Reprinted with permission from VietNam News Agency.
When you really want to do something the entire universe will conspire to help you achieve it, the Brazilian author Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, his inspiring story of a boy who triumphs over adversity to find himself.
The story of Truong Be's struggle to promote abstract fine art in Viet Nam reads very much like Coelho's novel, as he provided the catalyst for an artistic movement and also came to know himself.
The artist was born in Quang Tri in 1942, and earned his reputation as a veteran of abstract art by daring to chart a path out of the creative rut in which his predecessors and contemporaries wallowed: realism.
Be fought in his native province during the peak of the American war, and this was the crucible in which his first works of art were forged.
In peacetime, the artist went abroad to study arts at the National Institute of Fine Art in Hungary where he experienced an artistic breakthrough.
Allured by the new directions in Western art, especially abstractionism, Be experimented at the art school with a passion.
When he returned to Viet Nam in 1986, he came back as a lecturer in oil and lacquer painting at the Hue College of Fine Arts - a medium he had pursued since 1976.
Be was later selected as the principal of the province's prestigious school, where many of the country's best artists have been moulded.
The Ha Noi fine art world was rocked in 1988 with an exhibition of unique works by an artist from the central region.
The art scene agreed Be's work was special and of an unusual excellence.
Some of Be's war-era realist works are now kept at the Army Fine Art Museum in Ha Noi, while many of his abstract pieces have been exhibited around the country and overseas.
Some people say Be's works are boldly brushed, and their trimmed lines and thick strokes are open to multiple interpretations that add up to create a sense of a broad world.
"Art illustrates the world through an artist's eyes," Be says.
Most of Be's work seems to represent a sad world, but the more you look, the more you discover the light emerging from the dark. Light inhabits on layer after layer.
Experts say that although his paintings are inspired by improvisation, there is no doubting the painstaking precision in every one of his brush strokes.
Maiden, one of Truong Be rare non-abstract works.
Heaven, Earth and Man, lacquer. — VNS Photos Xuan Ha
Like Taoist hermit, he paints to release his innermost feelings.
"When Truong Be draws a street, we do not see the street in his work," says one art critic. "Most of the time, streets appear in other artists' paintings."
"He paints the lives of the people sheltering under those roofs, where pain, turmoil, hope and disillusionment all reside."
The path to realising his artistic dreams was not smoothly paved.
"When I first exhibited my abstract works, they were controversial among both artists and viewers," he recalls.
"At the time, it was seen as unrealistic art with strange ideas."
During the long periods of war, art was a tool used in the fight for liberation, and abstract art was viewed as odd.
It goes without saying that only Be's patience and talent earned him the recognition he deserved and led art lovers to surrender their hearts.
"I benefited from the experience of painters such as Vinh Phoi, who attempted the abstract before me," Be says respectfully.
Having lived for years in Hue, Be admits he now belongs to the place more than ever.
His 22-year-old son, Truong Thien, is now following in his father's footsteps, and in August 2000 they hold an acclaimed joint show entitled Father and Son.
"After the agitation of Be's art, one finds a peaceful reality in Thien's creations," says art critic Nguyen Trong Tao, describing the exhibition.
"Like two sides of a sheet of paper, their art protects and nurtures the other, and heads for the beauty of light and colours."
As the countdown begins for the ancient imperial city's 2002 Festival on May 4-15, Be reveals he will proudly presenting his latest works as part of the festivities.
"They will be abstract, obviously," he says.
Like Santiago in Coelho's epic, Be branched off from the well-worn paths followed by artists of his own and subsequent generations, and in doing so he really made a difference.