Bui Xuan Phai – Uncorked Soul

by Jeffrey Hantover – Fine Arts American Critic 

Bui Xuan Phai, the man and the artist, remains a living presence in Vietnam, three years after his death from lung cancer in Hanoi at the age of sixty-seven. The most well known Vietnamese artist outside the country, Phai is the most respected and well-known artist within his own country, despite not being allowed has an individual exhibition until 1984. No one speaks ill of the man: most often he is described as modest, reticent, generous, independent minded, and above all else, a man of quiet dignity.

Nicknamed “Jesus” by his friends (he had many from all classes) for his beard and gaunt face, Phai may have also been given the name for his saintly forbearance and moral steadfastness in the face of suffering. Self-portraits and portraits show a man with piercing, sad eyes that seem to reflect the grief of a lifetime. No one who has seen his self-portrait done in a bomb shelter during the Christmas bombing can forget those eye, that look of shocked disbelief.

A kerosene lamp, a tea cup, a bong, an almost deserted street corner, a cheo (Vietnamese opera) performer putting on make-up – he treats the humblest subject matter with a seriousness and respect that gives it the weight and importance of a holy ritual or relic. Phai’s paintings hide their sophistication under a disarming simplicity of style and subject matter. After the end of the war in 1975, his paintings take on more colour—reds, blues, purple – but still the overall tone is set by the browns, the grays, and the grayish-whites.

Phai is best known for his street scenes of Hanoi, where, except for a short time in the Viet Bac and during the bombing of Hanoi, he lived all his life in the house he was born. Every afternoon he walked the streets of the city, sketching. He returned home to paint, pulling a box of paints from under a chart in the living room/bedroom and propping up a canvas on top of the chair. These street scenes are much copied, but their spirit is not captured. What is missing is the reverence, the love, and tinge of melancholy for a passing world — the traditional musicians, the
old letter writer bundled up on the corner, the buildings falling into disrepair.

Phai drew inspiration from Rouault, Utrillo, Miro, Derain and, especially the French painter, Albert Marquet; but it is not so much that he transferred the Modernist style with its expressive pictorial reality to Vietnam. Rather this style fit the elegiac mood with which he looked at his world. The wavy lines’ the irregular forms, the quick, almost suggestive treatment of figures on the street are less a commitment to a set of aesthetic principles and more a reflection of a world and way of life crumbling, sagging, disappearing before Phai’s eye.

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