Culture Culture

07/06/2018 - 20:33

Painter Buu Chi with Paintings in Students’ Struggle Times

Painter Buu Chi (1948-2002) is a visual artist with an distinctive style, appearance and artistic virtue in the Vietnamese painting flow in the second half of the twentieth century.

Let’s fly with the aspiration, 1973

He participated in a large number of the national and international exhibitions, and was especially invited to join in the exhibition entitled The Right to Hope organized by the United Nations in 1995.  In 2017, he was Hue’s sole visual artist awarded the State Prize, a great honor for his contributions to the Vietnamese visual arts. The collection of pen-and-ink drawings full of his struggle vigor done in 1968-1974 was the main works in his lively youth.

Painter Buu Chi was born on October 8, 1948, into a royal family in Hue. Buu Chi’s passion for painting was inspired by his father, a civil servant doing some paintings and by the French cultural influence from his mother, a teacher of French at the prestigious Dong Khanh High School.

As a result, he was able to absorb French culture very early and loved the famous French painters and other contemporary painters he admired such as Cezanne (1839-1906), Modigliani (1884-1920), and Picasso (1881-1973).

Chi Hoa Prison

After finishing (his studies at) Hue Quoc Hoc High School, Buu Chi joined the Law Faculty of Hue University and graduated in 1971. Buu Chi did not choose to live in the lap of luxury but soon embarked on the path of struggle. The starting point is the vibrant South Vietnam’s urban student movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the peak of the 1968 Mau Than Year.

In 1968, the young man witnessed the fierce and brutal war right in his homeland, and the suffering and ruin of Hue Ancient Capital. All of them were imprinted on his memory and changed his view. Buu Chi joined in the anti-war movement with youth enthusiasm.

Aside from doing paintings, Buu Chi, with a law student’s sharpness and proficiency, always highly evaluated justice, participated in the lectures to call for peace, freedom and condemned the Saigon henchman regime as well as American intervention in South Vietnam.

He wrote the sharp comments on the struggle journals, the leaflets, banners, and joined the “Singing Movement for My Compatriots” initiated by musician Trinh Cong Son. Buu Chi's pen-and-ink drawings and sketches on the anti-war theme were quickly recognized as a powerful art weapon in the movement of struggling for the nation’s peace.


The illustrations of the collections of  music by Trinh Cong Son like “We Have to See the Sun”, “Songs of Safeguarding the Country” (1970), the critical illustrated cover and supplement  on “Face-to-Face” Magazine in 1971-1972 like the cover of  the 1972 Nham Ty Spring issue 32; the illustrations like “Hand Holding Fire Pen”, “ Prisoner Breaking Shackles”, “Nails of Crime”, “Crows of War”, “Generations in Exile” “Let's Fly with Aspiration” …are  really subtle works   whose art is imbued with the spirit of protest in order to effectively promote the movement of struggle and have a profound impact on the people’s sentiment.

The collection of paintings “Scream from the Underground” is a collection of works in the spirit of the face-to-face struggle against the enemy with the art weapon. The paintings expose the bloody, shackled hands trying to escape from the barbed wires, the screams of pain, the hopeless eyes behind bars, and the mournful, exhausted figures as a consequence of the warders’ whips.

These paintings show Buu Chi was very close to Picasso in the spirit Guernica (1937) awakened to and called for the human conscience to stop the crimes committed by the Nazis in Spain and now in South Vietnam. It was the violent struggle style of visual art, the vehement opposition to the old regime, the denunciation of the war, and the praise of and aspiration for peace that infuriated the Saigon government.

On April 12, 1972, Buu Chi was first arrested and detained in Da Nang. Released from prison, Buu Chi returned to Hue to engage in the revolutionary activities, later was arrested and expelled from Hue on December 1, 1972. Buu Chi had no alternative but to go to Saigon to participate in anti-war painting and was arrested there for three years until the South was completely liberated.

During his time in prison, he never stopped struggling. He drew on everything possible such as on cigarette packs, smoking papers, matches, scrap papers, book covers and so on. By every means, his paintings and writings continued to appear in the underground publications in prison, and then were transferred everywhere and even abroad. Some of his paintings have been kept at the Boston University Library (USA) and printed by several progressive newspapers in France, Germany and Canada. Sometimes his paintings were taken to Hanoi during the tense Paris talks.

The painting “In the Withering Arms” done at the Chi Hoa Prison in 1974 exposes the old mother’s hands protecting her baby, and the painting “Woman Prisoner” showing  the mother’s hand  tied to the child is a work of humanitarianism, calling for peace and condemning  all wars of suffering.

Painter Buu Chi was always inextricably associated with the nation. The collection of paintings “Scream from the Underground” is one of the good indicators of his youth devotion to the struggle for the country’s peace and the people’s freedom. However, with an artist’s heart and emotions, he always thought of happiness and worried about the postwar human condition. He pointed out the existent suffering. In his view, a work of art is to awaken human’s conscience and common sense.

By Phan Thanh Binh