it was designed for military, very heavy and big, Bui Xuan Phai did not like it and he gave it to me. That was the first watch I had in my life.
After Bui Xuan Phai passed away, in 1997 Mr. Sinh Thanh sold the “Hanoi by night” for a Korean named Sambon Koo with a price of USD 12,000. After that, Mr. Koo brought this painting to Korea. Some years later, the painting was sold by auction in an exhibition. A Japanese person bought this painting a very high price of USD 75,000. Some people joked “if that amount is used to buy watches then we must use a sack to contain them”.
Until the 1980s, when the situation changed, life of that painter also changed. Foreign customers were allowed to the studio and bought paintings of Bui Xuan Phai. Therefore, owning a watch was neither a dream nor a big problem to him but he was still haunted by time budget. One day Bui Xuan Phai met a leader of the City in a meeting, this man knew Bui Xuan Phai from a long time ago then he asked intimately:
– What would you wish if you have one?
The painter answered:
– I would wish that one day had 25 hours, therefore each day I will have one more hour for work.
In the diary of this famous painter, people find a poem written about time by Bui Xuan Phai:
Time passes so quickly
And no one can stop it
Let’s paint when your heart is still in beat
Because it can stop at anytime
A story about the painter

Story artists
In Bui Xuan Phai time, it was about foreign languages that one time he was reflected and worried by his neighbor when this person came to meet the authority: “I have never seen him go to work as other people. He just stays at home, pours out colors then applies them and erases them later. I often hear him arguing with guest, I did not know the reason why these men just spoke to each other in foreign languages?”
You may wonder whether Bui Xuan Phai was “France-support” or not (we should understand he supported France in what aspects?). In general, I think that most of Vietnamese painters are all “France-support”. It means they consider French paintings standard. To list name of well-known painters who have respectful achievements, I realize that all of them had to go through the “Ecole de Paris” gate.
There were often many artists visiting Bui Xuan Phai’s house. In war-time, this was also considered grouping of people and those people might be reminded by local government. For many times these artists argued so loudly that made the neighbors think that conflict was about to come soon and report to the local government. Bui Xuan Phai was also asked to come and he was reminded and noted that: next time, if he still let guests argue loudly like that, the government would assign civil defense group to come and tie one by one. But after that, the local government also asked Bui Xuan Phai to paint two quite large paintings to decorate for the election of the quarter.

There was a painting in an American senator’s house
In war-time, one time Bui Xuan Phai received a letter of notice of Ministry of Home Affairs inviting him to the office. On the day of receiving the invitation, Bui Xuan Phai was very worried and in a divided mind. He was sleepless at night and got up to smock makhorka continuously. He tried to find out a solution but he could not because he could not know what was waiting him at that place. In the following morning, family members saw off him at the gate with sadness and he went to the direction where he was supposed to come.
Late at noon, Bui Xuan Phai came home with less stressful expression; he smiled and explained: “Police heard that there is one of my paintings in an American senator’s house. They asked me to explain about that matter but I told them that I have never contacted with any foreigners at private house to sell or give them my paintings”.
The fact that Phai’s painting was present in an American senator’s house was a quite serious problem at that time and it made people surprise. No one knew how it had come to such a place.

I doubt that I am a talent
Painter Viet Hai told me a story happened from 1958. At that time Viet Hai was a student in the University of Arts in charge and taught by Bui Xuan Phai. In the meeting on “Criticism and self-criticism” in which Viet Hai was a secretary and was responsible for recording self-criticism of his teacher. In that very exciting meeting, Vu Giang Huong (also a student of Bui Xuan Phai) took the chair. “So many problems were discussed but I have almost forgotten all because it has been a very long time, but I still remember the answer of Bui Xuan Phai to the question ‘what does the painter paint for?’, he said ‘I paint to make clear about three things: I am a good man. I am a patriot. I am a talent”.
In 1984, being a guest to attend the opening ceremony of Phai’s first private exhibition, Viet Hai asked Bui Xuan Phai about the story of 30 years before: “What will you answer now if you are asked the same question?”
Bui Xuan Phai replied:
– I still answer the same. However, I want to edit the third sentence: I doubt that I am a talent.

Which hand is left, which one is right?
One day Bui Xuan Phai visited film director Tran Thinh and he drank with his friend until the sun was down then he wanted to come back home. On seeing that Bui Xuan Phai was groggy, Tran Thinh took another bicycle to follow Phai. Bui Xuan Phai was going ahead on his bicycle; he passed an intersection while he ought to turn left. Seeing that, Tran Thinh shouted:
– Hey Phai, turn right.
But Bui Xuan Phai was too drunk at that time, he asked:
– Thinh, tell me which hand is left and which one is right?

A king and the poet
One time poet Vu Dinh Lien happily visited Bui Xuan Phai and told him that Vu had just been honored “a king”. People were so surprised and asked him when and where. Master Vu said:
– Just recently when I was walking in the street then a driver stuck out of his glass door and shouted at me: “Hey guy, you are walking like a king in the street!” The poet seemed to be very enjoyable because “I have never been called a king before’.
On hearing that, someone told him: “A king is not enjoyable as a poet at all”. Vu Dinh Lien was astounded for a while then slapping his hand on his thigh strongly:
– Yeah, I’ve just told you what happened to me in the street. I shall never exchange the title “a poet” for “a king”.

Burn incenses and send to the winds
After each poem composed by poet Vu Dinh Lien, Bui Xuan Phai was always the first one who had to stay and listen to the poem.
And most of Vu’s poems were illustrated by Phai. In that time when photocopy machine was not present, so that if Vu wanted to release a poem volume, he had to copy it manually to give to his friends and once again Bui Xuan Phai was the one who designed the cover. Collectors today are still seeking those manually-copied volumes with figures painted by Bui Xuan Phai with very high price. In such old days, Vu Dinh Lien had a sentence in his poem: “Book has its cover before it is printed”.
Poet Vu Dinh Lien composed some more poems for the topic “School teacher”, including the “Communist School teacher” and he asked Bui Xuan Phai to illustrate. After reading it, Phai said that:
– How can I paint a Communist school teacher wearing a ready-to-ware turban and silk dress while sitting with arms clasping his knees and writing parallel sentences? He refused because he knew he would face with trouble for that. After that, Vu suggested Bui Xuan Phai to paint a peach branch as its figure.
Another time, once again Bui Xuan Phai illustrated for one of Vu’s poems. The painter selected the sentence “To burn incense and send to the wind” in the poem that he sympathized fully. Bui Xuan Phai painted a burning heart. After that, a guest wanted to buy the painting, he refused and said:
– It has the spirit of “to burn incense and send to the winds”, why should I sell it? Then he asked me to bring the painting to Vu Dinh Lien. After that, because Vu Dinh Lien liked that painting so much that he used it as the logo of Huong Lua half-storey at 11 Hang Bong, where Vu and his friends used to gather to discuss arts. At the beginning, the poet intended to name the half-story as Culture Temple but people said it seemed to be overstated then he named his “head quarter” as Huong Lua.

Pretend to be a statue
One day Bui Xuan Phai had to go for an urgent work, but he saw Vu Dinh Lien coming at the gate when he was going to go. Bui Xuan Phai was subtle and he did not want his friend to receive his apology then he immediately climbed up to the stone mortar in the yard. He kept silent and unmoved to pretend to be a statue. Master Vu passed the “statue” without noting it.

Responsibility to figures
One time painter Bui Xuan Phai agreed to paint figures for a short story. The figure was a buffalo. It took him half of a day to find out a suitable buffalo image but he failed. Of course he could paint a buffalo based on his memory, but he felt that he had to be responsible for his painting. He was wavering between ears and horns of the buffalo, which ones were in the front and which ones were behind. After that he went to ask his friends: “The ears of a buffalo are they in front or behinds the horns?” His friends did not know either. Finally, he had someone taken him to the countryside where the buffaloes were grazing on the fields. On seeing the buffaloes, he was so happy and noted carefully position of the ears and horns on to his notebook.
By this story we can see his very high responsibility when creating a works no matter how it was big or small. His most famous theme was about the Old Quarter but very few people knew that he understood deeply about every detail, every structure of old houses. He loved it, felt it and in fact it was imported into his mind.

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