An open secret

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I stumbled across a treasure house last week.

Through a chance encounter, I came across a private painting collection of hundreds of paintings of famous Vietnamese painters owned by Tran Hau Tuan, a friend of Bui Xuan Phai's son.

Bui Xuan Phai, the most famous Vietnamese painter within and outside the country, is known particularly for his paintings of Hanoi's streets. He is said to have traded paintings for food at one point in time, although his works fetch the highest prices of Vietnamese artists now, more than two decades after his death.

Tuan, who started collecting paintings by Bui Xuan Phai 30 years ago, has written 21 books on paintings so far, both in English and Vietnamese. Many of his books are dedicated solely to the works of Bui Xuan Phai.

Tuan's five floor gallery looks like a museum with hundreds of paintings by famous Vietnamese artists, many of whom have passed away. As one of the major collectors in Vietnam, he is discreet about his trade, but apparently does well enough to choose to sell (or not sell) his paintings at his leisure.

On the first four floors, the collection features modern works of the most important painters in Vietnam including Nguyen Sang, Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Duong Bich Lien.

"Tuan's collection is very impressive... with many different styles of paintings. Some remind me of Van Gogh or Renoir; others are far more contemporary in style. A few very precise and beautiful portraits and there are also lacquer (paintings) ranging from a traditional Vietnamese picture to a neo-gothic European religious painting," said Martino Castellani, head of the Intellectual Property Rights Desk at the Italian Trade Commission in HCMC.

The fifth floor of the private gallery is dedicated to Bui Xuan Phai, arguably the most remarkable and charismatic figure of Vietnamese art


Phai has done memorable works on cheo (Vietnamese northern folk opera), as well as portraits. In recognition of the contributions made by the artist to the country, three streets in Hanoi, Da Nang and Nha Trang Town have been named after him.

Tuan declined to divulge how many paintings by Phai he has in his collection. "I am not going to talk about that because I cannot say how many millions I have."

The big sofa in the middle of the showroom indicated to me that guests spend a lot of time here, immerging themselves in the collection.

Besides the collection of Bui Xuan Phai paintings, other related memorabilia in Tuan's collection include letters written by the artist to his wife, as well as the last painting he did while he was on his deathbed in the hospital.

Most of the paintings of Bui Xuan Phai in Tuan's collection are of Hanoi's ancient streets and landscapes, reflecting different periods in Vietnam's history, particularly during and after the wars for independence and reunification.

"During the subsidized time even food was scarce, let alone paintings. So the painter would draw on any material they had, lacquer, or canvas or even on a piece of newspaper," said Nguyen Trai, a young art director with the Up Studio in HCMC.

I found it fascinating that Phai painted so many with a similar topic the rows of houses on old Hanoi streets. It made me wonder if he wanted to find the perfect picture through different paintings or to capture the character of Vietnamese cities.

"Bui Xuan Phai shows a remarkable variety of styles and both a study and understanding of the different styles. Still, most of his production shows aspects of Vietnamese life which are very interesting to foreigners and, I hope, also for Vietnamese," said Castellani.

"He saw much change. Having been born in 1920 and lived until 1988, he went through French Indochina, the Japanese conquest, both French and American wars. Overall I like that his pictures show a lot of Vietnam and Vietnamese life without concentrating on the many wars," said Castellani

"Through his paintings, for me, Bui Xuan Phai is someone very simple with deep thoughts about life, society and people around," said Nguyen Trai.

Tuan said that in comparison with Nguyen Tu Nghiem and Nguyen Sang, two other artists of his generation, Phai was probably more modest in his ideas and artistic language, but his paintings were always approachable, always closer to life.

Each of Phai's painting enters the heart of the viewer as if it was a part of his or her own memory, Tuan said.

Although it is not open for public viewing, those wishing to see it can contact Tuan at:

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