A True Sense of Nostalgia at Boi Tran Art Gallery

A True Sense of Nostalgia at Boi Tran Art Gallery


In an excellent state of preservation after these years, artist Luu Ly now bequeaths his precious treasure to artist Boi Tran. By a mere coincidence, the Fall-Winter art class held by artist Than Trong Su linked to the sketchbook and returned to Boi Tran eventually. Luu Ly believes that Boi Tran will take on the perpetuation and introduce these profound sketches to the world.

Hai Nguyen — Van Cam Hai
Writer, Filmmaker, Journalist, Scholar
Director, Global Vietnam Wars Studies Initiative, Ash Center, Harvard Kennedy School


On a rainy day, I suddenly met Artist Luu Ly at Boi Tran Art Gallery in the midst of Thien An Hill covered with the old centuries pine trees. His face carried the chivalry spattered the dust of long marches during wartime, and his half-open eyes, over the period of 80 years on earth, embodied the quintessence of memory tones through papers smeared by ages. Bristol board pads, damaged grey cover dotted with soil was the treasure as its deep gratitude related to famous artists’ drawings, they were fearlessly but passionately in the mood for art even with miserably bloody war since the time not famous yet.

Artist Boi Tran and Hai Nguyen (Van Cam Hai)
Artist Boi Tran and Artist Luu Ly at Boi Tran Garden

3 Unusual Names Of The Extraordinary Artist

His face is endowed with a dignified expression. Eyes reflect absolute purity. His hair floats in the poetic puffs. An alluring V-neck sweater caresses the young man’s chest. It’s Sipi’s self-portrayal with pen nib and ink drawn on Mar 12, 1948. The lower left inscription is elegantly yet insanely written as “Cordially gifting Viet Ho a drawing Sipi did, when Sipi leaves, don’t forget it, pray for its good physical condition to serve lady art.”

Bui Xuan Phai Self Portrait, signed “Sipi” (lower right)

In addition, even if the handwriting is no longer exquisite, its romantic style remains wild with a diverse interpretation: Sipi sits morosely contemplating, and quests for a theory to… Lang Bang (wander)! It is Sipi again! “Thee” sits there that resembles the absolute serenity amongst the birds’ wings thirsting for liberation, and against military aircraft behind their backs. Winter jacket, persimmon-red trousers as a traditional-folk Cheo opera artist, the face gleams, the glow of fire flares up the body in the quest for a destiny adrift somewhere. The artist, when calling himself Sipi, yet signs as Lang Bang in his work of art!

Another one, not his self-portrayal, is modest Viet Ho’s face under the vigorous forehead executed in colored pencils by Lang Thang in the year 1948! It’s still “thee-Sipi” as the lines, the hues are never mistaken!

Sipi! Lang Bang! Lang Thang! Who is he to proclaim his talent serving to art in a state of bloody war? Who is he to still own the young face, his work on a thin paper, over half a century, remains alight with confidence and prayers for perception and art? Throughout many wheels of life, whether the young man is still alive or dead somewhere at the ends of the earth, and is it possible for the artist to actualize his “serving” dream and be granted any blessings by “Lady Art”?

— “Thee – Sipi, Lang Bang, or Lang Thang, do you know him?”, the old artist Luu Ly caught a glimpse of my curiosity, just like a rain of the past gently falling over Thien An Hill.
— “He passed away! He is Phai! Bui Xuan Phai!” – Luu Ly unquestionably explained.
— “Bui Xuan Phai?” – I hesitated.
— “Yes! Phai did! Like you, 60 years ago, I questioned what Sipi was, and why it was Lang Bang, or Lang Thang. Phai told me that Sipi was in reference to the French Speed Fire aircraft. The sky has a stunning Speed Fire in the same way the soil owns a phenomenal Sipi Phai! Regarding Lang Bang or Lang Thang, in the early years of the resistance, Phai and we lived the life of nomads wandering across many areas controlled by 3rd Military Region.” – artist Luu Ly expressed.

Viet Ho Portrayal Drawing executed by artist Ta Ty

Apart from these signed/written masterpieces, Luu Ly showed me some Bui Xuan Phai’s without signature portraying artist Hoang Lap Ngon and Bo Cau Coffee Shop, artist Hoang Tich Chu,… Especially, there is a sketch of musician Van Cao, the face of the Vietnamese National Anthem composer elaborated into the cycle of 3 sentiments on the paper: the blue yet austere Van Cao – the charming and soothing Van Cao – the enthusiastic composing Van Cao.

Perhaps, it is the most distinctive masterwork by a talented artist that describes a gifted musician! Much like 3 faces of Van Cao, a Regnaut 3 faces sketch is a depiction of 3… nude ladies by a cubist – artist Ta Ty!

A Bloodstain Entering Into The Future

According to Luu Ly, after seeing the Van Cao 3 faces drawing by Bui Xuan Phai, artist Ta Ty immediately did a Regnaut 3 faces sketch as a response to his friend! Painted in November 1948, this charcoal pencil creation portrays a scene of 3 standing ladies in Western typical body shapes holding one’s arm to each other’s arm. In the crucial phases of the war, all carried out duties on the front line and Ta Ty’s nude painting confronted the strict regulations and the strong moral standards of the country; as a matter of fact, it was rare, otherwise what a greatly daring risk!

Musician Van Cao with 3 faces depicted by artist Bui Xuan Phai

Besides, the portrayals of Viet Ho and Luu Ly with the sharp-featured faces and its simplification by artist Ta Ty expresses perfectly the proper perspectives of a Cubism learner.

Presented in this special collection, a drawing of Viet Ho on Me Street, the way to Tam Dao (Vinh Phuc) crudely sketched in blue by musician Van Cao, reflects the image of an artistic soldier and his feelings facing the reality of the military situation. Another vivid artwork of Viet Ho in Lo Tu by artist To Ngoc Van in 1947 resembles a portrait photograph.

Alongside the outstanding master To Ngoc Van, Bui Xuan Phai, and Ta Ty, Luu Ly’s collection includes the works of artist Le Quoc Lap, Luu Ly, and an artist signed as “Khoi”. At that time, Bui Xuan Phai, Ta Ty, To Ngoc Van, Van Cao…, approximately 30 years old without any enviable reputation or remarkable success, produced great masterpieces pregnant with their real enthusiasm, the deep concern, and the free spirit of an artist. A drawing, just as a novella, condenses the poetic images glowing up with temporary feelings, and in the twinkling of eyes, the artist “re-makes” the vision of selected objects merged with the artist’s mentality.

Viet Ho sketch by artist Ta Ty

Not only the pieces of drawing embody the war-resistant morale, sufferings from the fightings, and eternal love of life but also the harassing verse (perchance artist under the name of ‘Khoi’) just as a bloodstain hasn’t been faded away for years:

“Stains of red blood
bedew the paper sent to one
ever and anon I fight
or look to the future

Triumph, who is given credit for?
Future! Future
let count: How many drops of blood
spread and dew tomorrow.”
Khoi – excerpted from Đỏ Máu on July 24, 1950

In a moment of emotion, I am grateful for the mettlesome compassion, the absolute solitude full of tears and blood of the war artists. Supposedly, these nomadic poems and drawings falling into the hands of the selfish, perhaps there shall be a “fine arts suspicion” within “Scattered along the frontier were graves away from home. Of those who left for battlefields without regretting their youth” in Westward March written by Vietnamese poet Quang Dung.

The Context & The Revival Of The Sketchbook

Bui Xuan Phai Self-Portrait signed “Lang Bang” (middle right)

Viet Ho, the eldest brother of Artist Luu Ly known as Tran Van Minh, was the public theatre leader of the North Vietnam Anti Illiteracy Campaign. When leaving Hanoi for his brother’s troupe, his parent, also an old artist, gave Luu Ly a Bristol pad with a grey dust hardcover. It, instead of being a diary, became a record of the artists’ drawings, they were also members of the troupe such as Bui Xuan Phai, Ta Ty, and some other fellows.

Aware of Luu Ly’s passion for art, at a bright moonlit night in Dao Xa Village, Bui Xuan Phai invited him to walk along the Day River to Phu Luu Chanh Hamlet to participate in a Fall-Winter 49 art class. There were 30 students trained in this crash course of the basic knowledge in art by Luong Xuan Nhi, Ta Ty, Bui Xuan Phai. Despite its short term, only 3 months, the quality of creation and technique maintained superior thanks to the brilliant teachers and their students’ enthusiasm.

“Phai, contemplating to the peace and war in the rain, executed his self-portrait during the evening in Dai market, Dao Xa Village, not far from Huong pagoda.” – The old artist Luu Ly recalled with nostalgia – “He lived in a house where artworks were hung on the mat. Since there was no room for the exhibitions, we almost used a mat as a wall/panel to hang a painting at that moment. He told us to draw a hook similar to the one sketching Viet Ho, it gave us the chance to joyously use our imagination to observe the work without hanging. In terms of paintbrushes, after smashing the tubes and primers for ammunition into the flat which we tied buffalo/cow tail hair to, as a result, the cattle tail got cut shorter somewhere we passed over!”

A portrayal drawing of Luu Ly executed by artist Le Quoc Lap

Accomplishing this course considered as the first art class of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Luu Ly transferred to Agitation – Propaganda Unit specialized in material printing and news transmitting at 3rd Military Region. Over the vital circumstances, artist Luu Ly never separated from his seniors’ drawing pad.

“Previously, in the rainy and bitterly cold weather, I wore a sheer plain T-shirt beneath the outer clothes served to provide additional warmth I kept my valuable pad right there in my body. When being outside in the pouring rain, tell you frankly I’d rather get wet and tolerate such coldness than cause any damage!” – Artist Luu Ly said

When the fierce resistance was over, artist Luu Ly once again changed his job. He was in charge of a lacquer factory owned by the Ministry of Industry & Trade, meanwhile keeping his eyes on the drawings day and night. The climate was no longer extreme to the utmost, whereas the high humidity posed a serious threat; accordingly, he made a breathable nylon pouch for the dried sticky rice to absorb a good deal of moisture from it as though warmed his own heart up. Oh dear! Painters are fearlessly romantic, the keeper is persistently passionate! Art alive depends on not only the artist’s talent but human sentiments! For over 60 years, ups and downs, the small sketchbook with a glazed cover faded and a shabby back turns into his priceless treasure; as each exceptional artwork, in Luu Ly’s opinion, evokes pure and great nostalgia the masters gifted to him!

Artist Hoang Lap Ngon (Coffee Owner) by artist Bui Xuan Phai

Over the period of 60 years, student Luu Ly in the Fall-Winter Art Class becomes an 80-year-old artist in front of me. All men & time change, yet 19 original drawings remain obviously distinctive in sketch, tones, historical background, and the breath of all presented artists.

In an excellent state of preservation after these years, artist Luu Ly now bequeaths his precious treasure to artist Boi Tran. By a mere coincidence, the Fall-Winter art class held by artist Than Trong Su linked to the sketchbook and returned to Boi Tran eventually. Luu Ly believes that Boi Tran will take on the perpetuation and introduce these profound sketches to the world.

Van Cam Hai
Original field notes excerpted from Tia Sang Journal, published on October 18, 2007