Bùi Xuân Phái, perhaps the greatest Vietnamese painter of the last century, died 30 years ago on 24 June 1988.
I had the fortune to meet Phái in 1980, while I was living in Hanoi. I visited his studio many times over the following two years. It was there that I took this portrait, probably in the winter of 1980/81, to judge from the thick jumper and scarf.
He lived with his wife and children in a single room which was also his studio. It was on the ground floor, looking out onto a tiny courtyard, set back from the street in the heart of the old city. A communal tap in the courtyard served everyone in the building. Phái had built a studio space on a raised platform above the bed: a tiny corner in which he produced some of the masterpieces of Vietnamese art — here some of them are drying above the laundry (see photo below).
Phái’s life spanned all the great dramas of Vietnam’s 20th century history.
He came from a family of prominent intellectuals and was educated under the French colonial system. He studied at the French-run Academy of Fine Arts in Hanoi and was soon recognised as an outstanding talent. But the Japanese invasion led to the closure of the school. In 1945, when the French resumed control of Vietnam, Phái joined the resistance and moved to the countryside.
On the defeat of the French, Phái returned to Hanoi and a seemingly secure position as one of the leading artists of his generation. But unable and unwilling to adapt his work to the official ideology, he soon fell out of favour with the regime. He lost his teaching post and was ordered into the countryside for a while — he learned carpentry which he later put to good use in his studio.
There followed over 20 years of poverty and rejection. The family survived on his wife’s earnings and whatever Phái could earn from his art which, in wartime Hanoi, was almost nothing. I remember him bringing out drawings of the US bombardment, done in ink on bits of newspaper — the only material he could then afford.
By 1980 things had eased a bit. Although any contact with the tiny Western community in Hanoi was strictly discouraged, one or two of us used to visit and buy his work. Paint was still a problem when I knew him: I used to bring back supplies from Bangkok (along with cigarettes, as Western brands were a valuable currency at the time). I can only suppose this was tolerated by local officials in exchange for a share. Perhaps Phái’s age and the respect and affection that he commanded among the people of the old city had also earned him a degree of latitude.
Phái is famous for his street scenes. The streets of the old quarter were quiet, half empty, dilapidated but of wistful beauty. They became known as ‘Phái Streets’ because he captured the spirit of the place so well. It was a sombre time, reflected in a palette of coloured greys. But there was a gayer side to Phái. His paintings of cheo (traditional opera) singers show a wonderful sense of colour; and a genius for giving a modern twist to the ancient culture of which he was a product.
His rather gaunt face reflects the hardships of his life. There is a sadness in the eyes but also the intense critical gaze of the artist. There is a note of sceptical humour, a quiet irony, in the set of mouth — the expression of a man who has endured much but found his own way.
John Ramsden lived in Hanoi from 1980-82. Hanoi After the War, a book of John’s photographs with essays by Vietnamese writers who lived through the period, published by Skira, will appear in September. Christopher Goscha will review the book in the August issue of Mekong Review.