Sunday, January 8, 2012

Shedding new light on Kim Whan-ki the Painter

Kim Whan-ki (1913-74) led the modern abstract art movement in Korea. He drew objects such as mountains, the moon, cranes and white porcelain jars, popular subjects of Korean paintings, using Western techniques. Kim later devoted himself to pointillism, portraying an affection and longing for home country.

Some refer to Kim as “the Picasso of Korea,” since he was prolific enough to leave some 3,000 artworks including oil paintings, gouache paintings and drawings. He also disassembled the objects he drew like Picasso did.

Kim is one of the first-generation Western-style painters in Korea and it was natural for him to seek a Korean identity in Western style. Kim Young-na, director-general of the National Museum of Korea, in her book “20th Century Korean Art” said he achieved Asian abstractionism based on a communion with nature.

A retrospective exhibition at Gallery Hyundai sheds new light on the modern abstract artist through Feb. 26. About 60 representative works are on display, including four on display to the public for the first time.

Painter who loved moon jars

The exhibition is being held at a new building, now the main venue of Gallery Hyundai in Sagan-dong, Jongno. It is composed of two parts. Kim’s earlier works, drawn in Seoul and Paris from 1930 to 1963, are exhibited in the main space while his abstract paintings, from New York between 1963 and 1974 are displayed in the new space.

Kim was born in Sinan, South Jeolla Province and graduated from the Fine Arts Department of Nihon University in Japan. He experimented with abstractionism in Japan in the 1930s, but few works from that period exist.

After returning to Korea, his subject matter changed to more Korean images such as mountains and the moon. White porcelain containers, especially round-shaped moon jars, were his favorite. Kim Hyang-an (1916-2004), the painter’s wife, wrote, “When we were living in Seongbuk-dong, he collected antiques when a ship came in. All rooms were full of moon jars and he stroked the porcelain when he got stuck in painting.”

For the artist, even war could be expressed in a lyrical way, simplified to dots and lines. “Refugee Train” is inspired by Kim’s experience of fleeing to Busan during the 1950-53 Korean War, when he had to leave his ceramics back in Seoul.

His signature blue color came to the center when he stayed in Paris from 1956 to ’59. For Kim, blue was the color of the sky and sea of Korea. His works “Jars” (1955-56) and “Song of Eternity” (1957) clearly show such characteristics with thicker texture.

Kim wrote in a 1954 essay: “The spirit of resistance cannot be melancholic or depressing. Should the spirit of overcoming reality, the spirit of tomorrow, be not as strong as the sun itself? The artist is an optimist, regardless of his times.”

Upon returning to Korea, his style became simpler and more restrained as Kim began seeking abstractionism from nature in “Moon, Plum Blossoms and Bird” (1959) and “Jar and Plum Blossoms” (1961).

‘Hundred Thousand Dots’

Participation at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 1963 provided a breakthrough for Kim, as he won the Honorable Mention for painting. Taking this opportunity, he moved to New York and created his pointillism style based on Korean lyrical sentiment.

In New York, he took away thick layers and instead worked on cotton canvas, creating a spreading effect seen in Korean traditional ink-and-wash painting. He meticulously filled big canvases with dots, thinking of family and friends. The signature blue changed to a more grayish blue, as if reflecting the change of his mind.

His work “Where, in What Form, Shall We Meet Again?” won the first Hankook Ilbo Fine Art Competition in 1970. The title came from a verse in Kim Kwang-sup’s poem “In the Evening.”

The “Hundred Thousand Dots” and “Untitled” series he painted in the 1970s are also on display. Kim died from a brain hemorrhage in 1974 at the age of 61 in New York.

“Just upon entering the gallery, I was thrilled to see my father’s works on display,” Kim Geum-ja, the second daughter of the painter, said at a press preview for the exhibition last week, adding that her father worked more than 16 hours a day.

She said the New York era pointillism works bring agony to her. “He went to New York to pursue a new style of art and marked those dots by hand one by one in the small atelier. I wonder how hard and lonely he was.

“I think such hardship might have contributed to the unexpected, early death of my father. People wow at my father’s pointillism works, but my heart aches.”

Gallery Hyundai founder Park Myung-ja said, “Though relatively unknown to the public compared to other modern painters, Kim achieved the level of artistry in both figurative and abstract painting. I hope many people come and see Kim’s works which stand proud in the history of Korean modern art.”

The gallery has published Korean and English books containing some 140 of Kim’s paintings with Maronie Books.

Admission is 5,000 won for adults and 3,000 won for students. Docents are available at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily and in English at 2 p.m. on Sundays. You Hong-june, an art critic and professor at Myongji University, will give a lecture on Kim’s life at 2 p.m. on Jan. 10 and offer a tour program of Kim’s birthplace in Sinan, South Jeolla Province on Feb. 20.

For more information, call (02) 2287-3500 or visit

Whanki Museum

The Whanki Museum in Buam-dong, central Seoul, is another place to see Kim’s artwork and that of other Korean artists.

The museum is currently holding an exhibition of Nam Kwan (1911-1990), whom Kim met while serving in the Navy and later again in Paris, as part of a series of exhibitions featuring Kim’s people. Currently, only one of Kim’s paintings, “Duet” (1974), is on display along with Nam’s works.

The museum, situated in a quiet and peaceful neighborhood of Buam-dong similar to Seongbuk-dong where the artist lived, was designed by architect Woo Kyu-seung. The main building houses most exhibitions and a museum shop is in the annex.

Since the area is known for attracting local artists, the museum’s next exhibit will focus on them. From March, the Whanki Museum will hold “The Buam-dong Art Valley Project,” which will display artworks specific to the museum space and the Buam-dong Valley, for the 20th anniversary of the museum’s establishment.

The museum is also preparing a major exhibition and catalogue celebrating the 100th anniversary of Kim’s birth next year.

For more information, visit

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