Boi Tran, Ladies and Flowers by Nguyen Trong Tao

Boi Tran, Ladies and Flowers by Nguyen Trong Tao

On the very last day of the year of the Monkey (2004), I stopped by Minh Chau Art Gallery at 7 Ly Dao Thanh Street, Hanoi, not only to contemplate the masterpieces of leading artists such as Nguyen Phan Chanh, Bui Xuan Phai, Nguyen Tu Nghiem, Nguyen Sang… or visit the young owner Minh Chau but to feast my eyes on her mother’s paintings displayed to art lovers in Hanoi. 

Boi Tran Solo Exhibition: The Call From Within, Hanoi

Brilliantly-coloured flower baskets for the exhibition were still freshly scented, and the art gallery was full of art lovers. Two floors were full of artworks and their colours. The locals and the foreigners paid attention to the paintings and discussed with each other whilst cameras captured those precious moments. Sowing the seeds of the profound impression to the public is images of ladies and flowers.

Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong, Boi Tran, Nguyen Trong Tao, Nguyen Quoc Thang, Mr Oanh, Unknown (right to left)
Hoang Phu Ngoc Tuong, Boi Tran, Nguyen Trong Tao, Nguyen Quoc Thang, Mr Oanh, Unknown

I have known her, the artist of these paintings, for a long while since I lived in Hue. During that period of years, Boi Tran, one of the earliest pioneers, opened the first privately-owned art gallery business at Saigon Morin Hotel, nearby the charming Perfume River. The grand opening of Boi Tran Art Gallery drew the attention and participation of artists from the North to the Central, and Poet Nguyen Khoa Diem, Vietnam’s Minister for Culture and Information, took part as a principal speaker and did the ribbon-cutting ceremony. I understand the gratitude and appreciation of the Minister towards the latest event, as since then, it laid the foundations for the Vietnamese art market, especially for heritage preservation along with palaces, pagodas, temples, and tombs. Thanks to her immense enthusiasm for art, Boi Tran started to paint. Her earliest teachers included Nguyen Trung, Truong Be and Trinh Cong Son. Those prominent teachers accompanied her to paint at her own house or her garden on Thien An Hill. She painted them and vice versa. Depictions were mostly executed on oil or lacquer. Perhaps, by that, do the early paintings of Boi Tran bear some resemblance to Nguyen Trung’s? Taking it into more conscientious consideration, apparent signs of femininity feature and give prominence to her artworks. In addition, the reason why Boi Tran’s paintings strangely stimulate and awaken the audiences’ reminiscences of the nostalgic and elegant Hue ladies…

Boi Tran, Duong Dinh Chau, and Nguyen Trong Tao (left to right) at Boi Tran Art Gallery, Saigon Morin Hotel, 13 April 1998

Boi Tran told me she had never painted as much as in the last two years. I recognized the unbearably intense suffering she experienced. The sudden passing of a son she loved most in the world. Her handsome, obedient, kind and enthusiastic son, during a senior year of university in America, all of a sudden, went to his last resting place because of the sacrifice of his life to save his friends in the Pacific Ocean. Boi Tran kept the most beautifully restored wooden house made of jackfruit trees to worship him while living nearby herseft in a restored minority place. The praying area was elegantly decorated with photos of her son and family, nature and friends. On the day to celebrate a mass for the peace of his soul in Hue, there weren’t any white roses left in Hanoi as those had been delivered to Hue for a mother who was suffering the loss of her son. “Those days, I would be dying if not paint” – Boi Tran expressed in sorrow. I eyed the paintings. Ladies with enormous eyes opened to stare into space, bend down with ‘Queen of The Night’ flowers or eyes closed to pray like hers. Twelve lacquer paintings of ladies in 60x120cm dimension are applied by silver and gold without any vividly vibrant colour tone yet deepened by the green moss of the citadel or velvety brown of Thien An Hill. Only if a baby boy appears the tone becomes brighter in the melancholic setting. Hence, it interprets her deep reminiscences toward his son.

“Lady on the peak of a rock” caught my attention, her chin resting on her hands resting on her knees, eyes wide open looking into the infinity. A painting with a unique layout, different from other paintings of ladies in the art gallery. Moreover, I learned that it was Boi Tran’s painting of her daughter Minh Chau sitting by the sea in the US, waiting for people to find her brother’s body. Such extreme repressions are apparently expressed through her brushes. Dozens of flower paintings are depicted afterwards. Queen of the night and lotuses are her two most favourable. She paints while cherishing scarce moments of blooming and dying. It’s her longing to hold on to every moment of beauty; she wants to take care of the beauty. I look at the lotus in her paintings which are strangely evolving. Sometimes it is like a candle lit on the lake surface at night or tightened into a bunch like burning incense sticks… The flowers illustrate something sacred.

“Painters paint not to speak, but to be silent.” – Thai Ba Van, an art critic, and he added: “What we study in a work of art is the deep underneath of the iceberg that Hemingway once woke up.” I totally agree with him when looking at Boi Tran’s paintings, yet some of the beauty catches our eyes at very first sight. The first thing I feel when observing her paintings is elegance—a transparent beauty of colour and pure innocence of figure. Instinctive charm appears before both technical virtuosity and experience. It is an ability that one cannot become an artist without.

Previously, I described Boi Tran as a Hue talented woman; at that time, she had not exhibited her paintings. A person was ready for whatever fate offered to exist as a celebrity in the centre of the ancient capital. She built a cultural garden nestled by the side of Thien An Hill herself, established Bamboo & Rattan Handcraft Art Company, and held a Culinary Fair for thousands of people at Christmas last year. For now, without an official degree from any art school, she still has a beautiful art gallery exquisitely displayed in the downtown of the capital city.

Boi Tran and Nguyen Trong Tao at Boi Tran Garden, Thien An Hill, Hue

I asked: “Boi Tran worked too much, don’t you feel tired?” she gently smiled: “Yes,… It is my trait, I get used to being tired to be happy!”. I once again looked at the artworks of ladies and flowers and suddenly found that Boi Tran was right. After working with enthusiasm, one finds pleasure in themselves.

Words are excerpted from Nguyen Trong Tao’s Blog, posted on April 15, 2011