Bui Xuan Phai in his son’s eyes [Part 8]

Emergency exit of Bui Xuan Phai
In a opening ceremony of illustrator and small painting exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai, Mr. Kim Sang Ug – Director of Cultural Center of Korea in Hanoi talked with me via charming and enthusiastic female interpreter.
Mr. Lim Hong Jae said: “I am so impressed with painter Bui Xuan Phai, teacher Bui Xuan Phai and also Bui Xuan Phai humanism, especially his portraits. It shown the special attention as well as the deep understanding that painter dedicated to human. Many of his works seemed made up with a smile”.
As seeing the illustrator for book and magazine, connoisseur all understood that it was the sideline job of Bui Xuan Phai that helped him earn the living during the hardship. By that time, illustrator drawing was considered the main source of income for him. It was very illustrators placed every day in the newspapers that made his name publicly known from long time ago, not the stature artistic works.
The highest international prize that he won was the Gold prize for drawing (Leipzig- Democratic Republic of Germany, prize for drawing, illustrator for “Cheo clown” book in 1982). Therefore, it can be said that, illustrator of Bui Xuan Phai accounted for important part in his carrier. That is also the exit for Bui Xuan Phai to public. When alive, he drew at least 2 to 3 illustrators a week on newspapers. If counting from 1952 to 1988, the number of illustrators was so huge.
There was reason that Bui Xuan Phai had the habit and fond of drawing small-size painting. Today, a lot of people are interested in the “mini-painture” of Bui Xuan Phai, but little knew why the author did it. At the time of Bui Xuan Phai, not only the painter was poor, but also the art lover. Even they were poorer than him. But the art of Bui Xuan Phai had fascinated people, therefore, those small paintings were the answer to respond to the sentiment that people gave to his art. It is easy to understand that small painting would use less paint, quicker and the painter would have more time for other paintings. Right from that time, this small painting was called, in funny way, emergency exit of Bui Xuan Phai.
Guest often asked the small painting that was almost in the palm as souvenir when visited his house. Bui Xuan Phai took out brush and paint, then finish with ease. His way of drawing, for those knowledgeable in art judged that: the faster the drawing, the nicer the painting and especially the most moved paintings was when he was drunk. He said: “when jump into drawing, I need wine just for both igniting and helping myself more confident and venturous”.
Today, experts in Phai’s painting when looking at each painting of Bui Xuan Phai can estimate how much he had drank.
It is an additional information about “mini-painture” on the pack of cigarette, matchbox or on the small carton. Bui Xuan Phai did it partly because of humoring his friend and it was also one of his pleasures that consume less time and material. At that time, fan of Phai’s painting was pleased as he gave them some mini-painture, and they also respected his artistic work. They normally did not take it for free. In return, they gave him a bottle of wine, pack of tea or tobacco. For Mr. Bong in Hang Buom Street, due to the fact that he is painting collector, therefore, the more Bui Xuan Phai gave him, the more Mr. Bong wants. Later on, Bui Xuan Phai though that it was enough, he stopped give him painting. So Mr. Bong found another way. He called each “mini-painture” a coupon (coupon for eating Pho). He visited Bui Xuan Phai each evening. If he saw nice “mini-painture”, he took that painting and shouted: “here the coupon” and put it into his pocket and invite painter to eat Pho at late night.
At present, the price of each coupon (painting on the cigarette pack of Bui Xuan Phai) is up to 1.000 USD. That is the price paid by the collector, and then who knows that painting will be sold at which price.
Some people, due to economic reason, had no choice to sell such “mini-painture” of Bui Xuan Phai for foreign collector. I have heard some moved stories from Bui Xuan Phai’s friends of how they have to break up with these paintings. One of Bui Xuan Phai’s friends, Mr. Sanh Thi, told me in tears:
– I did not believe that Mr. Phai had fed me during the last years of my life.
I remembered such mini paintings were called “mini-painture” in French by writer Nguyen Tuan. Sometimes, Nguyen Tuan visited Bui Xuan Phai and said:
– Please give me some “mini-painture” for the foreign guest who is coming to Hanoi to see me.
The presence of “mini-painture” of Bui Xuan Phai had impressed the foreigners. They love his mini paintings and called it “bijou” (jewelry) as they want to say that though its size is small, but its value is big. According to Mrs. Don Thu, the manager of No.7 Hang Khay gallery (from 1980): Mr. Blanche Maison alone, former ambassador of French, had bought up to 200 mini paintings of Bui Xuan Phai.

I only repainted my dream 
Bui Xuan Phai artist painted a painting of a naked young girl sleeping on roofs of Hanoi’s ancient quarter. The picture amazed viewers. People wondered and asked him to explain more clearly about his ideas on the painting. Bui Xuan Phai answered: I only repainted my dream and I myself wondered why I had that dream”.
An officer of Vietnam Fine Art, after submitting France’s invitation letter and Phai’s aspiration to authorities, received a result that Phai was not permitted to exit. The officer advised Phai to refuse the invitation under the pretext of flu.
As a result, Bui Xuan Phai missed the trip to France that year, though his health was in a condition. He therefore has regretted for a long time and I still saw him moaning with his friends. There was time, one of his friends; Văn Cao musician comforted him with a joke: Your flu is a contemporary flu. His friends hearing that burst out laughing.
Several years after that, in 1988 he was permitted to travel to the West thanks to mobilization of CCFD organization and action of French government; however, he failed to realize his dreams! If Bui Xuan Phai said, “I believe in my fate”, then his fate is actually unfair to him! Even when he received invitation from France together with official permission of the Vietnamese State and he did have the flight ticket, the death still brought him away. He died of lung cancer on June 24th, 1988 at the age of 68.  Taking about Phai’s missed trip to France, people said “It is a thousand pities for Bui Xuan Phai, art and for Vietnam”. It sounds logical, as French wanted to organize an art exhibition for Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings in Paris at that time.
I know that Bui Xuan Phai missed chances to realize his two biggest dreams in life; one is a Studio – a private room for him to mix painting tools without any outside interference in his own world. He often felt angry when his folks arranged the tools in order. He said, “His disorder was an order to him as he could find what he needed”. He painted thousands of ancient quarter’s paintings, created tens thousands of houses in paintings, but he could not build up a real Studio for his own. After all, Phai’s dreams are not too big for his life and talent to realize, the real reason is due to his time. At the same time of Bui Xuan Phai, numbers of other talents met no less difficulties compared to him. Nowadays, only with some of his paintings sold, they can easily buy a house, which he has ever dreamed about during his whole life.
Visiting France is his second dream. He would visit the most world famous museum-Louvre and paid a visit to Picasso’s house, where he lived and worked. Bui Xuan Phai said he was an excited fan to Picasso’s art. His life dreams could be realized easily in paintings exactly as he said, “I only repainted my dreams”.

I only know how to build houses in paintings
I participated in organizing the first and only personal exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai in 1984. This was a successful and impressive exhibition to the public. Never before had any exhibitions sold more paintings and earned more money than his exhibition in Vietnam. 24 paintings were sold out right in its inauguration ceremony.
In those days, people had no concepts of dollar bill and they measured values of art works in gold tael. Normally, a painting of 60cm X 80cm of Bui Xuan Phai was worth two taels at that time, and one tael for a smaller one; however, with one and two taels of gold, one family would be considered rich at that time. And with one troy ounce of gold, the family must explain to authorities why they had unless they would be charged with dubious property storage.
At the end of that day, we collected 2.5 taels of gold. My mother was very happy; meanwhile Bui Xuan Phai was so worried. He said “So much money! I don’t know what to do with the amount?” I therefore replied quickly to calm him down: “I will call some masons to build up our family kitchen tomorrow so that we don’t have to share common kitchen with others as our family’s longing”. Bui Xuan Phai gave a nod of assent.
While the masons were constructing a small kitchen in the yard (our family’s use area), authorities came to stop our construction and summoned Bui Xuan Phai to their offices to clarify issues mentioned in a letter of complaint they received. I explained to them that I myself implemented the construction not Bui Xuan Phai; however, they did not listen to me, because in case of receiving any letters of complaint, in principal, they would summon head of the household.
Bui Xuan Phai came to their offices in bewilderment, as he did not know how to answer. He told them “in my whole life, I only know to build houses in paintings. Building real houses belong to my folks’ business, and only they know answers to solve the problem,” I was then summoned. I explained to them that our living area had a common kitchen for three households; I therefore built up a new kitchen for my family instead of sharing the kitchen with the two other families. Then the authorities told the two other households about the fact and they were so happy because both of them could share the whole big kitchen. Immediately, they and my mansions divided the kitchen in two halves. It proved a fact that no one likes to share anything with the public, collectives, especially kitchens and toilets in daily life.
After solving the issue satisfactorily, in one day, chairman of my ward met me and whispered: “Normally, to reach goals, people should do “something”. I have no intentions, but actually I really want to have a painting of Phai as a souvenir”. In those days, Phai’s paintings were only for memory; his paintings were used for entertainment and no one wanted to buy them.  I came back home and told Bui Xuan Phai about his aspiration. Bui Xuan Phai smiled and said “We should know what topic he is interested in to give him a painting “I then came to ask the chairman: “What topics do you like, Street or Cheo (Traditional Opera)?” He said loudly “Street”
The painting that Bui Xuan Phai gave the chairman was “Hang Bac Street”. After Phai’s death, collectors knew the story and often came to persuade him to sell the painting at a very high price.  However, the ex-chairman always replied them that “The painting is my memory with Bui Xuan Phai artist.”

The smallest “Studio” in the world of a well-known artist
The house at No. 87 of Thuốc Bắc Street was built a very long time ago that no one could remember exactly the year it was constructed because it was built after Bui Xuan Phai’s birth. Phai lived with his family on Hang Thiec Street before that time. His childhood passed by on Hang Thiec Street, and he learnt at Trí Tri School on Hang Quat Street. The school could be called the oldest one in Hanoi (currently its name is changed into Nguyễn Văn Tố).
When studying at secondary school, his family moved to the house no 87 of Thuốc Bắc Street. Based on the information, we could define that the house was built in 1935, when Bui Xuan Phai was 15 years old. The house was built in French architecture, designed by Bui Xuan Phai’s brother after he finished his architecture study in France.
To know previous “condition” of the house, I redeemed almost compartments in the house (grandfather sold, grandson redeemed), and it is necessary to understand that most of Hanoi’s houses before 1954 were built for each family household to live. Therefore, each compartment has its own functions such as living room, dining room, bedroom, stock… However, when taking over the Capital, people broke down the standard by filling up one compartment with one household. As a result, the households had to extend, occupy outside areas, creating the only chaotic architecture style in the world. After buying some compartments at no 87, Thuoc Bac Street, my first job is to “return the first condition to the house” I had mansions to bust all old parts that did not belong to the house’s first architecture.
Phai’s society was in a too hard condition! People would be very surprised if knowing that Bui Xuan Phai only had more than 1m2 of area – a too “small” working corner for such a hardworking and creative artist with unforgettable paintings like him. He also had a private attic, which was not only hot, dark but also stuffy. Every day, he therefore painted in the house corner on a table and chair set for guests. People visited him at that time often saw him talking with guests, drinking wine and painting at the same time. Almost every day, he was visited by guests of different working fields. After getting drunk, they quarreled with each other. As a host, Bui Xuan Phai had to “tolerate” and stand in between to conciliate.
Many times, he complained: “I wish to have a Studio to paint and to hide myself from people”. Because there was only one room in the house, guests therefore caught Bui Xuan Phai right after they came to the house, and he could not hide. As there was no standard Studio, rarely did Bui Xuan Phai paint oil paintings of big size. Whenever he wanted to paint the big ones, he had to carry canvas and all his painting tools to the common yard to paint. Therefore, he was bothered by neighboring children as they came to see, disturb and steal his painting tools. As a result, whenever he tried to focus on completing a painting of big size (for exhibitions), he would get sick, one part because of losing energy, another part due to anger with the children. His most favorite working place was the house corner, I am sure that is the smallest “Studio” in the world for a well-known artist.
The Studio is a life dream of Bui Xuan Phai, but he missed chances to realize the simple dream forever.

A passed period
Bui Xuan Phai said, “When viewing paintings, do not believe in art critics, as they are wrong right at the first time. They use languages, the tool different from art, not shapes and pigments”. He then smiled in a humorous way. In Bui Xuan Phai’s period, artists hesitated to view paintings with inferences. Any paintings would have some problem and their artist would be involved in complications if people commented the paintings in many different ways. That may be the reason why “maitre” never discusses their paintings and arts whenever they meet. They often comment on art tendencies in the world.
Following are one of Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings, which were commented badly in Nhan Van – Giai Pham’s period. People blamed artists that they described life of new regime with a gloomy and pessimistic look: one wearing a palm-leaf raincoat, stand in rain tremblingly, even a  bull has no grass on the field to eat, a banyan without leaves, looks like a monster, ranging its scrubby branches to every where… At present, reviewing the paintings, those things sound funny to us as people inferred them all. All of the ideas were beyond composing concepts of artists. Even they had wanted to; they could not have transferred all in art works.
A friend of Bui Xuan Phai told me about “Ô Quan Chưởng” painting (known as one of the nicest paintings of Bui Xuan Phai), which was commented by an officer before opening an exhibition: “Oh, Is this called a painting?! – crossed two hands after his back, the officer stand long before the painting to view– Is Hanoi the capital of Vietnam, a country developing to Socialism or a dead city? You see: Hanoi city has no person, only blazing sun with full flamboyant felling down like blood, a cyclo also has no rider… If only had the painting some cranes in the background with a hint that we were constructing, we then could accept it, but…!” The painting immediately was rejected from the exhibition. After telling the story, Bui Xuan Phai’s friend commented, “I feel so sorry for our country’s artists at that time. They did not want to oppose or hint at, harass anything. They only wanted to live in peace to do their favorite jobs. Yet they could not realize it!”
Bui Xuan Phai did not like metaphoric painting style or filling up paintings with ideas. He said that a painting should not function as literature to transfer ideas that made it worse, more stressful, easily melodramatic and mediocre.
“In dyeing workshop” painting was displayed in the first personal exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai in 1984. A Mexican viewer asked me a very rare question: “Which painting is the most expensive in the exhibition of Bui Xuan Phai?” I pointed out the painting “In dyeing workshop”. He then asked “Why is it the most expensive one meanwhile in my opinion, it is not the most beautiful one in the exhibition?” I explained: “Simply as I do not want to sell it.”
The “In dyeing workshop” painting has ever been a victim of inference. Firstly, its layout was different, a round shaped machine like a well on the left of the painting, and a male worker was leaning his hand beside it. Viewers commented that, why the male worker did nothing but leaning on the well. His salary was so little for him to live on that he wanted to oppose. Hearing the opinions, Bui Xuan Phai removed the male worker from the painting to avoid complications. Nowadays, looking at the painting again, I feel so pity as its first layout makes the painting more vivid and removal of the male worker “leaning his hand on the well” affected its rhythm balance.
“Hanoi of years 46” painting was painted by Bui Xuan Phai in 1966 and shown in an exhibition in the same year. The painting was criticized strictly on a newspaper at that time writing that its painter still remembered longingly boring, gloomy and old remains. Art of the spirit could not go with development of new time. Finally, the “bad art critic” concluded in one sentence “Two soldiers in the painting bring fuzzy content for the painting only, actually Bui Xuan Phai paint them as a pretext to paint ancient quarter”. The critic was LTD artist (I am still keeping the newspaper). However, it was so funny that the artist in the final years of his life paid regular and close visits to Bui Xuan Phai with his admiration to Bui Xuan Phai’s talent.
There was a time; artistic literature was sensed with inference, which affected negatively on it. What are purposes of the negative inference? The stupid people said so irresponsibly that authors were disappointed, fearful and then lost their creative inspiration.

Oil lamp in Bui Xuan Phai’s painting
Small kerosene lamp were also discovered its art beauty by painter, Bui Xuan Phai.  In the time of Bui Xuan Phai, none of artist spent their time and effort to describe things so simple that anybody had several items.  And in exhibitions at that time, we never made space for such still-life paintings because they did not even reflect any content, struggle, labor, production or the party.  For Bui Xuan Phai, however, it inspired and accounted for a large segment of the massive volume of his paintings.
Talking about the Small kerosene lamp or Miniature Oil Lamp, the younger generation may be bewildered, or even could not imagine what it was.  The Small kerosene lamps or Miniature Oil Lamps were almost no longer used because in this era, people have used electric lighting.
From the early 20th century, when the Shell petroleum company (at that time, it is called “shell” firm) from the United States sold oil in Vietnam.  Our people were familiar with peanut oil lamps; therefore, firstly it was difficult for “Shell” company to sell oil.  But those who sold oil devised a very strange way that we now call “marketing”: Giving the lamp away to the people.  They had lamps without oil and if people want to use such “god sent” lamps, it was forced to buy oil.  Shell Company sold oil and our people had so handy lamps for lighting. It was convenient for everyone. That lamp have been still called the Small kerosene lamp or Miniature Oil Lamp (in the South) Such lamps quickly became so familiar that almost every family had several kerosene lamps in the house, the kitchen.  Although the gas lighter of the modern industry has filled all alleys and streets, but today, in several night tea shops in Hanoi, nostalgic persons still like to get fire from the Small kerosene lamp to light cigarette.  And particularly, if that pipe smoking is not lit from such oil lamps is considered uninteresting any more.  The pleasure of smokers would decrease by over half.
Antiquarian, for many years, has launched a hunt for ancient oil lamps called elder lamp with their age. These things seemed to throw in the trashcan have made people suddenly startled to hear a “terrible” price for each ancient oil lamp.
Now, there has been no longer life with oil lamps, death with clarinet and drum, but the lamp oil would not disappear for that. On contrast, today, collectors have eagerly hunted aggressively oil lamps for the collections, for expensive interior décor of the restaurants, villas in large cities.  Collectors of ancient oil lamps, said: with two hundred thousand, it is able to begin collection of the first oil lamp for his collection, but if you would like to have a sophisticated lamp, it forced more expensive.  Beautiful lamps often cost from three to five million.  Royal hanging oil lamps originated from the luxurious living rooms of mandarin’s houses often cost two to three thousand dollars.

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