PRIVATE COLLECTION OF A GENTLEMAN, SWEDEN
Probably one of the best loved Vietnamese artists of his time, Bui Xuan Phai's obsessive depiction of the streets of Hanoi won him the nickname of 'street Phai'. Bui Xuan Phai was also known for his poverty stricken life and has been described as having a 'face that reflects the grief of a lifetime'. People who knoew him in his life, recalled his gaunt features and how he had to exchange paintings for food. Therein lies the hint of a reason that borne the well grounded love and respect which one had for him.
He was deeply admired for guarding his artistic integrity. Living in a time when artists and intellectuals alike were closely supervised by the authority to ensure complete adherence of their works to the 'policy of the party' Phai has stubbornly refused to paint the happy faces of workers or the 'dedicated soldiers of the country'. His bleak and desolate street scenes of Hanoi or the spontaneous cheo actors were subjects that touched his hear, and to him that would be the only reason to paint.
During his lifetime, Bui Xuan Phai's paintings were rarely included in National Art Exhibitions and were seldom exhibited abroad in travelling exhibitions organised by Arts Associations. In the art history books and brochures about Vietnamese contemporary painting before 1986, his name was never mentioned as an important figure in Hanoi's art circle.
Despite the deliberate suppression from the authority, the popularity of the artist grew through the pure penetrating power of his images. The images of street scenes of Hanoi at times decorated with children at play, the cheo actors getting ready at the back stage and the often desolate seascapes are bare, rudimentary with few embellishments but with the spontaneous and emotional brush strokes of the artist that imbue the results with an overwhelming sentiment.
Known to be an incessant artist, Phai is addicted to painting. As a poor artist, proper materials are not readily at hand and he painted on just about anything he got get his hands on. Sitting in Cafi Lam, the artist painted on scrap papers, newspaper, match boxes etc, an artist true to his calling and hold a special position to the country he dearly loved.