Cheo Actors is an iconic recurring subject in Bui Xuan Phai’s oeuvre. Richly layered, with a subtle elegance showing the Cheo actors immortalized in a moment of preparation backstage, the present lacquer is in fact the largest known lacquer in this subject that the market has seen. On lacquer, Bui had to work along with the character of the medium, slowing down the process by which he would normally have completed a work of this subject using oil on canvas or on panel. As such, the work is in fact particularly outstanding, layered with deep and rich colours. Pared down in terms of details, each applied colour delineates an independent physique and a state of mind, with judiciously chosen complementary colours of green, blue and coral setting off against each other very well.
There has been a minority contesting view that Bui Xuan Phai did not produce any lacquer paintings in his lifetime. This is contrary to the truth - Bui Xuan Phai did produce lacquer paintings, although in small numbers, and many have been executed for close friends and notable collectors, and are therefore well-documented. Contestation to the existence (and authenticity) of these lacquers is groundless and easily refutable.
In the book authored by Tran Van Can, Huu Ngoc and Vu Huyen titled Vietnamese Contemporary Painters published by Red River in Hanoi in 1987, the authors illustrate a 1954 lacquer of Bui titled Old Street in Hanoi. Other well-known lacquers executed in the 1980s for the artist’s close group of friends include Cheo Actors, dated XI 1981 from Tham Vo Hoang’s collection that was sold through Binoche Auctioneer, Hotel Drouot, Paris, on 9th June, 1997, lot number 101. Another Cheo Actors of larger size, executed circa 1982, and formerly in the collection of Pham Duy, was exhibited in the landmark Visions and Enchantment exhibition organized by Christie’s and Singapore Art Museum in 2000, and illustrated and described in the accompanying catalogue. This same work was exhibited in Arts du Vietnam at the Musée Royal de Mariemont, Belgium, in 2002 and illustrated and described in the accompanying publication, Arts du Vietnam: La Fleur du Pêcher et l'oiseau d’azur. At the same time, another lacquer dated 1984, Streets of Hanoi, formerly in Tham Hoang Tin’s collection, is illustrated.
These lacquers were executed for friends, including the ex-mayor of Hanoi, Tham Hoang Tin (1909-1991), pharmacist, and well-known art collector. His son Tham Vo Hoang whom the sister Tham Thi Don Thu - famous through her portrait executed by Nguyen Sang – was working directly with Bui Xuan Phai and Tran Duy, the former owner of this work. Executing these lacquers, Bui Xuan Phai was assisted by the artist Dang Ngoc Bach who also often helped Nguyen Sang in his Bat Trang studio.
The present lacquer work, Cheo Actors, adds to the list of lacquer works aforementioned and stands as a testament to Bui Xuan Phai’s admirable range of works across different medium, with lacquer perhaps the one medium presenting the most challenge, technically, to him as a painter.