Nguyen Van Phuong - Revelry in Remembrance

by Dinh Cuong

Virginia, 2012

I still remember that tall, gaunt artist in white suit - black suitcase in his one hand, an occasional umbrella or smoking pipe in the other –amply seated on a cyclo as it arrived at our get-together. It was the early 60s, art was vibrant and blooming, the scene was buzzing with Spring exhibitions. Most notable of them all was the 1st International Art Exhibition in Tao Dan Park, Saigon 1962. It was for this occasion that the artist, Nguyen Van Phuong, brought forth his art book The Vietnamese Contemporary Art, published by the Directorate of Fine Arts of the Department of National Education of the Republic of Vietnam. This half-century-old book, though incomplete, has been an enduring treasure for scholars of 1960s Vietnamese Visual Art.

Phuong himself drew many large paintings, always full of people, always full of raw, hot colors, emphasized by orange and red, always full of black, large outlines. In his art was a joyous celebration for what he referred to as the time of eternal spring. But was that really the case? For behind all that festivity, I sense an exquisite longing: Ha Noi. He left Ha Noi in 1954, the year the nation was divided. Yet that dignified and elegant Ha Noi of the 50s, he could never let go. This too was the sensibility of his contemporaries, Ha Noi was for them city at the bottom of the valley – Mai Thao (writer), or sunny March rainy July foggy September - Thanh Tam Tuyen (poet), or yearning beyond 17th parallel – Ta Ty (artist). All were aching for their beloved city. Capturing the heart of this exodus was Pham Tang’s painting Taking Homeland with us as We Go, harking back to joyous bygone days when a couple could still play swing at the Quan Ho festival, under the five-color flag.

According to the talented young art critic Long Nghi:
Nguyen Van Phuong’s original use of colors is the focal points of his paintings. He mastered the five primary colors of Eastern tradition (black, white, blue, red, yellow) which are closely related to the philosophy of five elements – Wu Xing (Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, Earth). The elements exist in reciprocal relationship, each ever changing. Their interaction can explain all phenomenons. Only by understanding this philosophy can one grasp Phuong’s usage of colors. (“Nguyen Van Phuong and the Eternal Spring” – Long Nghi – Young Talents, No. 66 Jan-25-1999).

Besides warm and lively colors, Phuong’s painting is also spectacular for his use of outlines. His outlines are large and very black, not rugged like those by Georges Rouault (French artist 1871-1958) but gentle like those found in traditional Vietnamese temple or wood-block prints. He revived them, renewed them, and created his own style with them – a much estimable accomplishment. The goal of art is to construct the soul of human and the joy of Earth. Art is an absent minded act, almost thoughtless; such is the necessary understanding to sympathize with the artist’s deepest emotion, their works, and the historical dialectics of their art… (Thai Ba Van – An Encounter with Art, Vietnam Institute of Art 1997, page 6)

Phuong’s artistic dialectics is that of loneliness, despite the exuberant revelry in his paintings. Lingering on was a deep remembrance for his homeland, Ha Noi. But I think the sensibility of an artist would have rendered him nostalgic even if he were still in Ha Noi. For him, revelry and remembrance are but one.

I met him for the last time in 2005 at Tu Do Gallery, Ho Tung Mau, Saigon. He passed away the year after. He had been exhibiting at this art gallery since 1990. The gallery even set aside a workshop for him on its 3rd floor. I still remember that tall, gaunt artist, dressed in elegant gray suit even as he was in the mid of painting…