Portrait of Boi Tran
Portrait of Boi Tran

There is no place without a history.
There is no history without a place.
There are places without measure, and histories beyond all time.
Elegant moments and secret places.
Patches of eternity and jolted thoughts.

To verify this, one must know Boi Tran.

Is it for her that, in a prophetic karm, Ngo Chan Luu (933-1011) wrote:
“Nothing begins, nothing ends
Only emptiness is absolute
The truth to comprehend
Is that all things are of the same nature.”?

There is no artist without Grace, no seismology without a volcano.

Boi Tran knows that passion, this peppery spice of time, reveals the flavours of life but that the suffering which it engenders offers more slumber without night than nights without sleep. She lives and paints in her magic Thien An garden in Hue, proud but comforting, where the wind frightens the centuries old pine trees, and the bashful, even prudish, flowers triumph over the rain. A place where Time’s machine, this thief of joys, arrests itself... from time to time for the greatest happiness of the visitor.

Dang Dung (who died in 1414) wrote it thus:
“The world is full of trouble, how can one age?
The infinite universe begins a drunken chant
With luck the humble and villain will rise up
In inimical times the hero drinks his bitternesses.”

The artist has no choice other than his work, but perhaps Boi Tran had even less choice than others. Less choice because war, loneliness and bereavement, all experienced by her to the utmost, have hollowed out her life: the artist, the true artist, is always a hero. Her fate belongs to her, but it unites the messengers of Liberty: “If you paint you die, if you do not paint you die, so paint and die.”

To be an artist is not a vocation, it is a requirement. The painter knows that only the future lasts: when Boi Tran paints she does not tell us what she knows, she shows us what she sees. The magic of an artist which transforms us into a mirror image of ourselves.

Nguyen Gia Thieu (1741-1798) wrote it thus:
“The bitter earthly taste benumbs our tongue,
The way of life wears out our shoeless feet.
On the tossing waves the pontoon rises and falls,
Boat-like foam battles the immense sea.”

There are only two kinds of artists, only two: those who want to change the world and those who ask it to accept them.

Activism or passivity? Conquest or submission?

Boi Tran has asked the world to accept her, but activism and conquest, passivity or submission, are not words that appear in her vocabulary.

Do you doubt this?

Look at her from afar... - proudly wearing her ao dai, offering to the proximate world the most beautiful smile on earth, one of those smiles that never disappears from your memory especially if it accompanied by a look so soft, full of questioning and goodwill, so noble and so simple at the same time. Looks that, at the time, give you the feeling that you are unique.

Boi Tran carries aloft the values of Vietnam.

Hué Lady | oil on canvas | 90 x 90 cm. (35 7/16 x 35 7/16 in.)
Hué Lady | oil on canvas | 90 x 90 cm. (35 7/16 x 35 7/16 in.)

She knows, since her birth, that noise does little good and the good makes little noise. The noises of bombs, bullets, mines, are not an abstraction for her, a cinema project or a pretext to a musical accompaniment. Her body and her soul have survived all wars, just or unjust. Honesty and simplicity have triumphed over hatred and mistrust. Boi Tran’s paintings are suffused with a soft but wild energy. Her paintings are an ode to elegance and immanence.

Two great poets, dead too early, like her son Nghia, express it perfectly:

Han Mac Tu (1912-1940), who knew how to find the words that describe the concerns of the artist. Let us re-read it, in his search for words, battle companion of Boi Tran in the use of her paintbrush:
“I wish that my soul could gush forth from the tip of my pen,
That some part of my brain could adhere to each verse.
The letters that swirl round like spurts of blood,
Blast me and ice my skin.

Let me faint in a bath of blood,
Express my pain on this thin page.
Do not stop the source of the poetry I embrace
Because my heart is in this sea of reeling letters.”

Through the swishing of the paintbrush one feels the torments of the artist’s soul which, with a bit of everything, a nothing of ours, finds, pictorially, those so simple words which sound so beautiful, when one knows that, despite everything, nothing lasts other than the future.

Wait for the storm to pass or dance under the rain? This is the ultimate choice of the artist.

Bich Khe (1916-1946) has described it magnificenty:
“O wind, you breathe the sadness of the winter.
Space lets drop abundant tears,
The courtyard whitens with the first flowers of the pear tree,
The blue sky overflows with love for autumn,
Here are the heavy silvery clouds sliding to the west.”

Adding, later:
“Suddenly a pair of blackbirds throw themselves into the sky...
Where does this sudden music come from
Which my soul follows, my soul.”

To send a grief-laden letter? Is this our destiny because everything we love will die?

Because life taught Boi Tran, a long time ago, that men without principles direct people with no memory, she proves, in her work, that if the dream does not dispel nightmares, it is time to despair of the dream.

There is always “The watchful dream” as written by Paul Eluard (1895-1952):
“Night is never total.
There is always because I say it,
Because I affirm it,
At the very depths of sorrow,
An open window,
A lighted window,
There is always a watchful dream (...)”.

Dear reader, go find and read the rest of the poem and ask yourself:
Who has the right to speak of Boi Tran?

Jean-François Hubert
Christie's Senior Expert, Vietnamese Art

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