In the shadows of Hanoi

In the cultural history of Vietnam, Hanoi has traditionally wielded inspiration for artists, crystallized in a strange mixture of its own rich Vietnamese heritage and the French colonial past, whose convergence reflects a unique aesthetic and temporal collision course within the country’s contemporary art history.

Although the charm of Hanoi’s landscape has allowed numerous artists to borrow freely from its picturesque language that has contributed to a strong intellectual life, few artists have catapulted the romance of the city into the upper echelons of Vietnam’s art history. The most famous chronicler of Hanoi’s streets was Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988). Phai wholeheartedly embraced Hanoi with his impressionist palette of earthy hues and washes that lapped his lines with a heavy impasto and dramatic cuts. His art serves as a daunting reflection of his own individual struggles and anxieties brought on by the sweeping changes of the revolution by Ho Chi Minh that ended French colonial rule for good in 1954.

It is this same tenacity and spirit that has served Hanoi so well, ensuring the survival of the arts during the years of war and the rebirth of the art scene in 1986 as a result of Doi Moi — the economic liberalization policy instituted by the Vietnamese government. In turn, this liberalization allowed artists to freely explore and express themes and academic representations once associated with the “civilizing” influences of French colonialism and previously denied to artists of Bui Xuan Phai’s generation who were encouraged to adopt social realist themes and specifically directed to execute “propaganda” art.

Although not readily apparent, as in the case of Bui Xuan Phai, the personal biography of Pham An Hai, one of Vietnam’s most recognized modern generation artists, has also been shaped by Hanoi.

Born in Hanoi in 1967, Pham An Hai describes his childhood as ordinary with no special privileges, attending government schools like everyone else and experiencing the simple pleasures of boyhood. Despite the hardships and ravages of the war, the city of Pham An Hai’s childhood was abundant with serenity and unspoiled by the progress of time. The eldest of the three children of Pham Dinh Khoi and Nguyen Thi Thuy, Pham An Hai developed a strong interest in art at a very early age, an interest that sprang from his personal observation of the world around him.

Amongst his most memorable images of Hanoi are those of a city whose once elegant façade was suffused with the glow of unpolluted light. He recalls relishing perfumed evenings that were reminiscent of the unspoilt beauty of the lush rice fields of the Vietnamese countryside. These careful and poignant observations of melancholy rhythms and moralizing remained in the museum of his mind and have become the unwritten imperatives of his painting today.

By the age of five, Pham An Hai was creating drawings of life around him and was later enrolled in a government sponsored art class – a common extramural activity in Hanoi for the city’s youth.

In 1985, Pham An Hai was one of nineteen students selected to enter art school. Considering the rigid criteria for acceptance, his family was proud of the recognition of his talent, for cultural discourse was part of his family heritage. His great-grandfather Pham Dinh Ho was a noted poet who has a street in Hanoi named after him, and his grandfather, Pham Dinh Vy, an architect in Hanoi.

Like many aspiring art students of the day, Pham An Hai chose to study fine art at Hanoi’s Fine Arts and Music College where he majored in painting. Besides the technical aspects of art, students were introduced to the art history of Vietnam and it was here that Pham An Hai had his initial formal exposure to Vietnam’s artistic heritage. This training equipped him to embark on a two-year art teaching career at the Ba Trieu Primary School in Hanoi.

In 1990, he returned to study at the Hanoi Fine Arts University where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1995. In the five years that he spent at the university, Pham An Hai was exposed to a very progressive and intensive curriculum that included the fundamentals of Western as well as oriental art. Students were taught by some of the country’s finest art educators, amongst them the renowned painter Le Anh Van and the noted art historian Phan Cam Thuong, whose rigorous instruction ensured that students learned to be excellent technicians. The distinguished character of the Fine Arts University was to prepare the artist in Pham An Hai to produce art with the utmost integrity.

Valuing the importance of scholarship in his career, Pham An Hai, together with his brother Pham Ha Hai, also an artist, returned to the Hanoi University of Fine Arts to pursue a master’s degree in Fine Art. He graduated in 2006 as the most outstanding candidate.

As an artist, Pham An Hai testifies to the same values of the nature of Hanoi as a source of personal sustenance, just as Bui Xuan Phai did two generations before him. Although the geometry of his art may be different from that of Bui Xuan Phai, Pham applies the same sensitive treatment to the animated picturing of everyday moments and scenes in Hanoi.

While Bui Xuan Phai’s Hanoi was one of composure, largely reflecting his angst and personal yearning for the ideal, Pham An Hai’s abstract pictorial involvement not only addresses the charm that continues to encompass Hanoi but importantly captures the underlying tensions of an expanding urban metropolis that is paying the price of economic progress in the race to become part of the all-important global village.

Despite the history that separates the two artists, it follows that Pham An Hai certainly shares the same emotionally satisfying experience of producing art as Bui Xuan Phai did fifty years before him. Nevertheless, the aesthetic qualities of each of these artists remain totally different. Bui Xuan Phai essentially turned his attention to streetscapes, often depicted in somber tones in which people played no role. As a result, Phai’s picture of Hanoi was misunderstood and viewed by the revolutionary government as protest against its rule. Sadly for the impoverished artist, who could barely afford to buy painting supplies and often painted with the most basic colours, his statements were highly personal. Bui Xuan Phai was merely expressing his innermost feelings of solitude and love of painting through his art. He lived most of his life in extreme poverty and hardly received any international recognition for his art during his lifetime.

These physical differences also signify the point of departure between the artistic renderings of Bui Xuan Phai’s Hanoi and those of Pham An Hai, who started to embark on his artistic journey at about the same time that Bui Xuan Phai was coming to the end of his own.

Linking the Rhythms

Cultural displacement has long been a pervasive theme in Vietnam’s art history. With a history that may be traced back more than 2,500 years, Vietnam has felt the impact of the various peoples and cultures that have filtered into the country and left their hallmarks. This impact has made her cultural history amongst the most buoyant in Asia. Most significantly, the waves of Western art forms introduced and encouraged by the French colonial rule that began in the late nineteenth century have taken surprising forms and created unique inspirations in Vietnam’s contemporary art.

In the decades of the “cultural revolution” that started in the 1950s, art was strongly influenced by the socialist philosophies and pragmatism professed by Ho Chi Minh’s rule. Art, like everything else, became overwhelmingly concerned with nationalism, which was mostly articulated within socialist realism. Thus any other form of individual agency, consciousness and perception was overwhelmingly restricted. Any non-literal artistic genres were viewed as subversive. Abstract art, with its pictorial complexities, opposing qualities and lack of uniformity, certainly went against the grain of the moral edge of socialist realism and aroused mistrust towards artists who applied its representations.

The free-ranging and energetic equivalence of Abstract Expressionism that developed in New York in the 1940s was virtually nonexistent within the prevailing Vietnamese art community masked by the iron curtain closing off its view of the world. Artistic practice became locked in the European romanticism of the past introduced by the French at the turn of the twentieth century, the practice of which was also deemed decadent during the years of the revolution. By the early 1980s, these constraints loosened due to the implementation of Doi Moi — the economic liberalization policy.

This opening up of the economy released a keen desire amongst Vietnamese artists to experiment with an expanded range of artistic practices previously denied to them. Of great importance, art galleries mushroomed in the major commercial centres, thereby positioning Vietnamese art to play a vital role in projecting the image of Vietnam to the world. In addition, the prevalent postcolonial conditions of proximity to the country’s Southeast Asian neighbours and the establishment of multiple ties of globalization would contribute to the ineluctable progress of Vietnam’s art history in parallel with the resulting economic development.

Pham An Hai embarked on his artistic career in the late 1980s at a time of radical economic change in Vietnam. Artists of his generation were now at liberty to explore the international language of art — the translation between different forms of expression and the transposition of cultural values, thus transgressing the conventional notions of culture and territory.

It is against this backdrop that Pham An Hai, who signs his paintings with the pseudonym “Fahai,” developed his art and career to emerge as one of Vietnam’s foremost new generation painters for whom the practice of painting is complemented by the discipline of artistic scholarship. Although Pham An Hai’s abstract expressionist oeuvre is a calculated one, the chronological development of his career suggests that it is a result of calculated experience, with an increasing weight of artistic symbolism that he had to accommodate in order to scale the heights of success.

Initially the boundaries of media were quite rigid for Pham An Hai, and his eventual transgressing of them would become a significant move in itself. As a young artist embarking on a career in 1992, he decided to organically apply drawing and painting to literal or raw information that was reshuffled and brought into line with a take on reality. Like many other artists, Pham An Hai found inspiration in the appearance of the natural world and the human societies that defined it. As an art student, studying the art history of Vietnam, he was particularly drawn to the works of Bui Xuan Phai (1920-1988), Nguyen Tu Nghiem (b. 1922) and Nguyen Sang (1923-1988), and willingly worked within the traditions of these past masters as well as that of Dang Xuan Hoa (b. 1959), a member of the important “Gang of Five” who spearheaded the Vietnamese contemporary art movement to international recognition after Doi Moi in the 1980s.

It is traditional for human societies to define themselves with the landscape, as landscape painting has always been a traditional element in art. Since his childhood, Pham An Hai had appreciated the visual delight and the spiritual refreshment the streetscapes of Hanoi offered him. Now as a young artist he was further inspired by the locus of harmony, peace and simplicity in the pastoral settings of the Vietnamese countryside. He was particularly drawn to the spiritual refreshment of the landscape of the mountains in northern Vietnam, itself an engrossing and dramatic backdrop to the colourful ethnic minority peoples who became his unending muse at the time. The detailed drawings of these experiences reflect the intimate rapport he was able to develop with his subjects, even at that very early stage of his career.

Like the inspiration behind the idyllic landscape of the villages forgotten by time, such as Bac Ha, Ximakai and Cao Bang, Pham An Hai’s artistic rendering was largely classical — controlled and unthreatening, as in the manner of the many great artists before him. Within this genre, his landscapes became an important embodiment of his own national identity. With little interest in the discourse of abstract art, Pham An Hai’s practice continued to grow within these traditional painting boundaries until 1996.

In August 1997, while he was employed as director of graphic design for the magazine Vietnam Economic News, Pham An Hai was involved in a serious road accident and was hospitalized for two months. During this period, the continual anxiety of the painter in him made him observe nature with a new cortege of details and variations. Having lost the sight in one eye, he felt the need to rely more on his intuition. What would materialize on his canvas would now come from the depth of his inner being. The realization of the life that had now unfolded for him was painful with the fear that he might not be able to attain the intensity of the artistic practice he so desired.

On the contrary, as he worked through addressing his sadness and angst, he was actually becoming more clear-sighted as a painter. The accident was devastating, but the experience would become his most powerful interest. This process of self-examination became so varied that he could project his thoughts and feelings onto his palette for months on end without changing place. Instead of observing nature, Pham An Hai was starting to express himself through nature. Systematically, he was abandoning the naturalistic appearance of things and increasingly constructing his art through a new consciousness and understanding. In searching for meaning, he was unconsciously tapping into the very essence of his own life through the principles and laws of his own experience.

Ironically, this sad incident resulted in a positive interest in Pham An Hai’s physical character. However, he turned his focus inwards to address and explore the meanings of his personal self, having abolished virtual references to the material world around him. His canvas became a vehicle to express his emotions while he developed his pictorial vocabulary with forms and expressions that reflected his innermost feelings with a palette of unreal colour and dramatic brushstrokes very symbolic of the expressionism that would become his ultimate oeuvre.

Much of Pham An Hai’s painting during this tumultuous time was autobiographical and represented an important strand in his artistic readings, resulting in some intimately disturbing self-portraits. The distillation of emotion in his facial features remained a recurring theme, further exemplified through the surreal and often distorted bodily expressions that graphically gestured deep into his emotional psyche at the time. This investigation of his personal boundaries constituted an important development in Pham An Hai’s art because it signaled the expansion of his artistic ethos, which by now had abolished any conventional semblance or depiction in art. By the end of 1998, he was to embark on a new and exciting artistic journey.

The emphasis of Pham An Hai’s manifestos was on the central importance of his physical condition and emotional abandonment, and an idealistic sense of progress developed from this experience. Furthermore, in the successive years between 1998 and 2000, as he recovered from his accident, the nostalgia of his earlier self-portraits found a robust counterpart in his new understanding of his art. With this new degree of mental freedom, Pham An Hai started to sift through his memory for the historical images of Hanoi that delighted him so much during his childhood, although his relationship with the streets of the city had changed dramatically over the years.

But Hanoi was no longer rooted in the romantic historical past. The city’s population had multiplied due to urban migration and his beautiful memories of his once traditional Hanoi were being overshadowed by the spontaneous urban development that led to over-population and pollution. He started to devote himself to the rediscovery of Hanoi’s essence and to understand the rationality of its new status as an urban metropolis. This was to become an important framework for his future realization. For Pham An Hai, it was humankind’s redevelopment of Hanoi that was given the leading role and became fundamental to his practice.

Within his arrangement of remembrances are the fluid status of time and season, which is constantly part of the changing face of Hanoi, one that Pham An Hai continuously reconfigures across time and space. He embarked on navigating both the ubiquitous representations of the romantic Hanoi of his youth that he yearned for and the reality of the city that became layered with complexities and contradictions.

Because of the reflexive critique of representation that he had adopted, Pham An Hai reveled in the meaning of Abstract Expressionism, situating the works of the world’s great Abstract Expressionists into his intellectual fluency. He familiarized himself with the works of Cézanne, Pierre Soulages and Lucio Fontana, amongst others. As he studied the academic history of these artists, he expanded his own artistic practice to a new level. In paintings he displayed structures that subtly resonate on multiple levels. With each subsequent work, he was able to achieve an inner richness that he would only abandon for his next painting.

It was never his intent to remodel the narratives of the famous Abstract Expressionist artists. But as he tapped into this important universal genre, he found parallels in the painting styles of artists such as Piet Mondrian and Franz Kline, while displaying the same nerve as artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning did in New York during the 1940s. At the same time, he was sidestepping the unabashedly decorative arts that engaged the cultural attention in Hanoi during the 1990s.

Like many expressionist painters, Pham An Hai became acutely conscious of the power of discourse and the need to further develop his portfolio. Already a very serious and committed painter, he carefully considered every reference and image. His scenery with this new expressive style was a strategy for looking at the emotions within himself like a mirrored reflection. Over the next three years, Pham An Hai made his name as an artist through an outstanding range of achievements that included being selected to represent Vietnam in the prestigious Phillip Morris ASEAN Arts Awards competition.

The critical reception of Pham An Hai’s new expressionist-style art confirmed its permanent departure from his earlier genre of painting. It was as if after the trauma of his accident, his reasoning and understanding of his art matured and deepened. Nevertheless, he would never forget this primal trauma, which galvanized his art, exceeding the rules of representation in his earlier work – a fundamental principle that he has sought to retain up to the present day.

Pham An Hai developed a great feeling for these new forms of textural experience. At times they appeared distant from the history and organic social experience of his Hanoi. Often they would incubate sensations of solitude, mirroring his outwardly quiet but deeply intense personality. Highly motivated by now, Pham An Hai was mapping the imagery of Hanoi as his own and it would become a story that was part of his highly reputed international dialogue. His ability to work the imagery of Hanoi between the material world and its immaterial shadows without the stereotypical notions of landscapes consolidated his years of experimentation with his visual and emotional experiences.

Hai started to map out a new intimacy between his emotions and his paintings. With renewed emotional energy that would reveal his sustained dialogue with Hanoi, he revisited its history with a well-rehearsed palette of lighter and sharper tones that ruled out the earlier complex and uncertain readings of his destabilized boundaries. Over the course of the next two years, Pham An Hai was mentally researching the multifarious relations of his engagement with Hanoi. The paintings that he executed constituted a critical dialogue with the way he would represent Hanoi in his future artistic vocabulary.

It was hard for Pham An Hai to comprehend the changing face of Hanoi – traditionally a dense, provocative, conflicting labyrinth of streets, sights and sounds, which had now become a sprawling metropolis of random contrasts and uncanny juxtapositions that consistently surpass and transform the tired clichés projected on it. So once more with Hanoi as his platform, Hai continued to pressure the boundaries of the city’s environment shaped by traces of human action and intervention, producing a series of images as rich and complex as the city itself.

In his past works, Pham An Hai appeared burdened by his desire to produce beautiful paintings and the conflict caused by rationalizing the subjective nature of his circumstances. Yet now he could finally acknowledge the maturity by means of which he could articulate his emotions. What resulted is a compelling body of work that allows multiple points of access to the relationship between his experience and emotion.

This body of work is an unusual union of the cool discipline of the minimalist grid of abstract painting and the turbulent emotions of romantic landscape painting. Each individual painting represents a beautiful example of Pham An Hai’s own intellectual rigour, which he deftly reconstructed with warmth that recalled the romance of the changing seasons and the washes of shadow that tinged the streets of old Hanoi.

Pham An Hai continued to replicate variations on the same composition: the street vistas of Hanoi. The strength of his paintings did not solely depend on his draftsmanship, but rather in the enigmas of the originality that emerged from each new painting and his continuing response to his city’s social and historical environment. His intimacy with Hanoi — very often evident within the optical layering of the frames of his landscapes — is expressed through self-conscious references to the artist himself. (Also created during this period, with the same perspective, gestures and strokes, are a number of self-portraits that he painted.) With such intimacy, Pham An Hai was able to deal with and critique the new contemporary image of Hanoi while physically focusing on expressing notions of space, time and memory through the use of light and brilliant colours.

While the stories of Pham An Hai’s Hanoi may sometimes be factual, the imagery that he uses to accompany them sets them entirely apart from any other traditional visual documentary. As a survey, his selection continuously overlaps but because of the groundwork constantly undertaken by the artist and the engaging and honest detail of his work, he has liberated himself from all historical constraints on the essentials of artistic imagination. Clearly the works of this period reflect the broader evolution of Pham An Hai’s artistic commentary, which was earlier expressed through a modernist painterly flatness.

On the whole, the various complexities and layering that represent the formal qualities of the painted surface of his canvases may appear to us as a familiar format. But what they imply is that the artist’s original urgency is never lost or forgotten with his ability to work between the past and the present, the material world and his personal feelings about Hanoi. The evolving powerful and emotional energy has resulted in Pham An Hai’s unique expressionism that humbly posits his ability to observe the world encompassing him. At the same time, one may wonder how he still looks at Hanoi to gain knowledge of it and from it.

It is clear that Pham An Hai’s art has become an index of personal and emotional reflections and encounters, instead of merely a survey of sites and people. As a highly committed artist, he has not allowed himself to be stranded in idyllic serial images since recovery from his accident in 1998 and the single-minded pursuit of his oeuvre.

Academically, contemporary art does not spontaneously generate itself, but grows out of a past. The works of Pham An Hai represent the strength of Vietnam’s contemporary art and the manner in which he has invested the forms and repertoire of tradition. His revisiting of the language of Abstract Expressionism and the disquieting potential of juxtaposition draw together threads from a number of art traditions. It is possibly the very simplicity of his subject matter that holds the key to the effect of his paintings.

The source material of Hanoi, the city of his birth, carries with it an uncomplicated, wholesome quality that sometimes becomes polluted through the ravages of time and stained by its poignant history. At times delicate and sometimes foreboding, Pham An Hai’s Hanoi remains for him a blend of the familiar and the alien. At times, this familiar landscape with its emotional and psychological attachment becomes a self-portrait of his own world.

In principle, Pham An Hai’s professional art practice dates back to 1992 when he participated in his first exhibition in Hanoi, a group show of Vietnam’s contemporary paintings jointly organized by the Vietnam Fine Arts Association and the Hanoi Fine Arts Association. Since then, his oeuvre has consistently explored the relationship between his emotional psyche and his identity. In its construction, his art requires detailed personal research and he often spends weeks on end laboriously constructing each image in his studio in downtown Hanoi. Even though the impact of his paintings lies distinctly in his Vietnamese cultural heritage, they sustain a fluidity of meaning that is universally understood in that they exploit an emotional and intellectual friction through an artifice that is rare today in Hanoi – a city flooded with commercialism even in art.

Pham An Hai’s paintings are striking on many levels. They are first of all beautiful to look at, with strong vibrant strokes creating forms that are cleanly defined. He has become an astute editor of his sources, understanding how to detach them from their contexts and invest them with his own personal meanings through his love of painting. This has been an important evolution in his work – at times allowing the complex character of his paintings to whisper instead of shout.

Pham An Hai’s confidence in his artistic process and the formal nuances it cultivates is now submerged in a purer, less encumbered and broader experience. This confidence is further cemented through the large formats that he employs as well as his fascination for painting in monotones that create a spectral presence. Such use of elemental material is particularly important for the evocation of a poisoned cultural memory — in Pham An Hai’s instance, the social pollution of Hanoi.

Pham An Hai describes colour as the purest form of expression – the purest abstract reality. He refers to colours within the same context as musical notes. Learning to understand the intense experience of colours through their value and knowing how to put them together in an understandable manner became an integral part of his artistic journey. In the same vein, it became important to deconstruct the traditional belief systems of his art training, such as the traditional belief in the mystery and elusiveness of beauty.

Because abstract art is a complex of practices, Pham An Hai is concerned with emphasizing the contrast between thought and experience. In order to articulate these ideas with greater clarity and precision, he willfully lapses into a narrative whereby he allows his emotions to entirely envelop his art. During this process, he dreams that he can remodel the modernist utopia of Hanoi by building narratives of its past melancholy and sentiment – a dialogue that Pham An Hai has continually explored throughout his career.

In less than fifteen years, Pham An Hai has become one of Vietnam’s best known and highly regarded abstract painters, not only of his generation but also in the realms of its art history. Over the years he has significantly developed and refined the process of painting, with flourishing brushwork and layering that further mimic physical depth, thus inviting his audience to read deeply into his paintings. These paintings nonetheless transcend refined techniques as his strokes gravitate towards the canvas’s void space, suggesting a transcendental longing for the painterly pleasures that he enjoyed during his childhood. He seamlessly combines expressive abstraction in multiple layers creating passages of line and colour that address contemporary realities through careful intimation and allusiveness.

Despite his unmistakable referencing of both Hanoi’s architectural history and the perils of its present-day utopia, Pham An Hai‘s aesthetic expression resonates with the rich rhythms of modern life. Hai’s Hanoi invites speculation through the narrative tension rarely found in abstraction — a tension that gives his paintings their inscrutable appeal.

Pham An Hai is answering his call.

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