Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes [Part 3]

Bui Xuan Phai - Self Portrait

Ministry of Foreign Affairs ordered a painting
Ministry of Foreign Affairs once ordered the painter to paint a portrait as a gift for a very important foreigner. That time the official of the Ministry brought 2 envelopes, one contained the picture of that person and another thicker one which perhaps contained money. Bui Xuan Phai opened the envelope containing the picture and he was surprised by seeing that it was a picture of a black Westerner. He immediately put the picture back to the envelope and said to the guest:
– I have never painted a portrait of a black person so I am not confident to accept this.

The portrait of Tran Thinh
Film director Tran Thinh once ordered Bui Xuan Phai to paint him a portrait. For the purpose of saving cost, Tran Thinh gave Bui Xuan Phai a portrait painted by another painter. Tran Thinh had been given this portrait but he did not like it then he intended to use this instead of having to buy a new canvas. Tran Thinh told Bui Xuan Phai to paint over it but the painter refused steadfastly, he said:
– This is a spiritual son of a painter. If you don’t like it then you should give it to another person. It is not good to destroy works of the others, but it is worse when one paints over another painting. I am sure no painter could do in such a way.
On hearing that, Tran Thinh immediately took that painting home and he came back later with a new canvas. Bui Xuan Phai accepted to paint a portrait for Tran Thinh. When the painting was complete, Tran Thinh asked Phai to write the “Kiều” letter to the book that Tran Thinh was holding on hands (in the portrait) but Phai steadfastly refused:
Writing “Kiều” letter to that book is not difficult at all but I don’t like because of my conception about arts and because I am the one who is responsible for the painting, not you.
Finally Tran Thinh agreed in happiness because he found it suitable and also because the painting was so wonderful.
Today, the portrait of Tran Thinh is in France in a collection of Mrs. Tham Do Thu who has announced many times that: “When I am still alive, never should anyone ask me combien (how much) this painting is”. However, in early April 2008, the painting appeared at the top painting-bidding house of the world: Sotheby’s. Sotheby’s was once exposed to the public that it was selling a fake painting, the portrait of Tran Thinh, with the price of USD 77,996.

You cannot be hurry in arts
During his last years in life, reputation of Phai was spreading and going far. Quite many foreigners came to buy his paintings and some rich families started ordering him to paint portraits for them. A rich person who was fond of birds and ornamental plants ordered him to paint a portrait with a request that Phai had to paint a television with that person inside. Bui Xuan Phai refused and the rich person resigned himself to accept whatever Phai wanted to paint. Phai said:
– Someday when amenity comes, I shall call you here for painting.
The rich person came back home and kept waiting, but as some weeks passed with no call from the painter, he came to the painter’s and asked:
– Has amenity come to you today?
Several times with such a question, Bui Xuan Phai had to explain:
–    If the portrait is just seen by you then it is easy to paint and I can do it right now. But if you want others to see it and like it then it is another problem. You cannot be hasty in arts, my friend.
The story reveals that paintings of Bui Xuan Phai had inspired and stirred viewers because they were all originated from love. He once said: “I can only paint a nice works when I really love and have a passion for the theme that I am painting”.
The portrait of Mai Trang
Another time, a girl name Mai Trang, who was formerly the noodle seller in Hue, ordered Bui Xuan Phai a portrait. When the painting was about to finish, Mai Trang watched it and suggested the painter:
– I would like you to add some gold circles on the wrist and a gold chain on my neck to make me more luxurious.
Bui Xuan Phai said:
–    It is not because I do not want to give you some “painted” gold circles but it because if I painted them to the painting then its harmonious color shall be broken for it has been almost finished. For your wish, I shall paint a gold ring on your finger, it is ok?
On hearing that, people and Mai Trang laughed happily together then people advised her to let Phai paint what he like.

“Ore” turns into “crow”
Since then, painter Nang Hien kept away from reporters and he would talk nothing to them because a newspaper once had said that painter Bui Xuan Phai once commented about Nang Hien: “You are a crow”.
I met Nang Hien by chance and when I asked him about the strange article, he complained hastily:
– I was also shocked into a daze when reading that article. Isn’t it enraging! Everyone knew that Phai was a good-natured person and he shall never call his friend a crow. The reason is that I once invited Master Bui to my house on the occasion that I had just finished a new painting series. After watching, Phai kept silence and said nothing. I asked Phai to give ideas, he just said that: “You are ore” then he left. During that night I kept thinking about his comment and when I understood his implication. I was so happy then because the comment assessed my real capacity. My paintings have not emerged because they were just ore!
Ore is precious but it is not a finished product. If one wants to offer something as goods then it must be processed no matter it is gold ore or metal ore. Even diamond, it must be sharpened and cut before it becomes a precious diamond. My paintings that time lacked something that Phai could not explain immediately then he used the word “ore”, which was really a right word.
I asked painter Nang Hien:
–    Why did not you explain like that to the reporter to make him understand?
He replied:
–    I did imitated Phai by saying the same sentence like him then I left to make me more inscrutable. I did not know if the reporter was little hard of hearing or she did not deduce about the sentence that she thought Bui Xuan Phai had called me a crow. I did not know why the newspaper posted this, maybe they thought that Phai wanted to make a sublime pun!

The marvelous prediction
Inter vivos, in addition to the fact that Bui Xuan Phai was often forced to be a grudging “model” for photographers to take portrait, he was once an “actor” for a feature film, named The last hope by director Tran Phuong, in which there was a scene of a painter who was working. For this scene, director Tran Phuong immediately thought of Bui Xuan Phai and asked him to act this painter. The director told him:
– You just stand as every day when you paint then there will be a guest coming to find your neighbor’s. When the guest asks you, you answer and point to the third floor. That’s all!
Bui Xuan Phai accepted. On the proposed day, the film makers came to perform the scene. Bui Xuan Phai was working naturally as every day because he had gotten used to it for dozens of years. Then the guest came and asked him:
– Could you please show me where Phuong’s house is?
Bui Xuan Phai stopped painting and replied:
– Phuong is on the third floor. Then he pointed up to the floor.
His job was done then. Bui Xuan Phai also felt interesting, he smiled and said:
–    It’s majestic for I am also an actor now!
My mother was happy too, she told Phai:
–    That was the film then you should not point to the third floor as there will be someone who actually asks you the same question.
People all laughed because there was a coincidence. The character named Phuong in the film was also my name and the difference was that the third floor was a neighbor’s. My house was just the first floor on those days. However, one thing that nobody could think of at that time that the third floor of the house No. 87 Thuoc Bac finally became my house. In the old time, that whole building had been of my grandfather’s but he had sold it a long time before and just kept the first floor. My grandfather sold it then I redeemed it). I felt marvelous because Bui Xuan Phai had a marvellous “prediction”.

Artists’ nature
I have seen some young painters who delude themselves by creating a style of great artists. I felt very ridiculous on seeing these amateur “actors” (on TV or in streets).
Some painters at about forties shave their head or have long hair, or grab the hair as a short-pig-tail, wear round glasses like John Lennon or create a tense face of an ascetic Taoist hermit to prove that they are not out of date. On seeing them, I just keep far away. Everyone knows how good their works are then it is no good of pretending like that.
In fact, artistry admirers (in over the world) do not care about the appearance and no one cares how body and nature of an artist. People just pay attention to these artists’ works based on which they will know who and where these artists are. Despite the fact that art is different from real life for it is upgraded from life to a new and eye-catching level and therefore art-related people are often strange, but if you know the four legendary people Sang-Nghiem-Lien-Phai then their strange characters, if any, only exist in their innermost feelings. If you contact with these maitres, you will see that they are simple and easy-going. If there are some “artistry features” then they should be considered their habit, or we better call their nature. They do not have to “act” as actors.
Maitres that I have known are all in disregard of their appearance and they are rarely close-shaven and smartly dressed. Clothes are often convenient they use what are available to them. In addition, in their time, there was no pressure of mass media as it is now. Such artists perhaps did not have any pictures in newspaper or any interview. Then why did they have to “act”? They could live naturally then it was because of the context of the country? And if they had not had a quiet process with very hard working spirit, would their works have been so successful like that? More important, in my opinion, they were audacious artists who swam against the mainstream flow to find their own ways in creating arts, making works that were welcome hesitantly and indifferently but now become the ones that have been acknowledged by the whole society. Living in poor and constrained conditions, which flame would be strong enough to create “fine gold” of the nation if there was not a history like that?

An artist was mistaken with a ward official
Early time after liberation in the South, painter Duong Bich Lien visited Sai Gon. He was surprised when coming to the red-lamp area of debauchees in Sai Gon because all girls ran away and kept far away from him as immediately as possible. So confusing then he met a person to ask about what was happening there. Then he knew that he was wearing a military-color hat (Southerners never wore this kind of hat) so he made those beautiful girls panic-stricken because they had thought that Duong Bich Lien was a ward official going on a patrol.

Habit of artists
Painter Nguyen Sang had a funny habit that he liked squatting although he had many chairs. People felt compassion for him and told him to sit on chair; he was surly and almost shouted:
-If I sit on chair, I can never think of any nice things.
The image that Nguyen Sang always squatted near the sofa when he came to my house always made me feel funny.

Strangers are not welcomed
One day the artistry critic Thai Ba Van visited the famous painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem together with an overseas Vietnamese. On seeing that the door was closed, Mr. Van knocked the door and said:
– Hello Nghiem, please open the door.
Seeing through the lock hole, painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem recognized Mr. Van and a stranger then he did not open the door and said from inside:
– If you come alone then I shall open the door now.
That was a habit of the four Sang, Nghiem, Lien, Phai. They hated sitting with strangers, except Bui Xuan Phai because he was formally natural and hospitable. However, he had to be careful with each sentence talked to a stranger. In that time, these artists used to doubt strangers as “indicators”.

Poets were often “eccentric”
Poet Vu Dinh Lien was also famous for his being “eccentric”. He often dressed casually and carelessly. One day he was invited to attend the National Celebration at the Embassy of France. He was about to go when his friends told him:
You should not go to the Embassy with this dress. With this dress, there shall be nobody who can recognize who you are; no one shall recognize you as the author of “School teacher” poem and no one can measure your inside heart. You should wear a vest to be suitable with the ceremony, if not you may be asked to come back as you first appear at the door.
The poet said:
-But I do not have a vest.
His friend said:
-We shall lend you one
The poet replied:
-I do not care to anything that you can lend me. Anything that is not mine shall not by mine forever.
As a result, he was stopped right at the door because it was written clearly in the invitation that “Dress: Smart Casual”.

My ideal of life
One day, while sitting together and discussing arts and poems, suddenly poet Vu Dinh Lien asked Bui Xuan Phai about standpoint, which made others startle: “Phai, what is your ideal of life?” After a moment of thinking, Bui Xuan Phai answered: “My ideal of life is to make people happy”.

Isn’t that much complication enough to you?
Author of “School Teacher” poem was a talkative person who liked to read his own poems very much. When reading his poems, he wanted people to keep silence and listen to him. I remember one day he came to my house but it was unfortunate for him that on that day painter Nguyen Sang also visited Bui Xuan Phai. As usual, the poet took the draft out from a bag and started reading it.
Painter Nguyen Sang stood up pat and shouted loudly:
-Just stop now! Life has been so importunate, isn’t that much complication enough to you?

He is my husband
Inter vivos, painter Luu Cong Nhan was quite proud, accomplished and very humorous. One time he visited Bui Xuan Phai and told a story that: One day he had a rush work and he had to meet his wife for direct discussion before making an important decision and so he was forced to go to an organization which was strictly protected and his wife was the manager there. When Luu Cong Nhan came to the office, he was stopped by a guard and told be keep standing there to wait for the manager. On being reported about the event and identification characters of the guest, the manager smiled and said tenderly: “Just tell him to come in”. The guard hesitated and, to make sure, he reported again: “But this man is wearing shorts, long hair and he looks quite swaggering…” The female lady was angry: “I’ve told you to let him in and please do that. He is my husband”.

Painting portraits with coffee
One time gathering with friends at Lam café, when highly inspired with tea and wine and also with the eyes and smile of beautiful girls, Bui Xuan Phai performed a series of “Nga’s portrait” as suggested by his friends.
On that day, because of lacking facilities and colors then the painter made up his mind to use black coffee and ink to paint. When he finished painting, there were total 30 paintings counted. The painter gave these paintings to people there. Ms. Nga was give preference for selecting first and she took 5 paintings for herself; poet Duong Tuong took twelve and painter Luu Cong Nhan and others shared the remaining paintings.
Many years ago, people sold one of these paintings on domestic arts “floor” with fall-back price of USD 2400 and Ms. Nga, who had owned 5 portraits of herself painted by Bui Xuan Phai, was the model in the memorable afternoon and was hunted actively by rich people who wanted to perform “retrieval order”, as they might say in a funny way.
I also want to know the fate of Ms. Nga’s portraits painted with coffee by Bui Xuan Phai, whether they are still in Vietnam or have gone to a certain faraway place?

I miss you every day!
Visiting the Capital one day, composer Trinh Cong Son suggested Bui Xuan Phai paint him a portrait as memory and, as to please the painter, Trinh promised to send the painter a paint-box once he came back to Sai Gon. Phai was very happy to hear that and he accepted immediately. He took out tools and painted Trinh Cong Son’s portrait as an oil painting with a quite large size. After that, Trinh Cong Son came back to Sai Gon with the painting and the painter Bui kept waiting the gift, the paint-box, at home but it did not come. He thought that the composer had forgotten the promise because he was also too busy every day. Then one day, painter Bui was very happy when receiving a letter sent by Trinh Cong Son from Sai Gon, in which Trinh wrote: “I miss you every day!”
As a mischievous man and because he also wanted to remind the composer of the paint-box, painter Bui Xuan Phai replied by writing that: “I miss Son (Oil) every day too!”

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