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Bui Xuan Phai’s paintings at Duc Minh gallery in HCMC (May 22, 2003)

Bui Xuan Phai
No divas: Cheo Performers by Bui Xuan Phai, who he painted putting on make-up before performing. — VNS Photo Ngoc Hai
Some of the prized paintings by one of Viet Nam’s best-known artists, the late Bui Xuan Phai, have gone on display in an exhibit organised to mark the 15th anniversary of the pioneering painter’s death.

The Unending Artistic Life exhibition at the Duc Minh Gallery in HCM City features 40 works by Phai, who had a defining influence on contemporary Vietnamese art.

The paintings depict typical scenes of women selling flowers, a quiet street corner, an ox-cart, Cheo (Vietnamese opera) performers putting on make-up and a tea-cup.

But they smack of Phai’s characteristic style, dubbed by American art critic Fefprey Hantover as "hiding its sophistication under a disarming simplicity."

"He treats the humblest subject matter with a seriousness and respect that gives it the weight and importance of a holy ritual or relic," Hantover wrote in 1984.

Born in 1920 in Quoc Oai District in what was Ha Dong Province (now Ha Tay), Phai graduated from Ha Noi’s Ecole des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine in 1946, having already joined the war against the French in 1945.

After 1954, Phai taught at the Ha Noi Fine Arts College and created illustrations for Van Nghe (Letters and Arts) and other newspapers.

It was not until 30 years later, however, that the talented artist held his first solo exhibition, just four years before he died of lung cancer in Ha Noi at the age of 67.

One of the last students of the Ecole des Beaux Arts de l’Indochine, Phai painted many of the characteristic Vietnamese images and objects he saw in the streets of Ha Noi’s old quarter, while his fascination with traditional opera performers led to many paintings portraying Cheo in geometric blocks of colour.

But his work also had a humorous aspect, glimpsed in his sometimes irreverent comic depiction’s of the traditional animals of the Asian yearly cycle.

American critic Hantover called Phai an "uncorked soul", while well-known Vietnamese art critic Thai Ba Van described him as "the eyes of the heart".

Painting was as important to Phai as eating and sleeping, so when he was short on cash even the poorest of materials were used – newspaper, chemistry textbook pages or an empty cigarette pack – leading to vast experimenting with different mediums and techniques.

Bui Dinh Than (died 1983), the collector better known as Duc Minh, was a member of western-style art circles in Viet Nam, and it was his friendship with Phai that led him to start amassing the painter’s works.

Duc Minh’s youngest son, Bui Quoc Chi believes he has what is now the largest collection of Phai’s paintings, saying his collection was far larger than the works on display in the new exhibition.

In addition to Phai’s paintings, the Duc Minh collection now includes artworks by others "masters" of the western style – all graduates of the Indochina Fine Arts College – such as Tran Van Can, Hoang Tich Chu, Nguyen Do Cung, Duong Bich Lien, Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Gia Tri, Nguyen Van Tî and To Ngoc Van.

"The gallery is open to all visitors but the paintings displayed here are not for sale," Chi said.

"We want to keep them so that other visitors will be able to enjoy the western-style works created by Vietnamese painters."

The Duc Minh Gallery is at 31C Le Quy Don Street, District 1, HCM City. — VNS

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency


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