Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes [Part 7]

The uniqueness in Cheo’s painting of Bui Xuan Phai  
Beside street topic that contributed to make the name of Bui Xuan Phai spread far and far beyond the border of the country and become a celebrity at international level because of his artistic life and huge number of art works, Bui Xuan Phai still had other “tricky” topic that was Cheo. In this topic, he was also occupied the absolute position in the painting community of Viet Nam. As mentioning about Cheo painting, Bui Xuan Phai is the first painter who should be taken into consideration with outstanding works on this topic. No one denied the fact that Cheo’s Phai has reached the utmost beauty on painting in the point of view of folklore stage. It can be said that outstanding works of Bui Xuan Phai on Cheo have disheartened those who wish to enter into this topic. Before and after his death, no painter had success work in the Cheo topic.
No precise statistic has been made on how many works Bui Xuan Phai has made in the Cheo topic, but people knew that his first work on this topic was signed in 1961. In this topic, his paintings were less meditative and lonesome than that in the street painting topic. Paintings on Cheo topic contained funny folk aesthetic of Northern villages. Drunken clown, stick joker, singer, mirroring young girl or backstage scenes of actors before performing time … are revived by the language of painting which is colloquial and conventional like Cheo’s performance.
Critics assumed that aesthetic reaction of Bui Xuan Phai to the Cheo stage is friendly and humane. Bui Xuan Phai has joined himself into festivities with the sound and rhythm of Northern village, intending to discover one more national painting color. Bui Xuan Phai has made specific language for Cheo by the unique language of painting, imbued with national identity (as people called it). His character, a variation of thousand years of countrymen, appears poetry, deeply and delicately.
In 1961, Bui Xuan Phai decorated for Golden silk cord play. From this, he discovered the good and beauty of Cheo, creating his own view and supplementing an important topic to his gigantic artistic heritage. In contrary with ancient street topic, in the Cheo topic, along with the illustrators for the Cheo clown book in 1981 and illustrators for Ho Xuan Huong poem that made people discover a young and funny Bui Xuan Phai.
I have witnessed one of Bui Xuan Phai Cheo’s paintings was paid 70.000 USD by an international collector, but the owner just smiled and refused to sell. It is common sense that money cannot be used to measure the value of the art, because numbers cannot tell much, even inaccurate. And some works of other Vietnamese painters might exceed the price of Bui Xuan Phai paintings. But taking into consideration in terms of devoting to the national cultural heritage with variety and outstanding as those of Phai, no one can do like him before and after his age. Up to now, personality and talent of Bui Xuan Phai are still the top of mountain pass that challenges other Vietnamese painter and people realize that it is hard to overcome.

Bui Xuan Phai with nude painting
In painting, nude topic has been seen ups and downs and was taken very close watch. Some people like to see, some like to draw, but for some people, as mentioning about nude they sake their head an turn conversation. But this topic still exists for hundreds of years. It can be said that every painter does nude painting more than once.
Nude painting started its journey from Europe to Ecole des Beaux Arts d’Indochine in Hanoi. Nude women topic also infiltrated and occupied the heart and mind of painters who graduated from this school; however, it was not fully exploited as in the Europe. From the beginning, painters just only did “light” topics such as motherhood, Girl by tuberoses… The reason was that during the 1930s, Vietnamese society was not fully liberated from feudal rites.  The concept of “no touch between opposite sex” was so prevalent that nude painting was impossible (with the naked figure in the guestroom). Cleavage like Le Mur long dress (Ao dai Le Mur) was also too cool.
In the modern art market, nude painting is always hot and vogue topic. Some artists take nude paintings as a reason or basic to express their aesthetic idea. But some do it not for that purpose, but for describing the beauty of woman, from body to face. That is the case of Modigliani. Among the painters so far, no painter is able to draw woman as beautiful as  Modigliani. Talking about this talented painter with nude painting, whoever well-informed of painting is highly admired the talent of handsome and vagabond artist (he died very young, 37 years old).
Did Vietnamese painters like nude painting? The answer was yes. But the lack of condition of model and workshop made them unable to do it or if they could, they did it without model. Nude painting had been seen in some painters, but seeing their paintings viewers had come to realize that they made it up and no model. Therefore, their works are usually superficial, less communicative and hard to be persuasive aesthetically and sexually.
Painter Bui Xuan Phai fond of nude painting topic and he did quite a lot. This topic had been extensively exploited by him during the 1960s of the last century. By that time, Bui Xuan Phai was at age of forty, so he was at the peak of creativity energy as well as passion for the beauty of women body. Almost all of his nude paintings were real (with model). At that time, he usually came to his friend’s house that had workshop to draw. His groups often comprised of 3 to 4 painters. They shared money to hire model for painting. Nearly half century past, but his friends still recalled famous and beautiful models at that time such as miss Thom, miss Hoa…
It seemed contrary that old, good-natured and shy painter Bui Xuan Phai had surprised people by his small nude paintings. Gestures that he drawn by heart had become Phai’s specifics and typical for Vietnamese women: hunching backs, pants under hips while prepare bathing, girls of Ho Xuan Huong poem that makes “gentlemen do not want to leave… ”. He said: “ my nude paintings were just passed ideas that belonged to the past”. However, as seeing his paintings, it was supposed that Bui Xuan Phai was the person who took great pains on practicing drawing. It was said that he was the best painter on drawing. Therefore, his imagination was so magnificent due to the fact that he was so absorbed and familiar with each rhythm and curve in the body of a woman. And we also knew that how powerful as the energy was suppressed. The older the age the more painting on erotic was usual. Picasso is the typical one.
Artist Phuong introduced to you some paintings of Bui Xuan Phai on nude topic that after finishing, he hurriedly faced it down against the wall because the house was small and many children went in and out his workshop, including me.

Abstract painting of Bui Xuan Phai
What is art? Bui Xuan Phai always sought for the answer by different ways, from figurative or non-figurative. He was absorbed in searching for the true value of art with experiments in abstract works. In this topic, viewers recognized that it was not exaggerating to be worldly-wise or it was not using too much art techniques to make it complicated and hard to understand, all abstract works in this topic were carefully and seriously drawn. Seeing abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai, people realized that he was so influenced by Street. Some people wanted to name the series of abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai as “Street unconscious”. It seemed reasonable that Bui Xuan Phai had expanded the feeling of viewer to infinity. You can find the signs of street with roofs, gables, windows, trees, sun and some human figures in the abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai.
There was an abstract paintings exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai in 87 Thuoc Bac street. In this exhibition, for the first time, 37 abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai had been displayed for public viewer of the capital. This topic, together with nude painting, was categorized as “taboo” at the time Bui Xuan Phai lived. By that time, when finished, painter had to face it down again the wall or put it into trunk. I remembered, whenever Bui Xuan Phai finished a series of abstract paintings, he only opened the tin trunk where he kept nude and abstract paintings for very close friends who familiar with art to see them. When seeing these abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai, I suddenly recalled the image of Bui Xuan Phai opening the tin trunk, taking out each painting and introducing to his friends. And I could hear them whisper, discuss and comment excitingly, together with giggle sometimes…
Note: abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai in the art market had become abstract and hard to understand as themselves, because of the surprise it made as it triggering the passion and excitement of the international collector. Almost all abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai were hunted and bought by international collector. Up to now, there are only 2 or 3 abstract paintings of Bui Xuan Phai in Viet Nam that belonged to collector Tran Hau Tuan who is now living in Sai Gon.

Bui Xuan Phai with Tet painting
It was not known exactly when Bui Xuan Phai drawing Tet painting. It was known that the first painting “Teacher” was done on the Tet of 1957. Since then, as spring comes he often began new-year drawing with various topics: teacher, drunken old man, girl embracing flower, still-life… but mainly teacher painting. In “Teacher” Tet painting of Bui Xuan Phai, viewer realized that he manifested the spirit of the painting according to the mood of each year. It could be the feeling of the viewer so that they categorized and named for each “Teacher” Tet painting of Bui Xuan Phai as: large customer teacher, drunken teacher… In each “Teacher” painting, the most interesting and also valuable thing are the signature of the author.
For the photographer Tran Van Luu, Bui Xuan Phai had given him more favor than other friends by giving him and his family a large-size poster to welcome New Year. About the Tet painting for Mr. Luu, it was funny and lively: if it is the year of the Horse, the painter drawn Mr. Luu leading the hours; if it is the year of buffalo, the painter drawn Mr. Luu riding buffalo; ; if it is the year of goat, the painter drawn Mr. Luu embracing goat. For the year of tiger, because Mr. Luu was passed away, so I missed the chance to ask Mr. Luu how Bui Xuan Phai  drawing Mr. Luu by the tiger. It is because that in the 12 animal designation series, tiger was missed.
Not until the country re-united in 1975, as some of his friends moved to Ho Chi Minh city, the hand-drawing greeting card of Bui Xuan Phai began to appear. The reason was that he received greeting card from his friend in the South and he needed to reply to them. He sent the letter with the hand-drawing greeting card with saying Happy New Year to Lưu Công Nhân, Trần Trung Tín, Thái Tuấn. Trần Văn Nuôi…Gradually, friends in Hanoi loved it and as usual habit, before Tet, they passed by Thuoc Bac street to give him pack of tea or bottle of wine and asked him for hand-drawing Happy New Year card.
At the time of Bui Xuan Phai, as Tet comes, people had the habit of buying pre-printed card “New year, New victory”, then write the greeting words on the back. Hand-drawing greeting card was rarely used. Only Bui Xuan Phai did so in this time. But Bui Xuan Phai only gave hand-drawing greeting card for those in the artistic community. For several times, painter Nguyen Tu Nghiem presented Bui Xuan Phai very nice Tet painting of 12 animals. As I remembered the Tet painting class was done for fun and for souvenir. Collectors only paid their attention to the stature works, no one ever asked or ordered Tet painting. Even painter did it, it was not for sale. They did it just for souvenir.
Last year, Sotheby’s had introduced the New year greeting card of Bui Xuan Phai and sold with the price of 6.000 USD. This was the highest price known for the hand-drawing greeting card of Bui Xuan Phai. The size of this painting was just as small as envelop that he did it as new year come for his friends.
Of the 12 animals, there are two which specifically fond of by Bui Xuan Phai and he drawn them quite a lot, that are cat and horse. For horse only, it has presented in many important works of Bui Xuan Phai.
Drunken old men topic was also favorite one of Bui Xuan Phai as spring comes. He often begins new year drawing by drunken old men painting. It was not clear that whether he wanted to be drunk all year around or not, but for the passion of art he was really drunk all the year.
Remembering as Bui Xuan Phai drawing, suddenly comes the voice of writer Tran Le Van from the door:
– Mr. Phai, drunken old men died. This Tet has no fun without drunken old man.
Hearing that, Bui Xuan Phai started, he asked his friend in a thunderstruck voice:
– Who die? Which drunken old man?
Writer Tran Le Van told him:
– Last time, you gave me drunken old man painting. I took it home. As passing by West lake, strong wind blew away the painting. So drunken old man jumped into the lake and disappeared.
Now Bui Xuan Phai understood. He smiled and replied:
– I will give you another one. That drunken old man is still in mine. It cannot be lost. I just wave my hand and then he appears. It is easy.

The first and the last Street painting
Phai’s painting lover is everywhere but very few people has the chance to have their own eyes contemplating these artworks. Recently, a rare exhibition named “Works of Bui Xuan Phai over time” held in Goethe Institute, Hanoi to celebrate his 90th birthday has brought about fresh feeling to viewer. At this exhibition, though 36 paintings from family collection, Tran Hau Tuan and Bui Quoc Chi collector are unremarkable numbers, but it is the great effort of the artwork owner presenting to the painting lover, in which there is meaningful painting: Hang Phen street.
All his life, Bui Xuan Phai draws a lot of paintings with various topics, but the most successful one is the lacquer painting. During his study in Ecole des Beaux Arts d’ Indochine, his work has been sent abroad to participate in an exhibition in Tokyo when he was very young in terms of both age and carrier. Lacquer painting “Hang Phen street” has been sold immediately at that time. But it was pretty pity that no one knew where it was and people only knew that this was the first painting he sold and also the first painting about street topic. By that time, he was 20 years old. But it was his deep concern because, until now, nobody knows where the original of “Hang Phen street”. The loss of trace of “Hang Phen street” painting made him so sad.
Later, in the end years of his life lying on the bed, struggling against the lung cancer, he redrew the “Hang Phen street” painting. It was a bit pity that the painting was unfinished. At present, that unfinished painting is in the collection of Tran Hau Tuan collector. Until the end of his life, it was the concern of the artist whose life stick with Hanoi. It was not the sadness about his first one that made the mark to the world painting, but also the sadness about the corner street of Hanoi that could not be seen. Passing by Hang Phen, Hang Mam street … people can see now the poles, roofs and also Hanoi girls, but people cannot find the silence, lonesome of the street corners of the old Hanoi that presented in the painting of Bui Xuan Phai. That is the reason why the Hang Phen street painting would never finish.
From the 1960s of the last century, at the age of 40, he was recognized as the master painter in the Vietnamese painting with the new painting language. Thousands of paintings, ten thousands of houses, hundreds of portrays… under his drawing seem containing strange spirit with specific tempo and hidden love about Hanoi. That is the reason why Phai’s street painting lovers want to seek and keep his drawing. It is just to keep for future generation to see the beauty of Hanoi that has dim sadness but full of memories and love.
The last drawing of Bui Xuan Phai for himself was his foot. The paragraph “while sick, time passes by slowly! Especially dawn” was placed near the foot, on the sketch, expressing slightly as the breath of people setting foot on the boundary of the death and live. That foot has gone through many ups and downs of time.

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