Viet Nam News
Painter Phạm Bình Chương is among few contemporary artists painting the streets of Hà Nội in a realist style. His work evokes memories of the city as it was years ago. Lê Hương finds out what inspires him.
A quiet corner with brown, mossy tiled houses; the red leaves of tropical almond trees casting fluttering shadows on a faded yellow wall in the early morning light; a deserted lane with rough bricks and old-style wooden windows.
The typical motifs found in Phạm Bình Chương’s oil-on-canvas paintings may stir memories of Hà Nội in the early 20th century for older people, but for youngsters, it is an unfamiliar perspective of very familiar street corners that they pass every day.
“A quiet, peaceful and elegant Hà Nội is a memory from my childhood,” Chương tells Việt Nam News. “I like images of rusty bicycles and staircases”, both recurrent themes in his paintings.
"I think, a few decades ago, no one could ever forget the joy of possessing his or her own bicycle – it’s a happier feeling than owning a car today," the painter says.
The staircase leading to his grandparents’ house, on the second floor of a French-style house on Hai Bà Trưng Street, has left quite an impression on the artist.
“I loved visiting my grandparents’ house. I clearly remember the wooden staircase with its well-polished banister; every single step on the old wooden staircase would have an interesting sound,” he recalls. “My mind sees the resting place on the staircase that looked over a series of old up-and-down roofs running like those in a painting.”
Street scene: "A Morning during Tết Holiday", oil on canvas.
Early on, Chương chose realism as his style of expression, but his is "realism with a twist", says the artist.
“Unlike dozens of years ago, when painters had only realism to follow, when I graduated from university 20 years ago, there were various styles of painting, and I tried my hand at realism and expressionism. Though I had some success, and was even awarded a prize by the Fine Arts Association in 1997, I found no difference between my works and those of other successful painters. Then, I decided to make realism a little more special.”
His style is quite hard to achieve, and requires patience. Oil on canvas is the most perfect medium for his style.
One of the most recurrent elements in his paintings of Hanoian streets is bàng (Terminalia catappa or tropical almond) trees.
“I find it the most interesting tree. Just looking at the tree, people can guess what month it is, let alone what season.”
The tree has beautiful spread-out branches, but its most amazing feature is its leaves. They are a cool green in summer and offer broad shade; they fall in winter, making the tree look lonely at street corners; in spring, young leaves sprout, bringing hope for the rest of the year.
“But I like the tree the most in between seasons, when the leaves have various colours. The leaves turn yellow and red when it approaches autumn, and red mixed with purple in early winter. Those are the most romantic and beautiful seasons,” he said.
Besides, the tree is of the same height as many old structures, which allows Chương to draw the entire tree in his paintings.
“The tree combines with old houses to create a special atmosphere of ancient streets,” he said. “But drawing bàng tree is a real challenge as each leave has to be drawn carefully, otherwise it will look like another tree.”
Look of home: "An Old Street Corner", oil on canvas.
Chương enjoys drawing the capital city when it is quiet, as he finds its real beauty in tranquillity.
“Life gets faster and faster, people rush more and more. Their minds are always moving, even when they sit down to enjoy coffee,” the painter said.
“I want people to feel calm and relaxed when they look at my paintings. Nothing is more precious than that feeling of peace. So I don’t draw Hà Nội to make people love the city more. I want them to calm down for a while and return to their natures: to innocence and honesty. Or simply invoke their childhood memories.”
Chương has also tried his hand at still life and portraits. Some of his paintings have no people, but give the viewer the sense that someone has just left the space – many objects are not in their proper places, for example, someone has left a shirt out for drying under the sun, or moved a chair to a corner of a room temporarily.
“I don’t intend to draw perfect beauty, but the beauty of real life hidden behind the tranquillity,” he said.
Chương said the domestic audience seems interested in his works now. “I’m happier now as more young people buy my works.”
Earlier, his paintings would be bought only by foreigners, but now he is selling his paintings mostly to Vietnamese people.
“Sometimes people on the streets recognise me as they follow me on Facebook,” he said. “A few days ago, a beautiful girl greeted me at a photo studio on Bà Triệu Street. She said she liked to look at my paintings when she’s free. Some of my customers have become my friends. What more can I expect?”
Chương often jokes to his friends that the more slowly he draws, the quicker his paintings sell. “Drawing slowly means drawing carefully, and paintings done with more care sell better,” said the artist, who is one among the 10 noted painters in Hà Nội who follow realism. He is planning a solo exhibition in the next two years.
Art critic Nguyễn Đức Bình is highly appreciative of Chương’s paintings of Hà Nội’s landscapes.
“Growing up during the busiest period of Việt Nam’s fine arts, realistic paintings of Hà Nội brought Chương to a peaceful place during the time of integration,” Bình said. “And now we have created a painting genre of Hà Nội’s street in the style of Chương, just as we have a style of painting of Hà Nội streets by late artist Bùi Xuân Phái.” — VNS