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Capturing Viet Nam’s spirits
by Phuong Anh

Engaging look: Artist Van Len

Like a diligent worker bee, painter Van Len measures his strokes to produce amazing portraits. He has built a career out of capturing for the canvas the spirit of Viet Nam's most distinguished characters.

In his house, spilling over the walls of rooms and the staircases are only some of his portraits which total over 600, 200 of which are dedicated to great celebrities.

The list of the entries seems bottomless with the most famous names including President Ho Chi Minh, General Vo Nguyen Giap, late Prime Minister Pham Van Dong and famed artistic associates such as music composer Van Cao, poet Xuan Dieu, painters Tran Van Can, To Ngoc Van, Bui Xuan Phai and playwriters Tao Mat, Vu Trong Phung, Nguyen Hong.

Street master: Painter Bui Xuan Phai, who is best known for his series of pho (Old Quarter) paintings.
"I was tempted by nothing except the affection from the great - those who create history and those who adorn our lives with their beautiful music, wonderful prose and romantic poetry," says Len. "This has led me to practice the art of portrayal which helps record the images of the people I admire and love for my entire life."

Though the amount is impressive, Len is still extremely passionate about the traces around each painting. He is his own worse critic. His method of deciphering how to physically transmit the intensity of subjects has always caused him the most trouble.

Van Len recalls the tryst with General Vo Nguyen Giap as the most memorable. It took him roughly a year to accomplish the portrait of the talented general. However, he was always displeased with his work.

"I failed again and again to depict his spirit, especially through his eyes," he said. "It was very tough to present them truthfully on a piece of paper. Those eyes are of a benevolent man shining with wisdom."

The most striking feature of his portraits is the liveliness of the face, which according to him determines the work’s success. They are the real people residing inside the frames.

Classic: One of Van Len's best known paintings, Miss 1930.
Experts say Len’s artworks have gone beyond the common norms of portraiture. His portraits not only revive a true appearance reflection of the characters but retell their life stories through strokes. Besides the character’s face, Len usually tries to highlight events which relate to his or her life. These work like metaphors which take him and even the viewers substantial time to grasp.

The experience that Len had in painting General Giap is not uncommon to him. Over his 30 year career, he has found that spending quality time with subjects, perhaps even befriending them, is the only way to truly represent their natures.

He has been studying art since he moved to Ha Noi at the age of 17. He was born in Hai Phong in 1940 to an intellectual family. For thirty years since then, Len has dazzled circles of Vietnamese artists and cultural figures alike with his devotion to his painting.

HaNoi Autumn
The late photographic artist Vo An Ninh wrote after a meeting with the painter: "His portraits do not follow the traditional track. He has paved the way for an unconventional portraying style based on the illustrated person and his history."

Len is also renowned for having given birth to classic paintings of women, such as Miss 1930, The Countryside Girl, and Girl in a Ha Noi Spring. His female subjects are either women he met in real life or a product of his wild imagination. Most of them bear the classic beauty of the past which honours purity, grace and fragility. They have the beauty of perfection.

He once said: "Women are the enduring inspirations for any kind of creation. Some of my creations were inspired by real people and others originated from characters in classic poems or books."

Asked about his own wildest dream, Len, who is now a member of the Viet Nam Fine Art Association, grinned and revealed it had already been realised. He finished a wood-carving portrait of President Ho Chi Minh on the occasion of the 100th birthday anniversary of the nation’s father.

Reprinted with permission from VietNam News Agency.


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