Year : 2009


Young Vietnamese painter Tran Viet Phu's art takes us on a magical, lyrical journey into secret worlds that speak far beyond is environment, far beyond the immediacy of his subjects, and his culture. Phu's art is one that is thoroughly modern, yet it possesses a timeless intensity and spirit.

Young Vietnamese painter Tran Viet Phu’s art takes us on a magical, lyrical journey into secret worlds that speak far beyond is environment, far beyond the immediacy of his subjects, and his culture. Phu’s art is one that is thoroughly modern, yet it possesses a timeless intensity and spirit.

Vietnamese painters for whom the everyday world is their subject face innumerable challenges in making it extraordinary, taking it beyond the mere conventional that has been demanded by many since the country opened up to the world in the late 1980s. For it is only through the extraordinary that we are able to see beyond the surface reality of society and to understand some of the mysteries of the everyday. There are indeed numerous contemporary Vietnamese artists experimenting with fresh ways of looking at the world beyond the expectations of the commercial art market’s demand for sentimental pictures of girls in ao dai, conservative landscapes and monks in temples. However, the fashion for such artworks, quickly made for the market place, has tended to obscure the fact that there are many fine artists for whom painting is the core of their lives. Such is the case of the young Hanoi-based painter Tran Viet Phu whose portraits, still lifes, and interiors take us on a magical and lyrical journey into the people and places of his contemplative world. There is a sense of mystery in the manner in which he treats his subjects that makes his everyday world quite extraordinary.

Tran Viet Phu’s process of making art is a slow, painstaking one. It often takes him months, and sometimes years, to complete a single work. His astute observation and his attention to the details of his subjects’ lives and conditions and environments are central to the success of each painting. His thoughtfull, philosophical approach to painting and life is also central to his capturing the heart of both the mundane and the spirit of his portraits and place. His quest for an aesthetic that reaches beyond his culture, yet includes it, and his own deeply felt emotions, whether through figuration or still life or a simple interior, has been essential in bringing his art alive with a powerfull immediacy that draws in the viewer. Phu’s painstaking appoach to painting has meant that he has rarely exhibited his art during the past decade.

Born in 1973, in Hai Duong province, Phu graduated from Hanoi Fine Arts University in 1997, and first exhibited his works in 1997. Yet, in his short career, his paintings have found their way into numerous international art collections, both public and private. From the outset of his studies, although not discarding his own painting culture, Phu was fascinated – and continues to be so – by the art of numerous Western masters. Diego Velázquez (1591-1660), Rembrandt (1609-1669), Jan Vermeer (1632-1675), Jean-Simeon Chardin (1699-1779), Franciso Goya (1746-1828), Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), and Edouard Manet (1832-1883) have been the most important in the development of his own art. Early in his career, Phu’s access to the works of these masters was only through books and magazines whose contents he studied diligently. His first direct contact with these masters’ artworks, however, only came during a visit to Paris and London in mid-2002. It was a visit that reinforced his admiration for the greatness of their artistic achievement and one that inspired him to look at a broader range of art.

“I wasn’t afraid or surprised by their work as I has seen the works in books for a long time and I had thought a great deal about them. But one thing that did happen for me after visiting London and Paris was that I started to look at ideas in the work of Manet, Ingres, and Chardin as they seemed to say something about my own situation” says Phu. “I have always like Velazquez and Vermeer because I have always thought that the spirit of their art is close to that of the Vietnamese people regardless of the fact that their painting is from another time and another culture. There is something simple about the way they paint, and it is in many ways very modern. I do feel close to their work even though I am living in Vietnam. Rembrandt is very important for me because I can feel the power of his work. When I look at a Rembrandt painting, I think that nobody can use oil and color better than Rembrandt. When I saw the art of Rembrandt I was taken greatly by the dard, powerful mood of it.”

One is unmistakably aware of the influence and inspiration of the art of all of these masters’ throughout Phu’s entire oeuvre of the past decade. It is present in such things as his lighting, the colors that he uses, his application of paint, the moods he achieves within his interiors, and his attention to detail. Yet, while Phu acknowledges the influence and and inspiration of the masters, his art also embraces the spirit and the diverse aesthetic of realism, naturalism, impressionism, expressionism, and even abstraction. It is Phu’s link with all of these and his own unique interpretation of his society and environment that makes his art completely contemporary, timeless, and quite spiritual.


Whether Phu is making a portrait of a beautiful woman or a peasant girl, a simple still life in the corner of his studio, or an empty, murky interior, his challenge is always the same: to reveal something beyond the mere surface of his subject, something that will help the viewer to understand the totality of the scene rather than simply the façade. In Phu’s figurative world, of an individual or groups, there is the immediate impact of the figures’ physical presence, sitting or standing, bending over or reclining. It is the posture of which one becomes instantly aware. It is only gradually that the whole environment comes alive for the viewer. Good examples of this are Mai (2005), Ly in June (2005), Picking vegetables (2006), Barefoot (2006), and Playing Cards (2006).

Mai is a simple but very beautiful portrait of a child, dressed in light blue trousers and blue and white blouse, sitting alone on a small, low, armless seat in a darkened room, her hands on her lap, her eyes looking out into the shadow, waiting. Although she is clearly alone, there is a sense, suggested by the expectant look on her face, of someone waiting out of sight just beyond the edge of the painting. There is something serene about this child. She is a timeless figure that could fit comfortably into the world of Rembrandt or Vermeer just as she does so easily into the 21st century Vietnam. This feeling of expectation is also present in the elegantly articulated Picking Vegetables in which a small girl in a ragged brown dress, and seemingly crowned by a green vegetable, is seated within a dark room, against the wall with simple shelving, vegetables, and utensils around her. There is an exaggeration in the forms of her hands and feet that make her seem older than her years. One feels for her in her aloneness, and the ostensible quiet desperation of her situation. Within the silence of this scene she is pensive, even sad, but she is quite angelic, and so lending the whole scene something of a religious undertone.

Two portraits, Ly in June, a young lady descending a stair case, and Barefoot, a young woman standing alone in the middle of a room (in reality the artist’s studio), show Phu’s acknowledgement of classical figuration. Both of these works are about the grace of young women at the height of their beauty. The elegant young woman in Ly in June descends the stairway, dressed in a full, flowing red dress. She looks as if she has just stepped out of a middle-class Victorian novel. The young woman in Barefoot, however, clothed in a long white skirt and white blouse, stands solemnly modern in the middle of a room holding onto the back of a tall, brown wooden chair, surrounded by silver-framed paintings and translucent glass objects on the floor. One woman looks ahead of her and the other stares out at us, thoughtful, calm, as if she were about to speak to someone hidden a few feet from her. Yet, while the viewer admires their youth and beauty, there is still a sense that they are alone, of being objects locked away in impenetrable private worlds, to be admired rather than communicated with.

The feeling of isolation is again highlighted in Phu’s wonderfully moody piece Playing Cards (2006) – one of several on the same subject, the origins of which are based on his own experiences. “When I was a student and lived at the university, I watched my roomates for three years playing cards. The images have stuck with me,” says Phu. “When my friends played cards, they were seriously intense and thought only about the cards. They forgot about everything else.” Here Phu’s protagonist are caught within a somber impressionistic scene embraced by the diffuse interior light. The figures in the group are slightly inclined, suggesting their deep concentration. For the viewer the card players are trapped behind a wall of light that cannot be penetrated. Here is a timeless moment, activity and anticipation captured with an ease that once again reflects Phu’s thoughtful observations of people and their private worlds. This work also shows just how careful he is in treatment of lighting and how he utilizes this to create both ambiance and character. Yet, even Phu as a ‘voyeur’ of his own art is not always happy with his figurative work. “I feel that my portraits are not as strong as my interiors,” he says. “I would like that my figures could be closer to abstract painting because there is no limit to the imagination. My full portraits I see as sketches, but this is unjust to my subjects because I often feel that they are not really finished.”

Seeking the mystery of time and place is central to Phu as an artist, whether it is in his portraits or still lifes or simple interiors. This comes through most forcefully in his carefully wrought and beautifully atmospheric paintings of simple interiors. Phu’s fascination with interiors is simple enough. “I like to play with light and the structures of the walls and the doors, open and closed, and the corners and the decay. I will paint such places that might appear boring to people, but interiors are close to me. I can feel the silence in these places and sense of time passing. I can also see abstraction on the wall.” As befits the mood of this solitary artist, stark interiors are places through which his mind can wander at will; creating a narrative of the present that is linked to the past. Works such as At Home on a Sunny Day (2005), Guesthouse (2005), and Autumn Night in a Guesthouse (2006) are three of his finest interior pieces. Phu’s lighting of each picture is achieved with great skill. The lighting is subtle, never intrusive; one’s eye is never overwhelmed by it for it is just enough to highlight the space and its physical reality. Brown, green, red, muddy yellows, and black dominate in the construction of these paintings, yet there is never any sense of unattractive dullness for Phu has made a simple, clear narrative of the spaces. In At Home on a Sunny Day the gleaming sunlight squeezes between the cracks of the green door; in Autumn Night in a Guesthouse the faint light cascades from an unseen ceiling light, the cord of which straggles down the wall beside the door. The light shadows a small, unfinished painting leaning against the wall beside the doorway, and in the foreground there is a tube of paint and a pair of paintbrushes, suggesting that the artist has just left the scene. Although these interiors are devoid of people, there are nevertheless hints that people are not far away; the open door and the hint of a picture on the wall, in Guesthouse, for example. Each of these interiors speaks of poverty, of the fragility and the transience of life, of the decay that time and the sadness of isolation. Such things are central to the power of these works. But not all his interiors are like this. Lilies and Peony (2005), Artist’s Studio (2006), Dried Lilies (2006), and October 02 (2006) are alive with colors and flowers, and Summer Night (2005), with its large painting on easel, suggests the activity of a busy artist. Such works hark back to more distant times and places where artists worked by natural light and candle light.

Phu finds beauty in a simplest of environments, either natural or those created by himself. Whether it is in dense garden or tangled woodland undergrowth, as in Garden as Winter Approaches (2005), Afternoon (2005), Rising Sun(2006), and Setting Sun (2006) or in the simplicity of still lifes such as Grapefruit, Peach, Pomegranate (2005), Corner of the Yard (2005), April (2005), Red Peony (2006), and Balcony (2006). Phu’s rich colors reveal his love of the natural world and its place in his life and art. His bold colors highlight both the reality of his objects and how such natural things enhance spaces. One of his finest examples of his still lifes is Corner of the Yard. Here the rich green of the plants’ leaves of his hightened by red and white of the flowers’s bloom. The plants, with a single glass of water beside them, are set against the rugged brickwork of the yard’s wall, solitary entities in a dark corner. This work is perhaps one of his best metaphors for life. While in a number of Phu’s works there is a definite sense of sadness, in his still lifes there is the quiet of life. He does not overly romanticize his subjects, nor does he make them dreamily sentimental. He is for the most part sturdily natural and realistic. There is just the right amount of detail, just the correct value of color and light. His still lifes are all exquisitely lit reinforcing the impressive manner in which he suggests the mystery of the world around us. His attention to careful lighting also brings out the strength and beauty of his colors, making his rich reds glow and his greens seem to pulsate with life. There is an ethereal quality to his still lifes that emphasizes Tran Viet Phu’s ability to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary and in which we see the presence of the masters that he loves.

Over the past decade, Phu has sought his own personal aesthetic through diligent study and painting, often discarding works that didi not speak to his aesthetic. In this time, however, there has been one major change in his art, a move from lightness to darkness. Phu says that the “spririt rises out of the darkness.” The spirit that rises out of the texture of his heavily applied layering of oil paint is one that seems alive with the energy of life, but an energy that is not always readily accessible to the viewer. “Since the year 2000, I wanted to make a painting that looked as if it had a layer of dust on the surface. It is challenging because I want to avoid first impressions of a subject,” he says. “I want to create another view of the subject, more abstract, something magical between the light and the dark, the world in between light and dark.”

For Tran Viet Phu painting is a voyage between the past and the present, between tradition and modernity, between life and death. For the viewer his art is a journey into secrets of the world waiting to be revealed. Whether he is making a portrait, a still life, or an interior, Phu’s world between the light and the dark is a lyrical, narrative one, a powerful visual poetry of mysteries that seduce the imagination, making the ordinary extraordinary.


Ian Findlay – Brown

Asian Art News, Volume 16, Number 6 November/December 2006