On the occasion of the Year of the Cat 2023, The Hanoi Times has a talk with painter Dao Hai Phong about his career and inspiration for painting.   

Renowned Hanoian painter Dao Hai Phong has a snapshot of one of his paintings. Photo: An Thanh

As a person who was born and lives in Hanoi, how is the city portrayed in your paintings?

My favorite scenes in Hanoi are falling leaves in autumn, and winter afternoons – out in the freezing cold, the quiet streets reminding me of the longings of yesteryear: a warm embrace of a girlfriend, some grilled corn on the cob… It’s a very old, real-life Hanoi that anyone can come across.

Every roof, every window, every dyke, and every street of Hanoi has become part of my own flesh and blood, and what I paint is Hanoi in my imagination rather than real-life features of the capital.

That’s why any Hanoian looking at my paintings can see the street they live in, the image of the Thang Long – Hanoi with its distinctive traits.

Hanoi in my paintings is vague in terms of time and location but is still clearly depicted with its inherent peace – a place for people to search for as well as to return to.

This is also why a lot of Hanoians away from the city, especially those living abroad, are fond of my artworks. Without reference to specific time or whereabouts, they are still laden with the mark of life.

Vivid Hanoi in the eyes of painter Dao Hai Phong.

So far, you have had dozens of exhibitions at home and abroad with good sales. Dao Hai Phong’s oil painting style is contemplative yet highly thought-provoking, which is favored by connoisseurs of art in foreign countries. Can you talk about the most significant milestones in your 33 years of career?

In the course of creating artwork that has lasted for more than 30 years, I am a lucky person to have been able to organize dozens of exhibitions in Vietnam as well as in foreign countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Switzerland, and the UK.

My paintings even hang in the residence of former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But I will never forget the British art dealer Roy Miles, who can be said to be one of the three most influential people in my artistic path.

He first came to Vietnam in 1984 to buy paintings by famous Vietnamese artists like Nguyen Thu, Diep Minh Chau, Luong Xuan Nhi, Phan Ke An, Van Da, and, of course, my father, painter Dao Duc.

Somehow, the artworks of mine, an unknown artist at that time, caught the eye of the renowned art dealer that had sold a painting to former British Prime Minister Thatcher for 54,000 pounds. It was fate, I guess?

As I recall, the owner of a big European gallery bought all my paintings for 6,400 dollars. The most expensive one cost no more than 450 dollars, but I will never forget that moment.

Now, some of the paintings have been sold by a Singaporean gallery for a record 25,000 dollars. But to me, Roy Miles is a patron: he himself advised me to pursue oil painting. Later, I once traveled to the UK and visited his gallery hoping to see him, but Roy Miles had already moved. What a pity.

It seems that you are only attached to oil paintings and landscape themes, and tones of blue and black. Why is that?

 A corner of Hanoi in the old days in Dao Hai Phong’s paintings.

It’s an interesting question. First of all, oil painting suits my painting style best. I’ve experimented with quite a lot of forms, including lacquer, which I gave up due to my allergy to the resin.

My paintings may look simple and with few meanings at first, but when you look closely, you will realize that they show a logical, systematic way of working and a complex psychological life.

I prefer using dark colors, mainly blue and black because I feel it from my soulful reflection: these colors are indispensable in the paintings of Dao Hai Phong.

As in music, I love Phu Quang and Trinh Cong Son. It’s that simple, my journalist friend!

I also do paintings of people – mainly Thuy, my wife – and even nude paintings, but those are just spontaneous moments of inspiration. I deem that my father was right: you don’t necessarily have to draw people to be successful. I like to paint landscapes and immerse myself in them.

Can you share more with readers of The Hanoi Times about the current trend of contemporary painting?

I think more and more Vietnamese have started to collect paintings, which is a good thing, but local aesthetics still lags behind the global one.

That’s why only 10% of about 1,000 paintings I have produced are sold at home, while the majority are purchased by foreigners.

Concerning creation, young artists have applied new technologies more, but that’s only good in design. The pinnacle of art is the sharing of emotions between people, so a personal touch remains indispensable.

Thank you for your time!