One of the great painters in this century, the Vietnamese artist Bui Xuan Phai passed away eleven years ago. He lived his life in poverty, and his talent was mostly disregarded by his contemporaries. He has gained a lot of recognition however, after his death – and so has thousands of artists who live in Hanoi, the vibrant art capital of Asia.

On 23rd June 1988 in the evening, Bui Xuan Phai painted a small, charming self-portrait and wrote underneath it: ” The most important thing is now to stay well, and not be ill”. Seven hours later, Phai died of lung cancer and Vietnam lost one of its greatest and most virtuose painters.

Phai died without having experienced fame. He became known only in the 1990’s when Vietnam emerged from its isolation. Phai’s world view was limited to Hanoi, a place he rarely left. His surroundings consisted of yellow, colonial style houses with green shutters, cyclos, and Café Mai – a small Café where he enjoyed discussions about art and a place where he produced scetches while sipping strong Vietnamese coffee.

Bui Xuan Phai attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts d’Indochine which was established by the French colonialists in 1925. Only painting techniques and sculpturing were taught during the first years at the Academy. Traditional Vietnamese art forms such as lacquer painting, silk painting and architecture were later added to the curriculum. Phai received his education during the last years of the French colonial rule, and he has been able to convey the atmosphere of Hanoi where colonial influences mingle with the Orient as no other artist has. His paintings show simple lines, but the lines carry a message of a deeper understanding.

A small oil painting by Phai was sold for as little as US$ 15 in Hanoi ten years ago. Today, the price has skyrocketed to US$ 7,000! And today, there are many who compare his paintings to masterpieces made by Picasso and Matisse. His representation of surfaces seems to be as good as Marquet, and the sub-consciousness as reflected in Hanoi street scenes is a reminiscence of Mondrian and Klee.

But his soul, as seen in several self-portraits – is more like Van Gogh’s. His paintings show a man with sad and piercing eyes which mirror his long experience with sorrow. Phai died in poverty before he received any recognition for his work, which also happend to Van Gogh. Phai’s universe was Vietnam which experienced a long struggle against the French colonialists and later against the Americans. The year of struggle and war led to a limitation of expression of art. Most motives were restricted to the promotion of nationalistic and idealistic ideas. Lack of suitable materials such as canvases, made painting difficult. Phai utilised every kind of material he could find, like old letters, newspapers and cigarette packs.

Phai lived almost totally isolated in Hanoi. Restrictions were everywhere when Vietnam finally opened up after a long period of wars. Foreign visitors requrired a special permit from the Ministry of Culture if they wanted to pay a visit to Phai. Phai himself never paid much attention to the political cadres who with their narrow views of art made life difficult for Phai. He had to hide many of his abstract paintings and beautiful nudes. It was not until 1984, just four years before his death, that he finally was allowed to hold a solo exhibition.

Today, the situation has radically changed in Vietnam. The country has gradually opened its doors to the outside world, and this has clearly benefited the thousands of artists who live in Hanoi. Currently, there are more than 250 art galleries in Hanoi, and almost every street has an art-cafe.

The new generation of artists produce art in hundreds of ateliers. It almost makes Paris look like a provincial town! Contemporary Vietnamese art has depth and a touch of freshness where East meets West. The art seems familiar and at the same time exotic – with a touch of Eastern mysticism. “Do you want to see something interesting?” says the young artist Tran Nhat Thang, who focuses on abstract paintings. He brings us to the Ecole des Beaux Art d’Indochine. Huge ceiling fans move slowly while art students consentrate on drawing the model in front of them with a piece of carbon. The only light in the room is a ray from the sun which falls on the young Vietnamese model. The interesting observation for Thang is that everything is so simple.

Thang is only 27 years old and graduated from the Academy three years ago. His life is completely different from the life of Phai. Thang enjoys a much better life and occupies two floors of a large villa with a view over the famous Hoang Kiem Lake. “I mostly paint during the night since I need silence in order to concentrate. The darkness does not matter since I know how the colours look like during daytime” says Thang.

The great national painter Phai was not permitted to travel much. However, the new and young generation of artists embrace globalisation. Thang prepares for his first exhibition in Paris. And he carries his mobile Ericsson phone in the back pocket of his Levis’ jeans while Phai hardly could find paper suitable for writing or drawing.
“He is a promising artist with lots of talent, although he is still very young” says the gallery owner, Duong Thai Van. “I am afraid that the easy life which many young artists prefer, will ruin their talent before they mature fully”.

>Hanoi has several thousand painters and sculptors who are increasingly being recognized in other parts of Asia and in the West. An immediate consequence is that art lovers and gallery owners flock to the city and buy the best pieces of art. Hence, prices have skyrocketed lately. Ms. Van’s fear is that the flow of money will corrupt the young artists and make them unwilling to pursue their artistic development.

There are some artists in Hanoi who have transformed their ateliers to a venue for mass production, and who are more occupied with easy money than by artistic integrity. Other artists have turned to an Asian speciality – to copy others, such as the old masters. Phai is of course targeted since his paintings usually fetch high prices in an international market. Most young Vietnamese artists however, have a genuine wish to create original pieces of art, and most of the young artists are highly creative and innovative.

The majority of Phai’s paintings are still in Hanoi with Vietnamese collectors. Due to Phai’s popularity, his paintings are now being sold increasingly to collectors from abroad. It seems to be very difficult for the authorities to focus their energy on setting up a Phai-Museum in Hanoi. A seemingly simple task such as naming a street after Bui Xuan Phai, has proven a bureaucratic nut to crack.

Michael Rastrup Smith (tvasia@ tvasia.com)

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