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Art world celebrates legendary painter (June 27, 2003)

Tran Hau Tuan, HCMC art

He has been dead for more than a decade, but Bui Xuan Phai is still regarded by many art experts as the pioneer of contemporary Vietnamese painting.

And now art lovers can commemorate the 15th anniversary of his death with an exhibition and the launch of a new book.

The HCM City exhibition features 80 of Phai’s works which have never before been shown in public. They include gouache paintings, oil on canvas and sketches capturing cheo (traditional opera) performances, Ha Noi streets, abstracts and portraits.

Fifteen of the pieces on show were created during the last days of the artist’s life, between January and June 1988.

Sixty of Phai’s paintings are also featured in the 140-page book, Reflection on Art, which is being launched at the exhibition. The Vietnamese–English book, which is the sixth published by art collector Tran Hau Tuan and Phai’s family, is a diary of the artist’s thoughts and concerns about painting, art and life.

In the book, Phai ponders the effects of commerce on art, examining the problem of a painter needing money to create but not wanting to attribute a monetary value to his or her work. He wrote that people who create art just for money can not produce work of sincerity and have great difficulty in painting a piece of any importance.

Phai (1920–1988) was born in Ha Noi where he spent his childhood at 87 Thuoc Bac Street in the Old Quarter, a location which features significantly in his later paintings. He based an entire body of work, Ha Noi’s Ancient Streets, on his childhood home.

In 1941, Phai passed the examinations for the Indochina Fine Arts College.

Phai and his friends, Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Huynh Van Gam, led the movement to shake up the local art world under the leadership of teacher – professor To Ngoc Van. Van and another professor were in charge of teaching students in their third, fourth and fifth years.

Art critics recently interviewed by Nhan Dan (People) newspaper said these artists, trained in French realism and impressionism, used their classical European training to create distinctly Vietnamese and modern art.

The critics said the bold and novel features of Phai’s paintings lay in his ability to extract the quintessential elements of western art and then take his painting beyond set structures. With great passion and enthusiasm, he searched for dilapidated images and used rough colours, a very different style to traditional methods.

Ha Noi’s Old Quarter in Phai’s paintings is tenderly depicted in brilliant colours, with uneven houses and mossy walls. His depictions of Ha Noi’s streets have won acclaim from art lovers at home and abroad.

Phai also painted portraits, landscapes and characters in tuong (classical opera) and cheo (popular opera) performances.

The art critics describe the special style of these works as liberal and simultaneously real and unreal.

Phai is considered by some art experts as one of the four greatest Vietnamese painters of his time, along with Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Nguyen Sang and Duong Bich Lien.

Critics believe Phai has paved the way for younger generations of painters, who dream of creating new artistic trends.

He was posthumously awarded the Ho Chi Minh Fine Arts Award, First Class, by the State.

The two-week Bui Xuan Phai exhibition is on display at Tran Hau Tuan Gallery at 357/2 Nguyen Trong Tuyen Street, Phu Nhuan District. — VNS

Reprinted with permission from Vietnam News Agency

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