The motorbike chugged along Tran Van Ki street. A blip in numbering left me looking for anything that gave away the house of the artist Mr. Truong Be. We pulled up outside an open gate, not convinced it was the right location. The bike’s faulty horn obtrusively announced our arrival. Our doubts were quelled by the lacquer painting that laid face up on the tiled two-tiered porch.
In the back third of the house, an older lady worked meticulously beside the kitchen sink, inattentive to our presence.
‘Excuse me mother, we are here to see Mr. Be.’ She encouraged us to sit at the table before charging through a backdoor.
The residence was disappointingly sparse. Not much gave clues to the artist other than the paintings dotted around the house. The new year was fast approaching and while Hue was busy repairing houses and vanquishing accumulations of dust, the Truong household was musty, speckled in paint and lashed in black marks.
We weren’t waiting long before Mrs Be reappeared with her husband, pajamaed and wheelchair-bound. I felt grief at the sight of his condition. Conversations preceding our meeting had understated his health, or those details were lost in translation. Later, we found out Mr. Truong Be already defied the odds and survived 6 hospital operations. He pulled up at to the table where we sat:
‘Make some tea for our guests.’ He ordered.
‘Where are you from?’ Before I knew it, I was subject to Mr. Be’s own interview. Whatever his illness had taken from him, his reputed hospitality remained.
‘Please, drink some water!’
Mr. Truong Be lived through a lot of a defining era in Vietnamese history. A time rapidly escaping living memory in a nation where 70% of the population are under 36 years old. Born in Hue’s neighbouring province Quang Tri in 1942, Mr. Truong Be grew up while Vietnam battled for freedom from French colonialism and the country’s later partitioning. He went to Hanoi and studied at the prestigious Fine Arts institute, renowned for producing many of Vietnam’s biggest artists of the past century.
‘Everything was very difficult [when studying in Hanoi]. There were a lack of art materials, issues with finance, the quality of life was challenging. Besides periods spent serving in the army, there was widespread poverty and famine.The amount of time we could spend on painting was small.’
Mr. Truong Be graduated in 1974, the year before the end of the Vietnam war and national reunification. Subsequently, Hue was under new governance and Mr. Truong Be was relocated to Hue to become the vice-director at the College of Fine Arts. The transition took him closer to his hometown and out of urban Hanoi life. Aside from Hue being much smaller than Hanoi and the newly named Ho Chi Minh City, Hue gave artists better access to rural areas and a slower pace of life. In the early 1980s. Mr. Be went to Hungary to further advance his education in arts. He studied for two years in Budapest before continuing his stay for another two on an internship.
‘Have you been there?’ Excitement lit his eyes.
‘Hungary is the best country. A heaven that few people have visited. I have traveled to over 20 countries but Hungary remains the most beautiful in my heart. The nature was great and the people were friendly. Budapest my favourite capital in the world.’
Restrictions on art were much more relaxed in Hungary and brought Mr. Be the opportunity to create different artwork other than the aged French modernism and government-endorsed socialist realism. Although he knew of abstract art earlier in Vietnam, it was in Hungary where he fully engaged with it.
‘Hungary completely changed my opinion and taste of arts. The most important thing they taught us was artistic freedom. They contemplated my paintings and suggested the styles I could follow. They did not force anyone to pursue anything. My topics became more diverse and I worked more creatively. My thoughts extended to bigger things such as the universe and beyond. [My time in Hungary] was why I changed from a social realist artist to working with abstract painting.’
Despite South Vietnamese artists working with abstract art before reunification in 1975, its prohibition thereafter led South Vietnamese artworks to either be destroyed, disappear or collect dust in hidden collections. Mr. Be’s timely return to Vietnam coincided with the transition of Vietnam’s economic policy and the lifting of laws concerning media and art. He became one of the first artists to take part in an exhibition of abstract art in reunified Vietnam, but visitors to the gallery were not all enthusiastic about this strange art form.
‘My first abstract exhibition in 1988 [was] very difficult. There were 2 primary responses. The first was very supportive of the artwork, seeing the paintings as a genuine expression of creation and recognised the art’s livelihood. However, the other response opposed this art form as they felt that the shapeless paintings didn’t serve any purpose to the government nor society.’
The beginning of an improvement in the freedom of artistic expression was not the only things that Đổi Mới (the renovation period) brought about. Vietnam’s change in economic policy in 1986 to become a socialist-oriented market economy meant private business ownership and foreign investment were once again permitted, gradually revitalising the nation’s wealth.
‘In the past people used to not really be interested in contemplating arts as their quality of life was low. They needed to focus on producing and working. There was little time for entertainment and enjoyment. As time moved on, life became much better. There were more art materials and equipment than before. The artists also had more time to paint and explore or return to different mediums and concepts. As the economy develops, there are [more people with money. This] leads to more people buying art.’
Throughout the following two decades, his notoriety grew further in the Vietnamese art world and his work was featured in countless solo and joint exhibitions around the country and abroad in Thailand, France and the USA. As well as winning national awards, his work has also been listed at Christie’s auction house in Hong Kong. Although Mr. Be left his position as principal at Hue College of Fine Arts (and later re-joined as a vector in 1997), he continued to live in Hue with his wife and two sons.
‘Thien is the older son, the BIG BOY [Tuệ] is the younger.’ By this point, a young ominous figure sporting a sleeveless t-shirt had been moving paintings between rooms behind us. Tuệ was indeed a big boy, although probably no younger than I. His modest smile was as welcoming as his father. The painting from the front porch had been moved and I was relieved of my worries having to cross it on departure. Did his sons also share their father’s passion for art?
‘Both are artists. I am happy my children chose to pursue careers in art.’
On the vacant easel beside us, Tuệ places one of Mr. Be’s unfinished paintings and readies the brushes. Despite his critical condition and the accumulation of physical challenges, Mr. Be intended to continue painting after we left.
In September 2019, Mr Be held his final solo exhibition in Ho Chi Minh City comprising 22 lacquer paintings. By the second day, all the artworks had been sold. One article on the exhibition mentions how he left hospital to attend the opening. The exhibition was titled Nhịp điệu vũ trụ (loosely translated into Cosmic Rhythm), echoing the larger scale themes that had inspired him back in Hungary.
‘The universe began 13,7 billion years ago, from an explosion which created galaxies and planets. In the universe, there are tiny fundamental particles invisible to the human eye such as electrons, neutrons, protons and quarks. Even though we cannot see them, we have to make things visible in the arts. Even a tiny dot like those invisible particles and depict them.
When you understand physics, try to draw it in your own feelings. Understand the knowledge, feel and express it in your own way. If you do not understand then you cannot feel and thus unable to express them in art. Understand – feel – express. It is a relatable process.’
‘Which part of your career do you reflect on as your proudest?’
‘This time. Because this is the most successful.’
And it became clear that preparations for the new year were irrelevant to Mr Truong Be and his family. An artist true to his trade, hellbent on creating until his body would allow him no further.
‘Do you still remember how to speak Hungarian?’
‘I have forgotten most of it.’ He exclaims,
‘I might need to go to Hungary again to remember!’
As he tired, we felt it was right for us to leave. As we expressed our gratitude to Mr Be and his family, I thought of how life is an infinite resource of fascination. Yet, our quest for understanding life is only as finite as the time it permits. A few fishermen congregated along the canal as the westward sun shone onto the water. There would be no clouds that day.
This interview took place on 07.01.2020. Mr Truong Be sadly passed away on 09.04.2020 due to long-term illness. He is survived by his wife, two children and the large amounts of artwork that he contributed over his lifetime.
Truong Thien and family for arranging and facilitating the interview for Hue Grit.
Quynh Anh for help in translating and co-conducting the interview