The Elder Statesmen of Vietnamese Art

(Originally published in The Guide, June 2011)

David Lloyd Son talks to Tran Luu Hau about art, beauty, the self and what continues to allow his work to thrive: freedom

We arrive at Tran Luu Hau’s home on a sodden Hanoi morning and are warmly greeted by the artist.  First impressions are of a measured, dignified, modest gentleman. Once he has established that we are settled we are invited to view his works which hang from every wall.

On the first floor, there’s one sofa and twelve paintings – nothing else. On the next we find a solitary dining table and four walls of his work. And so it goes up to his 6th floor studio which sits underneath his living quarters; so, more than 80% of his home is given over to art.

Self portait

His works

Tran Luu Hau paints across three primary themes  – female nudes, his beloved homeland, and still life. In common with many of his contemporaries, he paints countless works on one subject, his reason for doing so however is less ubiquitous. ‘My greatest purpose is to discover my self. If one knows one’s self, one can express one’s true self through art. Through painting these few themes I can discover who I am – the lengths of my abilities and the depths of my thoughts and emotions.’

His studio is tidy, but not meticulous; the space feels lived in. I spot a remote control car hiding between his books and the music collection, which serves as a sign of his other major passion – his family.

Music is integral to Tran Luu Hau’s work, but when asked whether music has any effect on how he paints he responds swiftly: ‘No, none at all. To a degree nothing can impact on me anymore. Tchaikovsky, Mozart… it no longer really matters who the artist is. I often play one piece on repeat all day. I no longer truly hearthe music when I paint, somehow I only hear nature. The music goes in to my subconscious. However, I deeply appreciate the role of music in my art, it is fundamental’.

Looking around the studio I see no evidence of sketches so I ask if he plans his works. He bursts into laughter – question answered, he goes direct to canvas. Leaving his studio we pass rack after rack of canvases.  He paints at a phenomenal rate; in the last year he has created over 100 works, many of them on a grand scale.  This is considerably faster than he worked in his younger days, so what increased his momentum? ‘I don’t consider my pace to be fast or slow. I just work. Simply put, through working I have become more efficient. More consciously though, I am making up for lost time’.

Tran Luu Hau’s nudes are many and varied. Some bring Francis Bacon to mind, others are unique. Standing in front of one – a sitting woman, positively emanating grace – he tells us ‘In different periods of time, people have had different views of women. Some looked at them, as subjects, and painted them sexually. When one views a nude painted in this way, one cannot see true beauty.’

First Blush

His philosophy of art

Talk turns to the role of art critics and their effect on the art world, a subject that the artist has clearly marshalled his thoughts on. ‘When you care about the critic, you do not have freedom. Art requires absolute freedom.  No freedom, no art. Not many people understand this word, ‘freedom’. In a painting, if one can see a lack of freedom, hesitation in the brushstroke, one sees that the painting has lots of limitations’.

While Tran Luu Hau talks philosophically, he never tends to the contrite or smug – far from it. He speaks at a relaxed pace, markedly at odds with the Vietnamese one often hears on the wonderfully chaotic streets of Hanoi. I can’t help but ask if he reads philosophy. For the second time today my question is answered with laughter – the kind that quietly fills a room. ‘For me it is not about philosophy. I am 83! I don’t need to read a book to learn about life, what I know, I learned from life’.

For Tran Luu Hau the foundation for a solid and happy life is family, but he thinks some young artists lose sight of that. ‘In their younger days people jump in with two feet with a sort of ‘me-ism’. They have the attitude ‘I don’t care about family, about anything else, it is all about me’. I don’t care about my ego anymore. I care about my family. This house, these paintings, they are no longer mine. If the painter’s ego is large he lives a lonely life. One must erase the ego in order to be a great artist. Consider yourself nothing, then paint’.

The artist lives a life of two halves. In his family life he is anything but lonely. His children and grandchildren surround him.  In his art however, he emphasises the necessity of loneliness. ‘Art means loneliness. It requires an absolute loneliness. But only in art. In daily life one must be balanced’.

Shortly after our interview Tran Luu Hau leaves for Tam Dao, some 60 km fromHanoi, where he will spend three months. There, with absolute peace – he speaks of hearing only the wind at night – he will live alone. ‘If you spend all your time with friends and family you cannot understand yourself. Art helps me become introverted, to understand myself’.

His influences

On the subject of his influences he muses for a moment. ‘There are two artists who I greatly admire – De Kooning and Soutine. Long ago Matisse was very important to me. When I look at their art, I find something about myself – something about my soul’.

Hanoi Trees

Tran Luu Hau learned to paint under the stewardship of To Ngoc Van, arguably one of the country’s greatest painters. He speaks with great affection of his late mentor.  ‘To Ngoc Van’s greatest virtue as a teacher was his ability to know an artist’s strengths and weaknesses and to encourage them to concentrate on the former,’ he tells me. ‘He had great passion and an uncanny ability to transfer that passion to his students. I learned two main things from him – how to transfer passion and how to recognise talent and foster it’.

In a previous interview Tran Luu Hau was quoted as saying realism is dull. Having spent three hours with him I found it hard to believe those words were his. ‘Realism has value. The question, however, is how we explore reality, how we combine it with romance to make reality more interesting’. For him there is a fine line between playing with reality and discarding it, cutting the viewer off from any meaningful interaction with the work. By the same token, when realism and naturalism combine his interest wanes – the lack of creativity fails to spark his emotions, and for Tran Luu Hau emotion and art are irrevocably connected.

On Beauty

As I viewed a Cat Ba fishing fleet painting it struck me that the boats resemble those of Malta, of Thailand, of India.  Sometimes it is the similarities between places that interest the traveller as much as the differences. When asked what he saw  in Paris and Moscow (he has exhibited in both) that was consistent with the Vietnam he knew then – he muses a few seconds before replying with conviction. ‘Beauty. Beauty exists in every place. In people, in landscapes. When we stay longer in one place we feel its beauty more profoundly. For painters there is beauty everywhere.’ I ask if he sees a consistency in the beauty of people’s souls or their appearance. ‘For a painter the first thing they care about is the appearance; it takes time to see the souls of people.’

And so the interview draws to a close and the artist kindly shows us out. As we leave we canvasses stacked, prepared for his Tam Dao retreat. Based on his current form, we can expect him to return with a special crop of paintings, but alas they are unlikely to be seen by many in the West unless someone with an eye for a living master has the vision to introduce his work to a wider audience.

Let us hope.

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