I love art. But I cannot stand “Art”, in all its pomposity and phony intellectualism. Seoul – the city in which I now live – has a scene that is not too different to London or New York, in that its arty milieu seems (to me at least) short on feeling, and long on cleverness. For that reason, I was delighted to discover an artist named Kim Chong-hak, a man who through personal loss abandoned his art-school minimalism for colour, nature, and longing.

Heartbroken from a painful divorce – and financially broken – he left this city of 14 million to roam the fields and mountains of Seorak, with a few simple possessions in a bag slung over his shoulder. He slept under the stars night after night, and with the exception of the time taken on the inconvenience of having to eat, he spent his waking hours painting. Like Mr. Kim’s ancestor, the legendary calligrapher Chusa Kim Jong-hui (who found his voice in exile on Jeju Island) it took geographical and emotional isolation to make him into his own artist.

Mr. Kim simply painted what he saw: flowers, trees, hills, waterfalls, and the like. Having disdained nature and the study of it - owing to his big city art school background - he began to find comfort in things that merely existed for their own sake. He was not painting them to make a point, or to reveal something about himself. It appears to me that he simply wanted to make a connection with them. Through loneliness, and a desire to get away from ‘I’ – a painful, disappointed ‘I’ – he poured himself into communion with nature. There is often a wilful lack of realistic perspective in his work. Elements which he wishes to draw into himself are brought forward, enlarged, and imbued with enough colour to make them appear to dance in front of your eyes, becoming almost physical and breaking free of the limitations of the canvas and its two dimensions. He layers colours on so thickly that his paintings do indeed become three dimensional, very literally. The likes of ‘Squash Blossoms’, with its lonely blue encroaching from the edges, yet with the juxtaposing force of this yellow flower blooming out of the canvas, seem to scream out a longing for connection.

It also gives a sense of movement. Many of Mr Kim’s works suggest falling, or a kind of headlong rush into the elements. In Kingfisher, we are situated by a river, but nestled among the vegetation, looking directly at three birds; we appear though to be approaching the water at a diagonal angle, perhaps in mid-flight, about to plunge into the blue ourselves. After Mr Kim made radical changes to his style, he was criticised for ‘going figurative’, and worst of all, choosing as his subjects mere flowers, and trees. His sudden and unexpected commercial success among a broader Korean audience with this new style seemed to confirm to the domestic art establishment that he was a mass-market, chocolate box painter. This is unfair, though. It is in fact his original style which is more worthy of criticism; works like ‘History’ (1966) look very much of their time, and too derivative to merit our attention. His later, more colourful paintings, which indeed often do contain flowers and trees, are in fact not truly figurative, even if they are not truly abstract either. They simply are what they are, but for those who enjoy, say, van Gogh, or Rothko, they have the power to resonate deeply.

Van Gogh comparisons are in fact hard to avoid. In his native country, he is sometimes referred to as the ‘van Gogh of Korea’. The shade of yellow on a painting like ‘Gilsangdo’, for instance, suggests a certain amount of influence from his Dutch hero. The love of nature, the use of larger-than-live, vivid colour, and the drive to reach out for consolation from pain unite them; however, the legacy of Mr Kim’s training gives his creations that quality of pure imagination that makes him as much a modern painter as a traditional one. He is in some way fortunate, I think, that he first learned to paint in the midst of such an avant-ish, intellect-focused milieu, despite his defiant choice of keeping intellectualism out of his work. Though he abandoned his original leanings to ‘draw things’, he retains an element of abstraction. The likes of ’Mt. Seorak i in Summer’ and ’Feast of Flowers’ show this well; if one views them from a distance, they look to not even contain flowers or recognisable objects at all. He takes objects that exist in nature, but grasps at them longingly, bringing them into his own mental world; when he sets them loose again on the canvas, they become something new.

A Korean Artist

So far, I have been guilty of viewing Mr Kim’s work through a Western prism by, for instance, invoking the likes of van Gogh and Rothko. However, he is in many ways a very Korean artist. Of course, Koreans may appreciate the attention he lavishes on such national icons as the mountain Seoraksan, so much so that he has earned the nickname ‘the painter of Seorak’; but more than that, his work is steeped in millennia of regional culture. For the outsider, it may not be a recognisable culture, but regardless, it is a strand in his art that requires our attention if we seek to understand him.

There are relatively minor details, such as the depiction of birds, and even chickens (in ‘Hen’s Outing’ for example), in his work. The humble chicken is not something one expects to see in a Western gallery, but within Korean art, it has a long history. Visitors to Seoul are frequently surprised and amused to see signs pointing to a ‘Museum of Chicken Art’, which stands as an odd testament to the value of this creature in the culture of Korea.

More importantly though, is the sense of circularity that one gets from viewing Mr Kim’s work as a complete body. Among those fans of his who merely like pretty pictures, there is little appreciation of the importance in his work of the changing of the seasons, and the continual death and regeneration that nature throws up. But it is very much there, just as it is with other Korean artists, such as film-maker Kim Ki-duk, in his well-known ‘Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring’.
Those growing up in Buddhist-influenced countries tend to have a less linear concept of life and death, and see the two as something approximate to two sides of the same coin. Death is not the end, but rather the end of one cycle, and the beginning of a new one. Mr Kim is therefore able to find beauty in the death of nature, a beauty equal to that found in his more famous (and more expensive) scenes of a vivid summer glory – for they are one and the same.

‘Creek in Winter’, for instance, offers a classically bleak, snowy scene against a striking blue, that suggests life even in the depths of winter. Others, such as ‘Mt.Seorak in Winter ’ is simply a vision of pure whiteness amid the barren twigs, that like much of his work, gives one the impression of falling into an abyss. Due perhaps to his days as a wanderer, there is so often a quality of movement and action in his paintings. It doesn’t feel like progress; it feels more like hurtling along, without a plan or the ability to stop - rather like life’s own march towards the inevitable.

As he enters the winter of his own tempestuous, but beautifully productive life, these works take on greater meaning. I also find that the more I know about him, the more his winter scenes linger in my memory. Kim Chong-hak the person burned as brightly as the likes of his ‘Morning Glory’ or ‘Feast of Flowers’, but the shadow of the flame will remain longer than the flame itself.


Daniel Tudor is Korea Correspondent for The Economist. He is from Manchester, England, but has lived in Seoul on and off since 2004. He is the author of a forthcoming book, 'Korea: The Impossible Country', which will be published in Autumn 2012."