Le Hong Thai is a rather reclusive artist. He hasn’t held an exhibition in Viet Nam for more than ten years, mainly because he feels estranged from the art world and has had some difficulties with the authorities. His lacquer, oil and water colour paintings, shown in France, the U.S. and Japan, are often interpreted as an indirect criticism of political leadership and the social situation in his native Viet Nam. Born in 1966 in Hai Phong, the coastal port town near Hanoi, he moved to the capital and graduated from the Hanoi College of Fine Arts in 1991.
His estrangement also extends to city life: rather than living in the bustling capital of Viet Nam, he has chosen to build a house on the other side of the Red River, one of many artists who did so partly to have more space in which to produce their art.
Le Hong Thai’s choice was a traditional mountain house built by Hmong ethnic people. He had it dismantled from the town of Hoa Binh, 74 km southwest of Hanoi, and brought to Gia Lam, a suburb winding along the dike road of the Red river, and reassembled. That was in the late 1990s.
Since then Le Hong Thai has transformed the house several times. In the beginning, he kept the house the way it was built, with big pillars serving as tilts that elevated the house – rural people tend to use the open lower part as a place to keep cows and pigs and farming tools. The floor was made the traditional way with pounded soil, clay and hay. Sleeping quarters are in an open area above. For Le Hong Thai, the open area became a studio where he worked on large lacquer paintings on thick pieces of wood.
Later, to keep the place cool, he built a rectangular pond connected to other smaller water pathways. He would later place an old sewing machine on thin iron legs at one end of the pond , raising it high in the air and letting it rust while serving as a most original water fountain. For counter balance, he planted a bushy vine tree at the other end, with enchanting pink blossoms each spring. The open area and water trough was a good way to allow ventilation. A couple of years later, Thai encountered flooding problems when heavy rainfall meant the Red River rose to dangerous levels.
Ingeniously, he enclosed the open area with brick walls, added a mortar and brick structure to the back to extend the wooden house. This allowed him to add two concrete bathrooms, and a small bedroom that overlooks the river. In the front, he used tall French doors offered by a friend. When the friend needed the doors back, Le Hong Thai found other old French doors, but they were higher than the frame he had built. Thai simply raised his entire house so that the doors would fit.
Having added a cement floor, Thai continued to used the downstairs area as a painting studio, but also added a fireplace and a living room. In later years, he hosted special dinners with a French chef in the same area – using found furniture with a French touch, such as carved chairs and art deco armchairs. None them quite matched but together, they lend the whole place a distinct country charm. He also added an old piano, and decorated the area with old lamps, metal trunks, and antique French cabinets that he and a carpenter friend restored. Guests viewed Thai’s paintings, and enjoy their after dinner drinks in the garden – sometimes even a live music performance set in a pavilion by his original rectangular pond. When we was tired of hosting the dinners he simply found an old big iron bed, painted it white and placed squarely in the middle of the room.
These days, Thai is a mixture of a reclusive artist, French country gentleman and Chinese mandarin. He has none of the pretentiousness that can come with such a life, and in fact, chooses simplicity in his clothes, his environment, and activities. Tai Chi exercises and Japanese sword lessons are done in a pebbled courtyard next the pond. Thai spends a lot of time in the pavilion and the garden, tending to his thousands of bonsai plants. He continues to paint, but as a an art critic has said, Le Hong Thai “is a solitary artist, content to stand on the outside, seeking quietly his own expression of self. Reclusive in nature, this man of few words seeks solitude and his works reflect his aloofness.”
Nonetheless, Thai will welcome visitors to his studio and walk them around his garden. He says little, preferring to let his canvasses speak for him. Otherwise, guests are left to wander around, and with every steps, discover his exquisite and quirky taste. An old hat or a strand of feather perfectly fashioned into a lamp shade. An ancient musical instrument, serving both as a sculpture, and a space divider. There are lots of “things” in Thai’s house, but none of it seems heavy-handed.
All of it adds to a certain image of the eccentric artist with a particular sense of humour. It is also a reflection of the faint silhouettes and sceneries Thai puts on canvas or in his lacquer paintings. His ideas, social and political commentaries are serious – enough to inspired an absurdist play, and enough for the French government to honour him with a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres a few years back. But Thai, like his art and his house, is a man with a light touch, often turning brilliant architectural and decorative ideas into simple achievements.
Duc Qui Nguyen