I feel that living a life creating something is a privilege for that someone. That life of creating something is of course lonely and weary, and sometimes scary, but you need to stand up as an individual to walk on paths that no one has ventured; nobody would know of the excitement in making your own path when there is no path.
In a letter to his daughter written in 1991, Kim Chong Hak remarked, “To my understanding, art is a wide path; it is inclusive of all things.” Under such conviction, Kim endeavoured to make up his own path and expanded it for the last 50 years. He climbed the pathless mountains, and roamed around the forest without the aid of human-trodden tracks. But all the hardship he encountered did not deter him from finding the path. Kim’s method was not something radical, but on the contrary, he resorted to the traditional way. While most of his fellow artists insisted on the absolute purity and rigour of abstract art, Kim returned to figuration. His associates rebuked him for his deviation from abstraction which the majority of the artists at that time implicitly believed was the edifice of pure art. On the other front, he was faced by Minjung art which was the figurative art of his time. Minjung art advocated the political inclination of art; they believed that art should be subjected to the political and the social cause. Enclosed by these antagonistic contemporaries, Kim Chong Hak started looking at flowers, trees, mountains, and the the sea. His choice was going backwards against the herd rather than proceeding ahead of times. However, his purpose was to walk, as he pleased, on the path others did not venture into, and he wanted to praise the glory of life in the name of nature. Kim’s such attitude also came as a response to the contemporary tendency that focused on seeking the novelty he was in search of an alternative language. He thought that contemporary art lost its sense of direction as it seemed to be addicted to the stimulation of peripheral nerves. Commenting on his solo show, the critic Oh Kwang Soo complimented the stature of Kim Chong Hak in the contemporary art scene of Korea by saying that, ’one sees through Kim Chong Hak’s painting the most painterly painting, especially in a time when the genre of paintings is being threatened.’
For this exhibition, the paintings Kim drew since the latter part of 1950s were selected. He started painting in the 1950s, and his early works reflect what the Korean society was going through after the Civil War. There is a sense of loss and there are painful memories embedded in his works, and yet coupled to an optimistic mood expecting a new epoch, he experimented with imitating Western art. Abstraction-A Woman (1959), created during his study at the Seoul National University, is a work of a nude that he executed in the style of cubism, which reflects the scope and the contents of his college education. In 1960 when he was serving the army, he participated in the Exhibition of the Artists Association of 1960 with other fellow artists belonging to a younger generation. They hung lots of paintings on the stone walls surrounding the Deoksoo Palace. The exhibition was a sensational event. From the following year, Kim Chong Hak began to hang around at ‘Lee Bong Sang’s Art Research Centre’ in Anguk-dong, and made acquaintances with Park Seo Bo, Yoon Myoung Ro, Kim Tschang Yeul, and many others. He, like the other artists in that time, became enthusiastic about the Informel Art which marked the turning point in the history of Korean contemporary art. The enthusiasm and passion for creating the art was springing out of his youth. In 1962, Kim became a member of the group ‘Actuel’, and busied himself in organizing the first opening show. Although none of the exhibiting work remains, it is supposed that his works would have been under the influence of Abstract Expressionism, employing the intensive and vehement brush stroke and creating a thick and rough matiere. Work 603 (1963) or Abstraction (1970) stand witness to the fact that he strongly identified his own visual language with something very similar to the series of Primordial by Park Seo Bo.
From the early 1960s, the artists of his time started to become interested in print-making as a means of a different technique to experiment with. Kim also became preoccupied with the print work like his fellow artists. As a reason behind this sudden enthusiasm, a surge of exhibitions presenting the print works of the foreign artist abroad has been cited. Starting from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, many print shows were held in Korea: The international Print Exhibition(1958), The Contemporary Print Exhibition of the West Germany(1958,1960), The Contemporary Print Exhibition of the United States(1959,1966,1968), The Contemporary Print Exhibition of Brazil(1963), and The Contemporary Print Exhibition of Japan(1970). It was hardly impossible to get hold of the original art works under the circumstances, and these exhibitions thus served a role as a window through which the local artists and the audience could catch a glimpse of the latest current of contemporary art of world outside of Korea. Kim Chong Hak participated in the exhibition Five Artists’ prints in 1963, which was the first print show organized by a local institution. This exhibition triggered his active engagement with print works. It seemed that he was focusing more on the prints rather than the paintings. Kim joined The Association of the Contemporary Print Artist of Korea as a founding member in 1968. At this exhibition, the museum featured his woodprint History for which he was awarded a prize at The 5th Tokyo International Print Biennale in 2006.
During the 1970s Kim tried various experiments with different genres; he had a hand at printmaking, and created a cutting-edge installation. Kim was even chosen as the Recommended Artist at the Kukjeon in 1975, which was widely recognized as proof for heralding a promising future as a full-time artist. However, he was not satisfied with the laurel. He left for America in 1977, to receive training at the Pratt Graphic Centre in New York. Not wanting to stay in his comfort zone, he saw the trip to New York as a way to escape. Although he had previously admired the Western abstract art, he ended up creating figurative art in America. The sight of a skyscraper of New York City executed in the traditional black ink on Hanji, traditional paper, still life in the tone of darkish grey, and some portraits were most of the works he made during his stay. Previously Kim’s family had accompanied him during his stay in Japan, and he was all alone in a foreign country this time, and as if reflecting the solitude he felt, the works he made in New York exuded gloominess. A few years later, in the autumn of 1979, he received shocking and unexpected news from Korea, which made him go back to his home earlier than he had planned. Soon after his return to Korea, a strange and impulsive passion drove him to leave Seoul for Seorak Mountain, and this made Kim Chong Hak into he is now.
When you go to the Seorak Mountain, you do not go there only to see the mountain, but you also intrude the mystery of the universe, which pervades the Seorak Mountain, and one you are immersed in this magnificent inscrutability, the colour of your soul will change.
The novelist Lee Byung Joo paid homage to Seork Mountain as ‘the mountain as an art, and art as a mountain’ in his book ‘Eulogy of Seorak Mountain’. To Kim Chong Hak, whose nickname is known as the ‘Seorak artist’, it was in the Seorak Mountain that he experienced extreme frustration to the extent that he wanted to give up his life. This mountain was also where he restored his blazing passion for art. What Tahiti meant to Gauguin, and what Yosemite meant to Ansel Adams was what Seorak Mountain meant to Kim Chong Hak.
In the autumn of 1979, Kim Chong Hak left behind all the worldly affairs and escaped to the foot of the Seorak Mountain, where he became an anonymous wild human being amongst the nature. Like a raging, wild beast, he stalked the meadows and valleys of Seorak Mountain and tried to smoulder his anger and rancour. Kim even managed to endure the biting wind of winter. However, as he saw the sap of spring well up onto the earth, and the sprouting of leaves and flowers from the once lifeless and frozen ground, he suddenly found hope and was able to return to his abandoned paintbrush once again. His life was in tatters and this affected his soul greatly. As his wounded soul healed in the generous embrace of nature, it sublimated into his passion for art. As his bosom friend Song Young Bang pointed out, Kim Chong Hak’s entering of Seorak Mountain did not mean his return to nature, it was his “search for his new artistic discourse.”
Kim Chong Hak’s paintings are doused with the traces of exploring every valley and plain of the Seorak Mountain. Through this, he directly experienced nature with his own body and thus his art convey emotions that are stemmed from an alive, breathing nature. There is no sign of humans in his landscape paintings; there are no human lain paths and instead there are wild forests untrodden territory. In the Western tradition, landscape painting was divided into two categories: one represented the beauty of the sublime, which held the viewer in awe. The other represented the idealistic and picturesque meadows and countryside, reflecting comfort unto the viewers. However, Kim Chong Hak’s representation of nature does not suppress human beings to a state of fragile existence, nor does it whisper sweet words shrouded with romantic ambience. His art is rough and rustic but flamboyant, and the way the focus of the structure is scattered helps to strongly pull at human emotions. The canvas is saturated with raw nature, where Kim tries to uncover the mysterious hidden path; the primitive vitality of nature struggles against the artist’s vigorous spirit. This is the realm of Kee-woon-seng-dong(氣韻生動, the spirit of vital movement) which the artist is in pursuit of, and the realm of deity, which is full of heroic masculinity. Although it is a fragile, effeminate flower, the way Kim swishes his brush creating thick, bold lines alters this into a much more masculine landscape especially so in his work ‘Man-wha-bang-seok’ where he filled up the whole canvas with depictions of colourful flowers in the same way as the traditional cushion(called ‘bang-seok’) was fully embroidered with flower patterns. All the flowers, grass, birds and butterflies stay distinct and independent, revealing a sense of the individual existence. These elements of nature sing in the grand voice of integration and the harmony, diffusing the sensation of dense lusciousness. This show presents his big works such as No.7, Paradise and No.5, Kingfishers on the Brook, and they have the impact to usher the viewers into the picture and enclose around them. Thus, the viewers find themselves suddenly jumping into the Seorak Mountain, and transferred into the main characters of the verdant feast of mid-summer. They can feel every movement of the artist within the picture. Whereas the appreciation of the contemporary abstract painting has been reduced to the optical experience only, Kim Chong Hak’s description of nature is synaesthetic; the mere visual engagement also stimulates faculties of other sensations. One feels tempted to touch the patals of flowers as the colours look as if a delicate layer of a kneaded lump of colour has been laid on by the artist; it beckons one’s tactile desire. Additionally the fragrance from the flowers in the forest assails one’s olfactory sense. There is one more – the image of cascade reminds the viewers of the exhilarating crashing of a waterfall.
Kim Chong Hak’s landscape paintings convey a way of nature – birth, growing and perishing – that is embodied in the rotation of the four seasons. He embraces a sunny day of spring, in the festival of flowers on the surface of the ‘Man-hwa-bang-seok’. Here, life grows along the meandering brook of a green summer and it then dwindles off into the shadow of a dry, faded autumn. The pine tree is set into the white pristine snow, with its grit ferociously standing up against winter. Through the period of the interphase, during which all life is forced to hold its breath, akin to the state of death – nature gathers up the energy that helps to generate life which has been destroyed; two opposite energies coexist within the nature. In this regard, Kim’s painting is a metaphor of the strength of life which squirms around deep under the earth, the façade of that is nothing but wizened, scrawny branches. Thus, his art endorses the potential of life and its blessing. Paradoxically speaking, nature is perhaps more vital in winter. The winter branches are stripped off of their rich green leaves of summer, baring their bones and the will of life shoots upwards into the sky. The paradoxical vitality of winter applies to Kim Chong Hak’s painting, which represents the wintry aspect of the Seorak Mountain, where the powerful backbones of the mountain are exalted through the layers of snow, and the divine spirit which is nestled in every fold of valleys and ridges manifests itself. His snowy Seorak paintings make an interesting contrast with his flower paintings. In the flower paintings, he makes a repetitious close-up of each subject, and as a result, the distance between the viewer and the object drawn on the canvas is infinitely reduced. The picture plane is densely crowded with the flowers against the background of the mountain, the presence of which is hidden and unfelt. In comparison, eliminating the minute description of the flowers, the artist employs the distance between the snowy scene of the Seorak Mountain and the viewer, in an attempt to capture the scene as a whole. The overall composition counts more, and the viewer is led to observe the interesting relations of the individual and the entirety. Kim’s summer flower paintings enjoy popular affection, yet the plastic beauty of the composition in his works on the snowy Seorak Mountain – yielded by abstract exceeds the former’s merit.
Kim Chong Hak said that his own art had started from abstraction. Nonetheless, he defines his art as ‘new figuration that is based upon the abstract art.’ The notion of the ‘abstractive figuration’ has resonance of the meaning of ‘reinvented realism’, which was put forward by Francis Bacon. According to Bacon, an artist can capture a more truthful reality by means of consciously altering the images of reality and thus rendering it inaccurate. He named Vincent van Gogh as the pioneer of such concept. In other words, an abstract attitude is required, in order to understand and visualize the inner intensity of reality. By boldly omitting the details and concisely reconstructing the essence, Kim does not merely transcribe the real scenes of nature, but also records the operation of the conscious which is related to the accumulation of the strata of memory.
Oscar Wilde once remarked that there had been no fog in London before James Whistler painted it. One can reflect on the Seorak Mountain in a similar vein. The landscape in Kim Chong Hak’s paintings goes beyond the geographical criterion; it is not confounded within the Seorak Mountain and it expands to the rivers and the mountains of Korea, and even further, to nature in general. Therefore, the earth ensconced in the heart of the universe. Kim’s landscape painting is not about the gaze of those who are entertained by nature’s delightful features. Rather, his works are what the people utter whilst they live as a part of nature; it comes from his own existence of standing firm on the ground for life and it is the narration of genius loci, and the ode to nature. Moreover, his art manifests a reverence for ‘being alive and living’. Kim’s stay in the Seorak Mountain overlaps his experience of overcoming the crisis of his life as well as his search for ‘a broad path of truth’ in a new aesthetical vision. Just as the moon waxes and wanes, lives continue in the eternal procession of birth and death. Regardless of the absence and perishing, nature repeats her course; the path will endlessly witness the spring flowers returning to bloom.
Drawing Spring in Spring
by Tae Ho Lee
Splendor of Korean Colors
Created by Kim, Chong Hak with the collaboration of Insa-dong and Seorak
It has been said that a painting is the painter himself. This comes from the old belief that a poem or a writing is the poet or the writer herself. Not restricted to writings or paintings, this philosophy applies to any field of art including music, dance, and play the artist’s nature, disposition and life are reflected wholly in her artwork. This was the first thing that popped up in my head when I looked through the works Kim Chong Hak had created in last fifty years. It was because the paintings from the early 1960s the recent years all reflects all of who Kim Chong Hak is as a human being.
Kim is a painter in his mid-70s who was made famous in the art world by his paintings of Mt. Seorak and flowers. His artistic world and place in the history of Korean art is so well-established that many consider him to be the representative of Korean art today. As I look at the drawings, etchings, still-lives, ink-and-wash paintings, and oil paintings he has created in the las fifty years, I realize his artistic world is by no means simple. He is unbelievably prolific; it would not be an exaggeration to call him the Picasso of Korea. As of now, he is probably the most prolific artist in Korea.
He immersed himself in many different forms of paintings in his youth like the Western-style art and other trendy –isms. After he begun to appreciate Korea’s traditional aesthetics, he communicated with Korea’s nature by focusing on Mt. Seorak. And somewhere along the way, he has unfolded the splendor of Korea’s unique colors in front of us by interesting with his passionate and forceful personality the nature residing in Mt. Seorak and the traditional beauty residing in Insa-dong. In this way, Kim’s art owes its existence to Korea’s natural surroundings and traditional aesthetics. Looking at his art, one cannot help but be reminded of the beauty and the greatness of our natural resources and culture.
Perusing through Kim’s life’s work, I found the solid basis for his sense of plasticity. I was also forced to acknowledge the greatness of his artistic spirit that made him an artist through the core. I was almost befuddled by the fact that the various changes he went through consistently pointed to his childlike innocence and simplicity. “Innocent and pure.” in particular, is the phrase he used almost as a motto.
Kim, Chong Hak I came to know as a person
I was a junior in college when I met Kim for the first time. It has been 40 years already. I was attending his course in etching. What I remember most about him during those two semesters is his reticence. Except when he briefly explained various methods of etching, he really said very little for the whole year. The class was “the class of silence.” I still remember the way he wordlessly looked out the window during our labs. The testimony below from a friend of his, tells us he has not changed since.
Recently, the friend has become quiet. He seems to have transcended the right and wrong. He draws flowers but he doesn’t. He draws butterflies but he doesn’t. He only draws them because of the colors and shapes crated by the entanglement of colorful lights. It’s not that he is gazing at the flowers, but rather the other way around. He shudders in the midst of tangled colors and shapes. He calls this assimilation with his own art “painting.” “A painting is nothing. It’s just a painting.”
The etchings he showed us as his own at the time were the wooden prints like Until the beginning of the 1980s, he used to put one single object such as a light bulb, a candle, a persimmon, or a cucumber at the center of a screen, and that looked great. He would normally print what he had etched by pressing a piece of paper, and then lightly add shadows or colors. Almost minimalistic, the screens felt bland. I used to think the faint and bland expressions of the figure and simple arrangements were the quintessential of “Kim Chong Hak Silence.”
I remember it well because the way he did all this was very different even from the artists he worked with as a group. Among the minimalist artists, he probably showed the most silence. We can probably think of him as making art without talking about it. When I asked him again not so long ago why he chose light bulbs of all things, he replied quite curtly; “The artists who drew those industrial tools caught my eyes when I went to Tokyo to study etching. I also tried three-dimensional art and performance art at that time.”
Only when I studied art history did I learn that Kim was once fascinated by abstract expressionism. He was also one of the founding members of “Actuel”along with Kim Tchang Yeul, Park Seo Bo, and Yun Myung Ro. Most of these young artists were influenced by the Western lineage from the 1950s to 1960s. In the early 1960s, Kim’s abstract painting took the form of wide, quick strokes in straight lines, with vivid contrast of light and darkness. At first glance, it reminds us of Pierre Soulagesor Nicolas de Stael. I was puzzled for a while because it was so different from his silent simplicity I encountered in my college years. It took me a while to accept this new side of him.
I met yet another, ferocious side of him in the Spring issueof Sun Art published by Sun Gallery. Because of the huge private exhibitions he had just held in the Seoul Museum of Art and Sun Gallery, Sun Art did a cover article. “Discovering an Artist: Kim Chong Hak.” The art works from 1985 to 1986 that were displayed in the exhibition and magazine included colorful paintings of flowers such as , , and and , along with portraits like and These paintings have become the precursor of the “Kim Chong Hak Style.” The watercolors and gouaches that resemble those of Kandinsky along with the oil and acrylic paintings have engraved in everyone’s mind the new side of Kim. One critic wrote, “Kim is putting himself on fire in the stormy dance of sensual colors. It is not clear how long he will be able to sustain such aesthetic excitement.”
As we can see, Kim transformed his earlier abstract impressionist passion into paintings of flowers and portraits that are compared to “stormy dance of sensual colors.” We can say that his “aesthetic excitement” that was hidden in his silent 1970s resurfaced as representational paintings. This passion, on the other hand, begins in the artist’s innate nature. This is shown clearly in the memo he jotted down about himself after seeing a fast-flowing stream of spring. It is also very typical of him to remember at that moment his artistic mentors, Vincent Van Gogh, Bada Shanren and Kim Hong Do.
I am frightened of the stream of melted snow of Mt. Seorak. I did not know the same stream in which children swam and fished in the summer could become such a terrifying thing. It charges on like a hot-tempered Korean from the Northern end. No. The water is as in a hurry and crazy as myself. I plopped down on the windy bank and hurriedly sketched with my feeble pencil what was put in front of me, as if I was Van Gogh, or more like Bada Shanren, or more like Kim Hong Do.
-Artist’s note written in the sketch, 9 in the morning of February 23, 2001.
The 1987 Spring issue of Sun Art was the first serious encounter I had with Kim since I had graduated college. From the testimonies of the artist himself and those around him, I got to know the journey he has taken as an artist and as a person, to become the “painter of Mt. Seorak.” He tried to break into the art scene in New York, dreaming to be intentionally renowned, but he soon came to question the apparent tautologism of formalist modernism. He also went through difficulties in his personal life and a divorce. His life in the late 1970s was filled with artistic doubts and personal struggles.
The interesting attempt he made during his tumultuous 40s, is the ink-and-wash paintings. After his stay in New York from 1977 to 1979, he even tried using the same method for city buildings, towns, and the streets. Along with the ink-and-wash watercolors, he produced gray-toned three-dimensional oil paintings like The Mountain where he explores repetitive brush strokes resembling Cezanne’s patch like ones. Even now, he expresses his dissatisfaction by saying, “only if I had ten more years.” But it is during his stay in New York that he found out abstract or minimalist paintings were only a minority in contemporary art world. As result of his overseas experience, he gained confidence in the beauty of ink-and-wash watercolors and the kind of art he wanted to pursue.
After he came back from America, he put his family life in order and prepared a workshop in the summer of 1979, in Sokcho city at the mouth of Mt. Seorak. He also taught for two years in 1983 as a professor in the Department of Art Education, Kangwon National University. He eventually put everything behind and moved more permanently to Mt. Seorak in 1987 to focus on his art. He had just turned 50. He then started to focus on and stabilize his art with a newly found confidence for his own unique style.
Kim’s artistic development can be divided into three major periods. From 1960 to 1978, he embraced, explored, and rejected Western modernism. From 1979 to 1986, he searched for a way to transform himself. This is when he first took notice of Mt. Seorak and began to from his unique style by combining nature and Korea’s traditional aesthetics. The time between 1987, when he settled permanently on the mountain, and now can be described as the period of maturity. Embraced in the arms of Mt. Seorak, the Mother Nature’s mountain, river and the ocean, he has constructed his own artistic world. He was also always exploring Insa-dong and Janghanpyung train station every time he visited Seoul. Korean aesthetics that he encountered there also became a foundation of his art.
Mesmerized by Korea’s Traditional Aesthetics
The art world is correct to understand Kim’s painting as based on Korea’s traditional aesthetics. Restricted by his financial circumstances and following his personal taste, Kim’s antique collection focuses on humble, everyday commodities such as wooden artifacts, embroideries and wrapping cloths. He has once said the following about his collecting habits.
In the rare occasions when I come out to Seoul, the only thing I do for fun is to visit antique stores. Expensive or cheap, I buy whatever I like and pile them up at home. I buy wooden artifacts, folk arts, ceramic ware, and even junk. I end up buying fakes sometimes, but it is quite fun to discover from time to time old artifacts with modern twists… the most charming aspect of our wooden artifacts lies on its sense of proportion. Collection wooden artifacts has helped me get a better eye for three-dimensional effects… I was impressed by the modern aesthetic sense displayed by the colors and proportions of wrapping cloths. I am very impressed that way before Mondrian did, our ancestors made artifacts with such geometric and creative design… on the other hand, ours were made as one’s skill permitted, as one’s hands and needles went, and as one’s heart guided… I like the fact that they became modern because the creators let go… I don’t frequent antique stores only to buy antiques. I also enjoy talking leisurely with the store owners. I enjoy it much more than talking with intellectuals.
It is said that he learned to collect Korean art and antiques in his late 20s from Hong Seong Ha, who was a famous collector of paintings of the Joseon period. Hong was the best teacher there was at developing an aesthetic taste, and with him, Kim begun his love of Korea’s cultural heritage. By the time he was appointed a professor at Kangwon National University, his knowledge of Korean art history was proficient enough for giving college classes.
When it came to wooden artifacts, he could already spot masterpieces by the time he was in his 30s. His eye for such things was so superb that the collection he donated to the National Museum of Korea in 1987 turned into a special exhibition of its own. Even now, the Museum has a permanent exhibition room dedicated to his collections of wooden furniture. Book and display stands, small floor desks, stationery chests and little stationary cabinets pieces of furniture that used to decorate scholarly noblemen’s studies now proudly unveil the sophistication of Joseon’s woodwork. Practical furniture pieces used everyday, like small dining tables, kitchen shelves, mobile closets, and medicine cabinets, are also masterpieces with exceptional grain and proportionality.
The scope of his collection is indeed broad from modernistically simple furniture made from wood or stone, to women’s belongings such as elaborate embroideries of bright colors, wrapping cloths, clothes, and pillowcases. Along with folk paintings, fabric dye art has provided much inspiration for Kim’s bright-colored flowers. The influence is particularly obvious in the flower’s freely-formed shapes and brilliant colors. Human statues of late Joseon that are used to guard tombs, stone buddhas, and wooden statues of little buddha had their influences on Kim’s portraits also. Faces he drew remind one of the expressionless faces people used to possess during Korea’s turbulent transformation into democracy in the 1980s. He used to say his second wife resembled one of the pieces of his collection a stone Buddha of late Joeson period.
This is not the end of this collection. His deep appreciation of Korean antique also shows in this collection of antique books. He collected signboards and scrapbooks of the famous calligrapher Kim Jeong Hee, “Mountains High, Oceans Deep” and “Tearoom” Kim considers the Chusa-style – Korea’s best calligraphic style marked with its individuality and originality to be the supreme ideal.
He also collected other calligraphies known for their unique personalities, such as Huh Mokand Lee Gwang Sa
Considering Kim’s personality, it only makes sense that he prefers bold and rough style of calligraphs. It became even more obvious to me as I took another look at the scrapbook of Wooam Song Si Yeol with its straight brush strokes that look almost as if they are coming out to strike something. Each page of the book contains a character from from Zhu Xi’s poem, ‘’. He said that it was an impulse buy at Hakgojae Gallery’s exhibition “Drawings and Calligraphy of Late Joseon Period.”, after he was mesmerized by the fierceness of its strokes. The signboard hung at his workshop “” writing in the semi-cursive style by Song Tae Gee and the one hung at his living quarter, “” in seal style of Chinese characters by Shin June Sik embody Kim’s own person and his life philosophy. They mean, “pavilion on the grand hermitage and “one idiot.”
Although smaller in scale, his collection of Joseon paintings is also impressive. of Lee In Sang expresses the modest style of the literary paintings, while paintings like by Kim Hong Door by Kim Soo Chulare quite attractive with their relaxed mingling of light and shade playing well with the small screens. He collects ripen masterpieces that best embody the beauty of Joseon period’s ink-and-wash paintings. Unlike his taste in calligraphies, he collects paintings that are delicate and lovely yet elusive. Imitating these paintings, Kim enjoys drawing ink-and-wash sketches and searches constantly for the essence of traditional writings and paintings. As the artist often said himself, his paintings depicting Mt. Seorak in winter in particular let the composition of and the texture of traditional ink-and-wash paintings come alive.
Kim’s appreciation for Korean aesthetics is not limited to old art. Already in the 1970s and 1980s, he was collecting Lee Jung Seop’smasterpieces such as and His devotion to Lee Jung Seop of all contemporary Korean artists he could have chosen, can also be explained with Kim’s own artistic disposition. His talent for recognizing exceptional art pieces is unprecedented. The credit probably goes to the time and effort he had put into visiting all those antique stores, but he probably was also born with a rare sense for such things. And his special sense probably came from his simple and honest nature.
Kim’s collection is as broad and diverse as his own paintings. It shows us just how much he loves – and obsessively collects – Korean traditional art. He confessed that at one point, he was working as hard as he could on his own art just so that he could better satisfy his collecting habits. As I mentioned before, Joseon’s wooden artifacts helped Kim develop his own artistic sensibility. Embroideries and folk arts inspired color schemes and motifs in his own paintings. As he often said, he stole and duplicated the tradition to come up with something that is contemporary and his own. We can say this is an exemplary practice of the phrase, “knowing and creating the new by learning the old.”
Kim has stopped visiting Insa-dong and Janghanpyung in recent years. Come to think of it, I used to bump into him a lot in the town or in exhibitions in the early part of the year 2000 and hang out, but not so much lately. When I told him everyone from the antique store missed him, he said, “I know. I would like to go, but I always end up buying when I browse.”
All the antique store owners call him a man of taste. They say he is different because his taste is so sophisticated, his decisions quick, and his love for traditional art profound. In particular, he does not often haggle the price. Another thing commonly mentioned is that he is almost childlike in his innocence and honesty, which gives us a clue as to how pure and transparent his soul really is. This is probably what enabled him to become one with Seorak’s nature. It reminds us once again how great a man of nature Kim is.
Drawing Mt. Seorak’s Four Seasons in Seorak
So about 16 years ago in the summer of 1979, I ran away to Mt. Seorak. I wanted to run away from my family and from the art world… I can only live one life. I wanted to live as I please, and paint as I please. And I wanted to be truly alone. That is why I live with the nature in Mt. Seorak. I spend all four seasons with the mountain, drawing spring in spring, summer in summer, autumn in autumn and winter in winter.
So he settled at the entrance of Mt. Seorak in Sokcho City, in a sizeable pine grove near a small stream. It was in the summer of 1972 and he was 42 years old. The location was a coincidence with some help from his brother. Famous for its peaks and gorges, Mt. Seorak is a beautiful mountain in the Yeongdong region. Although it tends to be overshadowed by the beauty of its Northern counterpart Mt. Geumgang, its peaks are actually higher and gorges deeper. If Geumgang is pretty and charming, Seorak is more primitive and wilder. Considering how Seorak played a crucial role in Kim’s development of his own painting, the meeting of the two might have been a fate. Maybe the great landscape called on/to the great man.
The family in looks sad with Seorak’s full moon and yellow flowers in the background. Dark, greenish tone, brownish sunflowers and birds in are depressing even though the painting depicts a summer day. Reddish brown tone of the grass in is dreary and lonely. That seems to be the way his first encounter with Mt. Seorak felt to him. It must be the sadness and struggle he suffered after his divorce. After a while, he met the flowers anew. Starting in the mid-1980s, he used indigo or gentle yellowish green as background in paintings like (1986), and His painting style settled into depictions of butterflies, birds, and insects entwining with brilliant flowers. After he finished building his current Seorak workshop and living space in 1987, he became established as the “Seorak Artist”
His personal life also became more stable after his second marriage. Turning fifty, he could step back enough to really reflect on life and nature. This seems to have rejuvenated him. When he came out of the modern formalism and became a realist, whatever he touched became art. “Kim Chong Hak Style” became a legitimate and established concept, and he became prolific without trying. He made a promise to his daughter that he would produce at least 100 good ones, and he says he now has more than 1000. Now Korea has an artist who can be a match also in his productivity.
The energetic screen-management and brush strokes have reached their peak. The vigorous energy bubbles over the paintings of sunny grass fields and summer woods. Emphasis on the dark, greenish shadows portray the nature’s vitality. The more he connected with nature, the better he could transfer onto the screen the flow of the gorges and the magnanimity of the mountain.
From and to , Kim continuously exposed Seorak’s most private side, using as background waterfalls and streams that are filled with various combinations of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. The same tendency appears in other seasons also, in paintings such as and Paintings like and that emphasize the sharp angles of waterfalls and rocks, depicting the real rich beauty deeply hidden inside Seorak. These are reinterpretations of Jingyungsansu-style by Gyumjae Jeongseon.
Among Kim’s flower paintings, and command attention with repetitive use of similar colours and shapes. It is as if one is looking at some contemporary abstract painting in the style of all-over-painting. Along with the inspiration he acquired from the embroideries and folk paintings, they depict the order of nature Kim has learned from observing the mountain. The style of all-over-painting also appears in paintings like where flowers are wilting and falling, with residual twigs and snow flakes, Mountain Slope in Winterand He has cleverly reinterpreted the formally repetitive modernistic style in the frame of representational paintings. In the end, even his tortured wanderings of youth were not wasted.
I have a particular liking for Kim’s autumn paintings. This is because of the fantastic combination of dying, entangled vines with yellowish or brownish shades of sepia. The dark shadows sometimes look like the trauma engraved deep in Kim’s soul. Kim, on the other hand, seems to prefer the paintings of Seorak in the winter. I extrapolate this from what he confided. “They are all good, but people with refined taste in painting would like winter ones. My winter landscapes, at least, are in the style of traditional Eastern painting, you know.”
Winter Landscape(1998), Old Pine Tree(2001-2) and Snow, Pine tree(2002) portray pine trees in simple white background, while Seorak(2006) portrays azaleas blossoming in the snow. The snowy landscape of Seorak as depicted in Seorak in Winter(2001), Snowy Mountain, Dark-brown Mountain(2008) and White Mountain(2008) reminds us of the composition in an ink-and-wash landscape. Added to the visual tranquility is Kim’s reticence. I expect Kim’s art will soon be re-discovered once again through his winter paintings.
In addition to these, other masterpieces with deceptively simple compositions that exemplify Kim’s unique sense of three-dimensionality include Depicting the night lights of squid-fishing boats floating in the deep dark ocean, and tiny fish, I also have to mention the strange shapes that are unique to Kim’s paintings. They are the flower-shapes often used to engrave traditional wooden artifacts such as trays, boards, and utensils for ancestral ceremonies. One single blossom of squash flower, pasqueflower, lotus flower, sunflower, or cockscomb flower fills up a smallish canvas, enabling the viewers to experience a new, refreshing perspective.
Kim’s paintings of flower-fields often contain different kinds butterflies, birds, chickens, pheasants, spiders and insects. Little animals crowd the screen, looking like the materialization of Seorak’s vitality. Kim then adds to the fun by putting in birds that are personified in subtle ways, such as a couple of chickens on a picnic, a couple of waterfowls or mountain birds, a mother bird with her baby, and pheasants. These characters give his paintings the feel of a children’s story book, and us audience cannot help but use out imagination to look for even more hidden characters and stories.
In the case of the large-scale work, , a woman in deep sleep lies on the grass on the right, surrounded by couples of mallards, pheasants, deer and rabbits, and a squirrel. It looks like a scene with the girl and the rabbit from Paradise gives us a glimpse of a shift in Kim’s aesthetic perspective towards a dream of utopia. The dark, dried-up grass at night depicted in or the wild flowers in the background of also points at his inclination for imaginary paintings. They seem to hint that there was a slight shift in his painting around 2006.
The Aesthetic Excitement with Passionate Movement
For the past thirty years, he has been drawing continuously without rest. Because his Seorak paintings embrace images of natural things, they belong to the category of representational painting. That does not mean however, he draws them “with his eyes” – with the subjects right in front of his eyes. He draws them “with his mind” – picking out from his memory the things he wants to draw. In the language used in Asian art theory, it can be compared to the ancient Scholars’ “soul painting.” The following are the testimonies of the way he silently release the passion inside him.
Returning to Seorak, I spent many nights gazing at the stars and the moon in that empty house. How low and bright the Seorak sky was… During the day, I kept wandering around the mountain looking at the flowers and butterflies. There, I found the direction of my painting, which I had been searching for, ever since I graduated college. I also came to turning point as a painter.
– Kim Chong Hak, in the letter he sent to his daughter, February 1989
I try to get up very early in the morning to paint. Sometimes I feel lazy, but I force myself to do it. Then once in a while, I get a painting I want. That’s what keeps me going.
– Kim Chong Hak, in the letter he sent to his daughter, April 11, 1992
Oriental painting reverse rhythmic vitality ()… I can be said to draw Eastern-style paintings using the methods of the West. Drawing the flowers from sketches weakens the vitality. So now I work differently. I look at the flowers over and over again, imprinting them in my mind, and then I draw them looking only at the canvas.
The process of abstracting the objects also has to do with his “lightening fast” way of drawing. “I like the ones I draw fast. It doesn’t work very well when going too slow, thinking too much,” he confided in his daughter. When drawn fast, details are weeded out and only the essence of the object remains. Come to think of it, his nickname “Byulaksaneen()” given by the Eastern-style painter Song Young Bang cleverly goes with the theme too, since “Byulak” sounds very much like “Byurak” (“Lightning”) in Korean.
The tension created by stretching a rubber band. That’s where my paintings come from. But when I let go of that tout rubber band, it goes right back and then some more. I have to work twice as hard to sustain that tension again.
– From a memo written by Kim Chong Hak, May 2000.
Kim does not merely look at his objects. For him, working indoors involve materializing his memories without relying on sketches. He is an example of the traditional theory of literary paintings by Su Dongpo, “drawing the bamboo tree in one’s mind,” He also relies much on his basic intuition. Sustaining the unbelievable tension, he improvises with lightening speed. He draws with his instinct, and with the memory of his own body. This is why he prefers to paint in the middle of the night or early in the morning when everything is quieter and it is easier for him to concentrate.
Drawn this way, his paintings do well to reveal the unique characteristics of their objects: be it a flower, a tree, or a mountain. They are representational paintings, but they are abstract in the simplicity of the shapes they contain. At the same time, he does not try to reconstruct the objects as one would in abstract paintings. He goes wherever his sensibility takes him. I sympathize very much with what a senior ink-and-wash painter once said about Kim’s abstract, yet representational style.
He was born with a homely and simple disposition, but his brush strokes are quick, bold, and filled with energy. Without being distracted by the object’s mere appearance and pursuing its energy to the end, his paintings manage to reveal his fierce spirit in aesthetics of the artless. That is how I see it… In the words of the Chinese master, Qi Huang, Kim has achieved “the mean between what resembles and what does not.”
Everything that Kim had said so far about paintings, just is his philosophy in painting as well as in art. His words are even more persuasive because he himself is not the kind of artist who creates his work by thinking it through. It is a vivid testimony of an artist about his own process of creation. Kim has always made his decisions about the composition using the first things that come to his mind. His method resembles that of Western expressionism and of Eastern paintings and writings. His paintings appear quite disorderly at first glance, but they do seem to have their own rationale, either filling out the whole screen, leaving appropriate space, or putting things in diagonal. He either fills out or empties out, without consciously trying. This is because he relies on intuition even when he thinks about the composition of the painting-to-be. This does not mean however, Kim neglects sketching. He does not stop at watching and remembering the surrounding nature of Seorak, but continually studies them by making sketches. “The painting becomes petty and timid if it comes directly from a sketch. A sketch should just end as a sketch…” The number of sketches he pulled out while he explained this to me, was quite extensive. I could then understand where his artistic force comes from. His sketches justify the bold omissions and dynamic expressionism created by his brush. His sketches alone made me rethink the way I conceived him.
In addition to his beautiful composition and forms, his brush strokes and color schemes are also very unique. He favors acrylic color, which dries faster than oil paint. The stroke show velocity and boldness. The objects which he has seen and has kept ripening in his mind are drawn at lighting speed, struggling to jump out. Colour Schemes, created according to the natural changes of his mood with his brush strokes, also feel rushed. He probably does not allow much time for oils and paints to mix together, as we can see from the screens dominated by primary colours. With their passionate movements, his brush strokes and colour schemes excited aesthetic joy in the viewers. The textual movements are sensual. The rhythmical colour scheme of Kim’s paintings is always vivid.
Turning in to Ecological Art through Bright Traditional Colour Scheme
Undoubtedly, Kim is one of the greatest colorist painters of our time. In the field of Korean expressionism, Kim Hwan Gi, Lee Dae Won, Chun Kyung Ja, and Kim Chong Hak are the four colorist painters who have achieved their own unique style. Kim’s place in the world of Korean paintings becomes even more apparent when we look at the history of Korean art as a whole. I would like to discuss his painting from this aspect
Kim’s originality overflows the brilliant shades and colour schemes of Kim’s paintings. Apart from his use of darkly deep, yet calm basic colours like red, yellow, blue, green, and brown, summer paintings in particular draw out attention with the contrast of complementary green and red. Such organization and contrast of colours very much resemble the colour scheme often used in Korean traditional paintings. This is the colour scheme that has been handed down for more than 1600 years, from magnanimous Goguryeo ancient tomb murals, to delicate Buddhist paintings of Goryeo, to Buddhist paintings and the paintwork of wooden buildings(dancheong) of Joseon, to the court the folk paintings of late Joseon, and to the folk craft arts in Kim’s collection. Old Koreans indeed liked their brilliant colours. At least some of Kim’s wide appeal, I think, is a result of such a tendency. The fact that Kim has reinterpreted and revived Korea’s unique sensibility in colour alone, is enough to make him one of the most important figures in Korean art history.
Kim often describes his painting as a result of “stealing Korean traditional aesthetics, adding it to his knowledge of Western contemporary art, and then mixing them all up.” In his drawings and paintings, Kim does not hide various influences by impressionism to conceptual art. We can see a glimpse of various artists here and there: Van Gogh, Cezanne, Kandinsky, Matisse, Picasso, Soulage, Stael, Rouault, Rousseau, Redon, and Chagall. But that’s not all. Lee Jung Seop and Park Go Seok(who were from the same region of Korea he is from), and Chang Uc Chin(who taught him in college) also had significant influence.
His composition or brush strokes remind us of the formal aesthetics of Eastern paintings. In Kim’s paintings, we can read the painting styles he loved and studied, from China’s Bada Shanren and Qi Bai Shi, to Joseon’s Jeong Seon, Lee In San, Kim Hong Do, Kim Jeong Hee, Lee Gwang Sa, and Song Si Yul: The uniqueness of Kim’s art was a result of constant internalization of his broad and in-depth life experiences. What made Kim’s art possible, most of all, was Seorak’s landscape. He was made who he is by the mountain, the river, the ocean, the woods and the flowers and the grass that live on them, the butterflies and the birds and the insects that live with them, and their four seasons. Kim once said, “I changed my mind and decided not to commit suicide after I saw a pasqueflower blossoming in the spring Seorak.” Once and for all, the mountain healed Kim’s feeling of despair about life and about modernism.
Since Seorak with its cycle of four seasons became a place of healing for Kim, his art that embodies Seorak’s nature can be called an ecological art. Kim is a purely natural human being overflowing with the natural force, and the energy his colour schemes and brush strokes radiate is comparable to that of natural beauty. I think that safely qualifies him as an ecological artist. The brilliant Korean colours that Kim reinterpreted have incidentally became relevant in the contemporary world because of the occurrence of environmental-friendly consciousness. This is perhaps one message Kim is trying to convey to his contemporary audience, who have lost their natural state and live in a polluted environment. This is perhaps one reason why his art is so popular. Kim’s paintings of Seorak shows us how beautiful Korea’s natural surroundings are, and how big of a resource nature is to the creation of art.
Kim’s art is praised in different ways. One critic described it as “aesthetic excitement that parallels the stormy dance of sensual colours”, while another wrote, “Kim’s canvas is breathless… The great echo of nature and the universe explodes on the screen as bubbling energy. As we get closer to the paintings, we become breathless because the force of nature and the universe depicted in them are too powerfully realistic.” Numerous discussions spring up every time Kim opens an exhibition. Some of the critics include Lee Kyung Seong, Oh Gwang Su, Choi Seok Tae, Yu Junh Sang, Yu Jung Sang, Yu Jae Gil, Yun Woo Hak, Kim Bok Gi, Go Dong Yun, Kim Ae Ryeong. In particular, Kim Hyung Guk has conducted many recorded interviews with Kim and wrote the most literature on him. All these reactions tell of Kim’s status in the contemporary Korean art world.
As we can see, his exhibitions large and small have gotten much critical acclaim. Exhibitions he had in places like One Gallery, Sun Gallery, Park Ryu Sook Gallery, Gallery Yeh, Gallery Hyundai, and Gana Art Center, were always successful. In particular, his exhibition in Gallery Hyundai in 2004 and the one in Gana Art Gallery in 2006 focused on big scaled pieces and showed Kim the artist at his peak. He has been continuously producing masterpieces, and was at one point considered the most beloved artwork by Korean art collectors.
Kim’s paintings are his bare soul. The paintings he produces by himself in a secluded area when everything is silent, are the result of his conversion with himself and of his earnest self-gazing. The images that he produces in the mist of that silence, are Kim himself, and the reflections of his own movements. The almost-violent, rugged manner in which he expresses himself so intuitively, corresponds to the general disposition of the reticent and unpretentious “Northern” man that he is. Just like his straightforward disposition, his art is his life; his art is another Kim that embodies his own soul. At the beginning of this essay, I mentioned the concept, “a painting is the painter herself.” But we do not actually see many artists who expose themselves so openly in their works. It is only possible when the artist’s soul is as innocent and pure as Kim’s.
Painting, Kim has always preserved himself as an unassuming man of nature. That is how he got so obsessed with the beauty of traditional Korean art and made it his own. As he increasingly became one of Seorak’s nature, he revealed even more of the hidden nature of Seorak. He can be said to have achieved the doctrine of the Chinese artist, Guo Xi, “minds of the woods and the spring.” In the mind-set, he wants to draw spring in spring, summer in summer, autumn in autumn, and winter in winter. No matter how many times he has drawn a spring, the next one always fells new, he says.
Kim’s painting is always overflowing with vitality. It is probably because he turns into the mountain itself and receives its energy when he paints. It is not the simple case of an “energetic old man.” He stops only at his workshops as he travels between Seoul and Sokcho. His life is an endless repetition of communicating with nature, painting, and resting. I could feel Kim’s energetic presence everywhere in his two workshops, where he still regularly works into the depth of night. In the high ceilinged Seorak workshop, he had a 120”×85” painting titled in process. In the Seoul workshop, he was about to complete a 65”×60” painting titled The colours and brush strokes depicting flowers, wild grass and woods, are as energetic as ever. They are great works of art filled with natural and healthy energy.
Both workshops are in the big side, being about 165 square meters each. Each workshop is divided into two sections. One half is used for bigger canvas and acrylic painting, while the other half is used for small canvas and oil painting. The amount and variety of paint piled up in the storage room near Seorak workshop is quite astonishing. It is a powerful piece of evidence that the only thing Kim still gets greedy with his painting.
Kim Chong Hak: the Mountain Man of Seorak. I am pleased to find that his silent strength hasn’t diminished one bit. In the mid-70s, he has lost neither his passion nor the “aesthetic excitement.” There is no telling how productive he will be and what kind of artistic changes he will explore. One thing is for sure. He has continually met with challenges to stay as one of the greatest artists of our time. Because of his own pure heart, his paintings can relay to us the inherent worth of life. In this way, his paintings will be loved by many generations to come.
Materials seem very important in your work. How do you relate to them?
Material is inseparable from color, from line, from gesture. One cannot, therefore, discuss material in a vacuum. Everything is linked through my way of painting; everything is intertwined, without distinction. On certain canvases there is a lot of material and I even scrape some off, incising it with the handle of my paintbrush. On others, there is less. I have no formula, no pre-set approach. It all depends on the paintings, on what I want to express with more or less violence and energy. But if I had to highlight one element, I would say the most important thing is color. For me, color is at least half the painting.
Given this relationship to color, what are your sources of inspiration? And could you explain your choice of flower motif, for example?
I have always had a great passion for the Korean decorative art tradition. Women's clothing and the patterns that adorn their dresses constitute an extremely rich reservoir, in terms of the diversity and vivacity of colors. That said, I'm just as interested in furniture or ceramics. The good thing about tradition is that you start from something that exists, which is frozen in time, and which—at the very same time—can open doors to new things, offer new perspectives. But, I repeat, what matters most to me is color, the energy it radiates. It doesn't matter whether it comes from tradition or from nature. Everything is nourishing. I absorb everything that comes from outside, everything that can constitute a pictorial element.
What does tradition bring you—what does it allow you?
In his book Camera Lucida (La Chambre claire), Roland Barthes distinguishes two elements in a photograph: the studium—which designates the interest, the affect that one feels when facing a thing—and the punctum, which is what stings like an arrow and is a matter of chance, of meeting. For me, tradition is the domain in which we learn, and nature is that “stinging” force. In my generation, all creators were, at the start, influenced by ancient art. We had no other option. To discover European art, we had to look elsewhere. We all learned to paint, in terms of both form and color, based on ancient Korean art.
Are there any master artists who influenced you? If so, which ones?
I don't know if I was really influenced by anyone in particular; it's hard to say, because my sources have always been extremely varied and multiple, as I mentioned earlier. There are many masters, but in a rather vague way. If I had to name just one, I would say Kim Chong-hui. I have also always liked Korean portrait painters. But I’ve been more influenced by nature than by the history of art.
What about European painters?
At one point in my life I obviously studied their work, and learned something from it. I've always liked Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, but I can't say they inspired me… that's the wrong term. It was when I discovered the plains, mountains, and flowers that it clicked for me as a painter. All the artists of my generation have, at one time or another, looked to European art and then moved away from it to find a connection to our own history. This is just as true for abstract painters as for someone like me, who is rather figurative.
And Van Gogh, for example?
Of course, I know his work. If we have one thing in common, it is a form of violence in our canvases. Quite simply because it is first and foremost about the very violence of nature. This explains why, facing nature, we both have a fairly similar way of treating it and, at the same time, a different approach because in Asia, our culture relies more on its power, on its energy.
What drew you towards figuration?
In the late 1960s, I lived in Japan for two years; I was close to Lee Ufan. When I returned to Korea, most of my contemporaries, like Park Seo-Bo, those who now fall under the heading of Dansaekhwa, were also abstract artists. Within this context, I too started creating more or less abstract work, but I quickly felt like I was going in circles. Later, I went to New York, where abstract art was dominant, but there were still figurative painters. I told myself that I would go in this direction, which is what I have done. People’s reactions were very warm and encouraging, because they discovered varieties and combinations of colors in my work, obviously very different from monochrome, which gave my works energy, liveliness and great freshness.
Where does your strong attraction to nature stem from?
In 1979, I went to Seorak, and while walking I came across a little flower, known as “the flower that welcomes the moon,” and I felt like it was speaking to me. It was a revelation. From then on, I started to have a dialogue with nature. Another time, I was walking and found myself among unruly grasses. I couldn't move forward; I had to push them aside or even cut them to clear my way. I told myself that I was there on a path that was not planned: as if it was another path, a path to be invented. I returned home like a shaman who “reads” nature and talks to it. All this reminded me of one of the most important terms for Lao Tzu, that of do(道). My painting too is the search for a path that has not yet been decided, found or fixed. I am walking on a path that no one yet considers to be a path.
If someone asked you to describe what you paint, how would you respond?
I would tell him or her that I love figuration and that I love the seasons: spring, summer, autumn, winter. I love them for what they are and for the idea they evoke, that of permanent change. They embody life, renewal, energy. This is likely why people say that I am the painter of the four seasons.