The Collector’s Confessions

Reprinted from Contemporary Vietnam Art

I was born in Hanoi. A child of a couple of doctors, I grew up in an army hospital living quarter. We led a simple and needy life. All of us children of army men lived in uniformly narrow rooms, listened to the same music broadcast by the Voice of Vietnam, seldom had good books to read and myself never saw an art book.

At the age of 14, as a high school student, I got new friends whose parents belonged to various social sectors. I had the unexpected luck to meet painter Bui Xuan Phai as I called on a classmate of mine who turned out to be his son. This, I think, is an event of great import in my life. I was astounded to see a small room densely covered with paintings – a real riot of colours. I did not understand why they hung so many paintings, instead of those ubiquitous pictures of Uncle Ho, certificates of merit, “Glorious Family” or “Services Rendered to the Fatherland” certificates considerately displayed in every house in my neighborhood. I got many opportunities to talk with Bui Xuan Phai, watch him painting and read the books of art he lent to me. This good-natured man willingly answered every question we curiously asked him. I never saw him out of humor. Once I asked him: “People say you are very talented and paint wonderfully, is that true?” “They just joke about me” was his witty reply. Silly as I was, I believed so. Knowing nothing of his genius, I just adored him. With all the love and respect I devoted to him, I treasured the paintings he gave me.

As his pace, I got acquainted with Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Duong Bich Lien and other artists. They were not so good humored as Phai and at that time, I hardly understood their works. But I liked them all because Bui Xuan Phai always spoke very kindly of them. I’ll never forget those days when I had the favor to hang about Bui Xuan Phai. He never taught me about painting, but his love for life and people imperceptibly pervaded me . . . thus, he introduced me to the world of painting and nurtured in me an aesthetic since.

I have quietly collected Bui Xuan Phai’s works for many years and learned to understand our national art. I read books and studied many more paintings to get familiar with the generations prior to, contemporary with, and subsequent to him. Personal sympathy is the main factor, which prompted me to collect, particularly focusing on the works of the artists I was lucky enough to be acquainted with. I quietly came to them and watched them at work; living and loving, rejoicing and grieving . . . I understood them better through their paintings. They worked harder than I had thought; they were full of honesty and self-respect. They loved their country and fellow-countrymen more than anybody.

Like a traveler following a mountain path, as the mist fades out, I realized the proportions and stature of things more clearly and was seized by a desire to admire and discover. Vietnamese contemporary art has only a short history, to date, and some people believe it to be late echoes of western currents imported alongside the Europeanization of social life and thinking. This came as no surprise, since even recently, those art lovers misinformed about Vietnamese painting still considered it as a native replica of Chinese or European painting, whose merit was to reveal something exotic about this “closed” country. I gradually took in the stature of an Nguyen Gia Tri who blazed the trail for pumice lacquer to become a successful medium appropriate to a modern plastic language and assert a new, romantic beauty peculiar to city dwellers in the 30’s and 40’s. Of course, beside him, there also were other artists of the first generation. Then, Vietnamese painting reached a new height on a new scale, along with new developments of the war against foreign aggression, for national reunification. Vietnamese art successively accepted different influences from France, continental China, the (former) Soviet Union, Europe and America.

I appreciated the art critics and connoisseurs who soon enough affirmed the importance of the three leading painters of Hanoi; Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Sang and Nguyen Tu Nghiem; right at the time when they were still “in the dark” and disparaged with such labels as “ivory tower, nostalgia for past things, pessimism, hybridist (because they accepted with self-confidence the achievements of the world’s art)”. However, to my mind, they have affirmed the originality of Vietnam, the national character and traditions are like, to apprehend human feelings in the face of harsh vicissitude of life. Like expanding rings of ripples, I was brought to other artists contemporary with or subsequent to them: a gentle and unsophisticated Nguyen Tien Chung, a talented and touching Duong Bich Lien, an eager and vivid Tran Luu Hau, a tormented, yet dreamy Tran Trung Tin, a seemingly disrupting yet very sweet Luu Cong Nhan. Then came a turning. I took a liking for young painters of the fourth generation. Those unusual compositions, ideas and emotions, powerful or wistfully meditative, jubilant or grievous, in an Nguyen Quan, a Thanh Chuong or a Dang Xuan Hoa, attract me. They are both different from and very close to their elders. Same motifs drawn from communal houses and pagodas in Bac Bo, my native place, but in a different light. And to my surprise, I realize that what had shocked me ten years earlier as inadmissible, is in fact real beauty. So the current keeps flowing.

Guided by my sentiments, my life grew more and more attached to paintings. With my consciousness now enlightened, I am eager, often in a rush, to build for myself an image in miniature of this country of mine. In reality, this “trade” was already in it embryonic stage in the 40’s with the late collected Duc Minh, followed in his wake by Mr. Dam, the teacher, Mr. Lam, the café owner, and Mr. Phan Van Bong. A thousand pities that these inestimable collections have neither been promoted nor received any assistance and encouragement. As a result, they are now dispersed, more or less damaged or even torn apart. I am very grateful to them for what I have learned from them in my efforts to preserve those values as well as possible.

I am conscious that our art needs a professional collecting work worthy of it and this work, in its turn, need support from many parts, especially from the State, for I am convinced that painting is on of the most valuable spiritual and cultural achievements in Vietnam in the past half-century.

I feel it my responsibility to thank once again the artists, art critics and researchers, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Association and my colleagues for the assistance and support they have extended to me in my still unsteady collecting work, as well as in the completion of this book so dear to me.


Ho Chi Minh City, June 10, 1995 
Tran Hau Tuan 

Tuan’s new museum style gallery recently opened in HCMC

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