Phạm Lực, who lives in Hanoi, is one of my all-time favorite painters not just in Viet Nam but in any country and any period of history. He is a brilliant artist, an adjective I use sparingly. My first encounter with his work was during the occasional visit to the Diva Art Cafe, which used to be across the street from the Metropole in downtown Hanoi at 57 Lý Thái Tổ. (The café and an adjoining restaurant were razed a long time ago. A gleaming new office building now occupies the site.) Sipping my drink, I was captivated by the lacquer paintings I saw hanging on the cafe’s walls. Below are two examples.
Painting has been Phạm Lực’s passion, his ikigai, since childhood, including the US War in Viet Nam during which he was a soldier artist who attained the rank of major and retired in 1993 to devote himself full-time to painting. (Ikigai is a Japanese concept that refers to your reason for being, your passion. It is at the center of what I like to call an existential sweet spot combining what you love, what you’re good at, what the world needs, and what you can earn a living doing.)
Here’s an excerpt from a biographical sketch:
Phạm Lực was born as Phạm Văn Lực in 1943 in Huế, where his father worked for the imperial court. His mother was from Hà Tĩnh Province and great-granddaughter of the world-famous poet Nguyễn Du. Two years after Lực was born, the August Revolution broke out. His mother took her three children to Hà Tĩnh, while his father remained in Huế. Lực grew up in poverty, his family shunned due to his father’s position.
Early Life and Career
Lực fostered early artistic talent and drive. Encouraged by his mother, she would pose as a model for his paintings when he was seven years old. His experience of living along the Làm River nurtured his talent. He drew women and working people, often honouring women by levitating them beyond their natural position in Vietnamese society. It is widely regarded that his respect for women stemmed from the love he had for his mother.
Lực spent thirty-five years in the army reaching the rank of Major. He fought in North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This included hot-spots like Thanh Hóa Bridge, Vĩnh Linh District in Quảng Trị Province, the Central Highlands and southern Laos. Lực always carried an artist’s kit in his rucksack to sketch and record his experiences.
This sketch goes on to say that “His greatest motive was to capture the realism of what was around him instead of the heroic idealisation of soldiers. Lực continued to paint on jute bags using improvised materials until as late as 1975 and the liberation of Vietnam.” Like every great painter, he needs brushes, canvases, and paints the way we all need food, drink, and air. Think of great writers, composers, and artists, past and present; they are compelled to work and share their talent with the world.
While his website says he specializes in the themes of motherland, love, and war, he has also chronicled countless scenes of people engaged in a variety of everyday activities, rural landscapes, and old Hanoi. And, yes, many paintings of women with and without children, another theme of his work. (His website, linked above, includes examples of lacquer, oil, sketches, rice sack, silk, and paper painting.)
I love his style(s), the colors he uses, the brush strokes, and the composition of his paintings. Some are incredibly complex while others are the epitome of simplicity. All are powerfully evocative. Phạm Lực is a man of immense talent, a national treasure, and a gift to the world.
I’ve had the privilege of meeting Mr. Lực on a number of occasions, all fond memories that I will always cherish.
Shalom (שלום), MAA