Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes [Part 5]

Bui Xuan Phai and his son Bui Thanh Phuong

A story about teacher Dam
Bui Xuan Phai was famous for his portraits of his friends, colleagues and painting admirers such as writer Nguyen Tuan, photographer Tran Van Luu, writer – film director Luu Quang Vu, painter Nguyen Sang, teacher Vu Dinh Lien, composer Trinh Cong Son, especially the series of portraits of teacher Dam. It is possible to say that the person with the most number of portraits painted by Phai was teacher Dam. The teacher often visited the painter every day from the time that Phai was living in poor and humble conditions. From the 1960s, 1970s, this collector was painted with over 200 portraits by Bui Xuan Phai with all kinds of materials. The most special and impressive ones were the series of portraits of teacher Dam painted on match-boxes. These twelve tiny portraits, maybe the smallest portrait series in Vietnam, were painted on twelve match-boxes.
In my memory, I thought that old teacher Dam was the one who was close and understood Phai’s innermost feelings deeply. Behaviors of old teacher Dam with Phai were most reasonable and full of gratitude in compared with other collectors that time. Old teacher Dam was also a strange person. He was formerly a teacher of history, with exemplary and modeling appearance. But he could still make friends with many poor students by that time, it was strange. Old teacher Dam was close-mouthed but often smiled gently and his personality was also moderate as his own name. Teacher Dam used to visit Phai’s and so Bui Xuan Phai used old teacher Dam as a model for painting. Sometimes old teacher Dam asked Phai to give him the painting that he felt interesting because it seemed that both Phai and teacher Dam had had tacit agreement about that. They considered that a way of rewarding to teacher Dam for his visits to get more knowledge about painting from the painter while sitting as a model for him to paint.
In respects of the mutual mental relation and position of these two persons, there was a quite big difference about art viewpoint. Therefore I had never seen any argument about art between Bui Xuan Phai and old teacher Dam. They came together for emotion, sympathy and understanding.
One time in 1964, my mother told Bui Xuan Phai to ask his friends if he could borrow them money to build a half-storey for him to have more space for the studio. Phai came to meet Mr. Lam “Cafe”; Lam shook his head and said “What a pity! I wish you came to see me yesterday because I have just lent my grandchild from countryside all of my money”. After that Bui Xuan Phai came to old teacher Dam and Dam couple not only agreed to lend him but also assigned relative to take Bui Xuan Phai home. That was the only time I knew Bui Xuan Phai had to borrow money from his friends for his wife’s will for that he felt so broken-hearted and complex. That was really a strong punishment to the painter’s inner soul, which was very sensitive and self-respectful. With the amount of money borrowed from old teacher Dam, my family successfully built a half-storey for Bui Xuan Phai. From that time, Phai officially had his own studio although it was short of light and very narrow with only 8m2. Poet Vu Dinh Lien did compose a poem about that half-storey. Because poets of that day just read poems to each other then nobody could remember it now:
In Phai’s 8m2 half-storey
There is a poem with waves and wind…
After having paid debt for teacher Dam, for dozens of years later Bui Xuan Phai still told people that story and he considered the friend as his benefactor. Perhaps for that reason, Bui Xuan Phai did paint so many portraits of old teacher Nguyen Ba Dam.
However, the fact is that at the beginning these collectors just wanted to have several beautiful paintings of the painter, but gradually these paintings were like the addictive heroin that attracted them, especially paintings of Bui Xuan Phai. People had had some beautiful paintings at home, then each time visiting studio of the painter if they found more beautiful ones then they would buy these paintings at any price. And later on, if teacher Dam wanted to have a valuable painting with large size, he could not ask for it but had to order or buy it. It is possible to say that the reason why teacher Dam became a painting collector and had deep knowledge about painting was originated from Bui Xuan Phai.
Recently I met old teacher Dam, still with high and big figure with bright eyes, high nose. Dam still kept his hale and hearty appearance like in the portraits painted by Bui Xuan Phai in the old days. Old teacher Dam had a gentle and soft voice. When I met him, he told stories about Bui Xuan Phai, he said:
– Phai’s spirit was very deep but very fervid and humorous. He had a very great creative power though his stature was thin and tall. Such power was so strong that it turned moss-grown walls into valuables.
Paintings given to teacher Dam by Bui Xuan Phai have become an important motivation for him to continue his collection of ancient money. Old Dam devoted his time to collect ancient money notes that he once became penniless. Dam had to sell very beautiful portraits of Phai to supplement ancient money notes with big value in international market. Collection circles have called him a “The strange man of ancient notes in Hanoi”. Today, it is painful that the series of teacher Dam’s portraits painted by Bui Xuan Phai have been mislaid in over the world. Though teacher Dam often explains that “it was difficult to keep myself, let alone my things”, from his deep mind teacher Dam also acknowledged that he is the person who feels regret at most and suffered from biggest loss when he could not keep the whole series of teacher Dam’s portraits painted and given by Bui Xuan Phai.

A story about Mr. Duc Minh
With conditions, background and position of a capitalist helped him earn a lot of money and when he came to painting art then he seemed to be charmed with it. Painting took him almost of capital that he had created for a very long time. Sometimes he had to sell invaluable ancient objects or had to borrow to buy paintings. If he liked any painting then he would not care about the price.
Early in 1960s, Mr. Duc Minh came and started buying paintings to add to the number of paintings he had had before but with not large amount. They were paintings he bought during his trip to France such as: “Choi o an quan” by Nguyen Phan Chanh, “Thieu nu ben cay phu du” by Nguyen Gia Tri and some paintings of the world famous painter Fujita (a Japanese painter buy he lived and was famous in Paris). The “Ben hoa hue” was bought by Mr. Duc Minh from the time the France occupied Hanoi. Just with some of the mentioned works were enough for art admirer circles to have regard for him.
Mr. Duc Minh had real name as Bui Dinh Thanh (1920 – 1983). He was formerly a trader in the area of “jewellery”. And he was famous as a great aristocratic family in Hanoi in that time. He was the owner of seven silver and gold jewellery shops in Hanoi before 1954. Today, Trang Tien Plaza (Hanoi) is one of the former shops of Duc Minh family before.
With conditions, background and position of a capitalist helped him earn a lot of money and when he came to painting art then he seemed to be charmed with it. Painting took him almost of capital that he had created for a very long time. Sometimes he had to sell invaluable ancient objects or had to borrow to buy paintings. If he liked any painting then he would not care about the price.
Mr. Duc Minh owned a large and beautiful villa near Thuyen Quang Lake. From the 1960s to 1980s, he exhibited all art works that he had collected before. And perhaps that was the earliest place for art paintings exhibition in Vietnam from the date of capturing the Capital. During those decades, painters and students of Art School used to visit there to watch and exchange art information. That place was a very impressive address for foreigners to visit. That day, foreign visitors were often the ones introduced and taken there by a State officer. Therefore, Mr. Duc Minh felt very assured and proud of his special position because only him was allowed to contact with Westerners. I remember that Mr. Duc Minh was very fond of boasting about each time he had a contact with foreigners. When listening to Duc Minh talking about his stories with foreigners at his house, painters all wanted to know if their paintings made any impression the that foreigner or not. Mr. Duc Minh often talked slowly with important gestures:
– Well, “moi” saw “luy” stopped for a long time in front of paintings of “toi”.
But he would never tell them whether the foreigner was impressed by their paintings or not.
In the 1960s, 1970s, together with the establishment of Fine Art Museum, the emergence of collector Duc Minh’s art gallery had a beautiful meaning and was useful for the cultural life of the time. It helped people have a different view about another dimension of art. That was the non-socialism dimension (in simple explanation, works collected by Mr. Duc Minh were not on theme of serving for policies and guidelines because his collected paintings did not have contents for working and struggling). People made a comparison that if anyone had seen paintings in Duc Minh’s collection then they would never want to come back to the National Fine Art Museum. In 1965, Mr. Duc Minh once suggested to give all the paintings he had collected to the State under a condition that his villa would become a museum named Duc Minh. But his suggestion was not considered that time, and the dream together with his aspiration to dedicate for Hanoi a museum under the name Duc Minh went with him to the Hades.
After his death, the villa nearby the lake was sold and replaced by a high building. The majestic collection became heritage assets and was divided for his children. Of these people, some still keep the paintings but some have sold with easy-to-buy price. Especially, the collector Danh Anh once told that he had to transport many times by cyclo for the works he had bought and he just paid average price for all paintings, not for quality of each one. That was really a great anguish! That was really a huge loss for Vietnamese Art because just in some days, the greatest and most famous art collection in Vietnam had been damaged and separated in silence. The secret auction that year created subsurface waves in art market. Many fake paintings also took use of this occasion to mix with the collection because many gallery owners considered the event a chance for them to swear with foreign customers that this one or that one was bought from collection of Duc Minh family. It is fortunate for the dream of collector Duc Minh that his dream is being continued by his son Bui Quoc Chi today. He did not sell the paintings divided for him from the great collection and for years, Chi has spent money to redeem precious paintings sold by his relatives.
I did not know a lot about Duc Minh. Because when he visited Bui Xuan Phai, I was a very young child then. However, I have retained a lot of his impressive images in my mind. I cannot forget the way he bought paintings when he visited Phai’s painting studio, it was very unique. Not only did he always bargain, but when he paid for the painting, he also looked around (In fact, this is an occupational habit of collectors, and all of those who visit the painting studio look around carefully) and found a suitable painting and asked for being given as a promotion (Such painting agreed to be “given” may be more beautiful and valuable than the one bought). Never have I seen that Duc Minh failed to satisfy his wish every time he bought paintings in that way. And he also had another habit. He often visited Phai in the last days of lunar years (very closed to Tet). Since in these days, the artist badly needed money in order to pay for necessary things for Tet in his family. Therefore, once Duc Minh had selected his desired paintings, he could success in bargaining with the artist over the paintings price that he wanted. Another tactic hat Duc Minh used in buying paintings was that, before buying them, he brought them home in advance and contemplated them. During that time, he often invited other artists to contemplate the paintings and asked them for their opinions on whether he should buy them or not. Because of his careful and strict selection, art works in his collection at that time was all excellent. It should be accepted that artists living in 1960s and 1970s often considered Duc Minh their savior of their lives. I remember that, once Duc Minh visited Bui Xuan Phai, before asking to buy his paintings, Minh had told a story of the previous day. He had to meet artist Thang Long in his private house (I had not heard a words of this artist for a long time. He had fully disappeared with his name). He visited Duc Minh to tell him about his situation at that time. The artist told that in some previous days, he had had to sell his blood to a hospital in order to gain money to buy rice. Then, he had used up the rice, and he was exhausted because of alimentary abstinence for several days while was so weak. Consequently, the hospital rejects to buy his blood. Minh told that:
-Thang Long brought a bulk of paintings to my house and asked me to buy them. Feeling pity for him, I bought one to help him. I remembered Phai’s visual appearance after listening to Duc Minh’s story. He was nearly shocked; he could not say a word and bent his head. He was sad as if he had been guilty to his colleague. Duc Minh’s painting collection had paintings created by all famous artists in Dong Duong Collage of Fine Arts. The artist who has the most paintings in Minh’s collection was Bui Xuan Phai. The number of paintings was so many that by 1970s, Minh had to shout:
-My collection has had too many paintings of Bui Xuan Phai. So now I will only buy actually impressive paintings at low price.
Minh had kept his words. He only visited Phai’s painting studio once every several years. And from 1974, he stopped buying Phai’s paintings. In 1975, Vietnam was integrated into one; Ming went to live in Ho Chi Minh City. In 1969, when I was thirteen, starting to move into painting world, I had my first paintings posted in Van Nghe Newspapers. When Minh visited my family, Phai showed off the newspapers with my paintings and commented on his son:
-I see something so strange in his paintings!
After listening to the persuasive “marketing” words, he immediately asked to buy my three paintings at the same time. The feeling of ecstasy when I first earned money from my favorite job was unforgettable. And I remember clearly that after paying me, Minh turned to Phai and asked for … another painting as a promotion (he bought my paintings and ask for my father’s one). Phai had no other choice but to satisfy the collector. He selected a satisfied painting and gave to Minh in order to offset his “marketing” for his son’s paintings. Afterwards, as I remembered about that, I still think that their purpose in doing that was mainly to cheer me in fact. In 1994, however, I recognized that one of my paintings bought by Minh had been formally posted in a Hong Kong art magazine. Someone had brutally shaved my signature in the painting and replaced it with Phai’s. If the bad person had known about the story I told, he would have realized that he had insulted many people at the same time. Another memory remaining forever in my mind is that one day, after my wedding, Duc Minh accidentally visited my family from Saigon. Minh was surprised to see a new member in my family. Phai introduced:
-She is Phuong’s wife, they have just got married.
Minh offered his congratulation to me and suggested:
-I do not know about this so I do not have a gift for you. But I have a wine bottle and keep it for use when I have good occasion. On this occasion, I invite you three to visit my home by the way.
That was the first and the only time I have had a chance to see more than 1000 paintings of different types created by the most famous artists gathering in Minh’s house. I was so honored and moved to be a guest, together with my newlywed wife, moving in the middle of two people, a “legend” Bui Xuan Phai and a “legend” Duc Minh. We were shown around art galleries. Minh introduced the painting to us, named every author and also expressed his thought about them. The person by his side, Bui Xuan Phai, also added his opinions to Minh’s words on every authors and works. After that meeting with Duc Minh, I never met him again. He suddenly died in 1983 in Ho Chi Minh City.

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