People / Critic

Rhee Seundja, Art Woven with Blue Waters of Galaxy

posted 01 Nov 2018

Rhee Seundja, <Road to the Antipode, January, No.4, 90>, 1990. Acrylic on canvas, 150 × 150 cm. Rhee Seund Ja Jinju Museum of Art.

Rhee Seundja, 〈Road to the Antipode, January, No.4, 90〉, 1990. Acrylic on canvas, 150 × 150 cm. Rhee Seund Ja Jinju Museum of Art.

Rhee Seondja Rhee Seondja
Rhee Seundja (1918-2009) was born in 1951 in Jinju of Gyeongnam and studied art at Académie de la Grande Chaumière in France. She had over seventy solo exhibitions, including those in 1956 (Guillaume, Paris), 1963 (Cavalero Gallery, Cannes, France), 1965 (SNU Academic Office Building, Seoul), 1978 solo exhibition & 1988 invitational exhibition (National Museum of Contemporary Art, Gwacheon), 1994 (Chicago Poster Center, Chicago), and 2008 retrospective exhibition (Gyeongnam Art Museum, Changwon), and the 2008 solo exhibition (Asian Arts Museum, Nice), in addition to over 300 group exhibitions.

TEXT Kim Yejin (Cultural Heritage Administration)
PHOTO courtesy of National Museum of Contemporary Art(MMAC Korea)

Rhee Seundja, 〈A Mother I Remember〉, 1962. Oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm. Private collection.

Rhee Seundja, 〈A Mother I Remember〉, 1962. Oil on canvas, 130 × 195 cm. Private collection.

Adorned with seven-color rainbow sleeves,
the sun and moon of Rhee Seundja shine as beautifully as a 16-year-old country lady at the prime of her youth.
Ask her do whatever chore there may be,
from the weaving of a mat to
planting rice in a paddy,
and she’ll be gladly up for the task,
beaming through her lined teeth and determined eyes.
Rhee Seundja ages no longer.
So one day, I casually ask,
“What made you choose this life?”
To which she replied, “Things became complex after that,
so I came back to Jinju once and for all,
where I would remain 16 forever.”

Seo Jungjoo, 『Rhee Seundja』, September 15, 1986.

Rhee Seundja, 〈Ojakgyo Bridge〉, 1956. Oil on canvas, 146 × 114 cm. Private collection.

Rhee Seundja, 〈Ojakgyo Bridge〉, 1956. Oil on canvas, 146 × 114 cm. Private collection.

Rhee Seundja (1918-2009) is an artist who built a unique career during the era of 20th century Korean art. In 1951, she retreated from the‘ chaotic’ world to settle in the art community in France, where she began to mold the world of the girl beaming with lined teeth and determined eyes. Like many good maidens that over came adversity in the world of fairy tales, the 16-year-old Jinju native gave birth to art works with a for mid able life force, essentially becoming their mother. In 2018, a special exhibition, 《Rhee Seondja: Road to the Antipode》, was held at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, to mark the centenary of her birth. The exhibition chronologically guided the viewers through the world secretly built by the girl who took shelter from the chaotic world.

Rhee Seundja, 〈Midnight at the Empire State Building〉, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 162 × 114 cm. Private collection.

Rhee Seundja, 〈Midnight at the Empire State Building〉, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 162 × 114 cm. Private collection.

The Beginning, the Legend of Mother

Lee Ufan once said of the paintings by Rhee Seundja, “They have all something melancholy that reminds viewers of the beauty which existed in the beginning.”1) While it was in the 1960s that Rhee began to create the images of the rough surface of the earth by applying kneaded pigments, the titles implying mysterious stories of the dawn of time had already begun to appear in the works of the late 1950s, as shown by those, such as 〈When the Earth Gives out Light〉, 〈Earth of Angels〉 ,〈Pipe of Fawn〉 , and 〈Four Brave Knights〉. The establishment of the image of the Mother Earth through the work, in 1962, was followed by the works based on her recollections, such as and , and the works with romantic titles, which seem to reveal some secrets hidden behind nature, such as 〈Memory of Hidden Trees〉, 〈Daydreamer without Self-awareness〉, and 〈Testimony of Wind〉. Rhee in this period produced abstract paintings where objects were reverted to pure signs, yet believed in prioritizing the artist’s own motif, thus beginning to hide codes through which she could enter the stories created by a 16-year-old country lady with her memories about her hometown, Jinju city, and its surrounding natural environment, such as jade hairpin, straw woven mat, red ocher field and letters, putting them in the geometric order created by densely piling up brush strokes, which are similar to the incisions on a woodcut.

When Rhee Seundja held her first solo exhibition in Korea in 1965, Cho Byeonghwa wrote after looking at her work, (1965), “This is the bridge of the East, which is built only to connect two hearts fallen in love.” The poet saw the emotion of yearning at the painting conceived from the age-old legend of the Cowherd Boy (Gyeonu) and Weaver Girl (Jingnyeo), also known as the Altair and Vega love story.2) In the abstract painting, the story of the two mythological figures is represented by a mysterious image of the heavens where the moon is hidden behind a blue space. Since the painting, the artist left Jinju, her hometown and her mother’s land, to start a journey into the air and heavens, riding the Milky Way running between moonlight.

1) Sim Eunlog, 『Art of Rhee Seundja』, Misulmunhwa, 2018, p. 86.
2) You can only find this bridge
in the East.
You can only find these tears
in the East.
This is a yearning,
and love,
only native to the East.
This is the bridge of the East,
built only to connect two hearts fallen in love.
Oh, how I yearn to see you -
The bridge, both yours and mine.
― Cho Byeonghwa, 『Ojakgyo Bridge』, 1965.

Rhee Seundja, 〈My Palace in the Milky Way, March, 2000〉, 2000. Acrylic on canvas, 130 × 195 cm. Private collection,

Rhee Seundja, 〈My Palace in the Milky Way, March, 2000〉, 2000. Acrylic on canvas, 130 × 195 cm. Private collection,

Rhee Seundja understood the color blue had become her mother, legend, and the water of life that begets a new world. As suggested by the poem, (1977), written by Michel Butor, once he saw the prints by Rhee, the artist put the images of blue landscapes, linking Eastern with Western art, into her scrolls and folding screens. She combined her experiences and memories of the abstract paintings she learned in France with the literati paintings she witnessed in Korea to create a series of works where poetry is interwoven with pieces. Her successful thirty-year long collaboration with Michel Butor, who Rhee admired for “understanding me perfectly well,” was likely indebted to her desire to express the emotional state and meaning through the use of language, which had previously been difficult to accomplish with paintings alone. Rhee Seundja continued to explore the language of her mother engraved in her memories during time frequenting back and forth between France and Korea.

The World of the Ever-expanding Universe

On December 24, 1968, Rhee Seundja happened to see a night view of New York, the world’s most famous megacity, from the Empire State Building, which served as the motivation behind the production of (1969). The experience led the artist to take on dramatic change not only in her paintings, but in her prints, as well, formulating a definitive boundary from her earlier works. Her paintings, once previously thickly filled with oil pigments, now demonstrated a freer, more vivid, yet flexible imagery manifested from acrylic pigments. The prints similarly began to give off rhythmic energy with numerous vivid colors.

Rhee Seundja continued to expand her art into the wider world of Mother Earth, sky and universe, through numerous series titled 〈Overlapping〉, 〈City〉, 〈Yin and Yang〉, 〈Transcendence〉, 〈Natural Scene〉, 〈Sea and Mountain〉, and 〈Night in Tourette〉. Among them, the series, with which she expressed the East’s principle of Yin and Yang using geometric images in intense coloring, is regarded with particular significance in that the series influenced the eventual creation of the series, in addition to propelling the discovery of her own motif and its combination with the Western art forms. The artist’s statement about “the combination between the material-based Western art with the spirituality of the East” seems to refer to the works as mentioned above.3 It is generally agreed that her Yin and Yang motif was completed with the architectural work of her own studio named (Eunhasu, 1992).

Rhee Seundja, 〈Night in Tourette, August, No.2, 79〉, 1979. Acrylic on canvas, 150 × 150 cm. Private collection,

Rhee Seundja, 〈Night in Tourette, August, No.2, 79〉, 1979. Acrylic on canvas, 150 × 150 cm. Private collection,

Rhee Seundja had been interested in the unity of two opposing elements, the Eastern mind and Western form, plane and object, and natural and geometric images, and was successful in overcoming the limitations imposed by mediums and genres having combined the merits of painting and printing techniques as if based on the philosophical principle of Yin and Yang. Remarkably, the new features expressed in her later works, such as the representational depiction of a snow-covered mountain against an abstract background and the Korean traditional Dancheong patterns engraved in the sun and moon, were completed through her travels to and from France and Korea. Rhee is often considered as a ‘person on the border,’ who longed for the meeting of the eastern and western skies by crossing the Milky Way, missed the west when she was in the east, and vice versa. This led to her view of the Yin and Yang principle seemingly advocating a distinctly different interpretation from that of a more common perspective.

Rhee Seundja turned the landscapes of the polar region she happened to have seen from the airplane flying home into a series of works titled, (1980-1994), and the soon-to-be , (1995-2008). The private, rarely-told stories about the sun, moon, the five cardinal colors, or Obangsaek, thatch-roofed cottages, and other Eastern images, were turned into legends set against the vast universe through the inspiration she had from her air travel, Alaska, and aurora.

3) 『Let’s See at Eleven O’clock – Rhee Seundja』, KBS, broadcasted on February 5, 1985.

Artist of the Milky Way Caught Between the Ying and Yang

The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Korea held comprehensive exhibitions of the works by Rhee Seundja in 1970, 1978, and 1988, of which the last presented over 400 pieces including paintings, prints, and ceramic works arranged in chronological order. The museum introduced her to the Korean art lovers through a multitude of events, which is regarded by many as quite exceptional, however the artist and her works seem to be less familiar among the art-loving Korean public. The institution’s latest event featuring Rhee’s art, 《Rhee Seundja: Road to the Antipode》, also took the layout by which her works were arranged in a chronological order to show the development of her art in a succinct yet comprehensive manner. A total of 100 works, paintings, prints, pottery, and woodcrafts, were presented at the exhibition, including her best known works, 〈A Mother I Remember〉, 〈Ojakgyo Bridge〉, 〈Midnight at the Empire State Building〉, and 〈Mystery of Spring Water〉, creating a textbook example of her signature exhibitions.

Comprehensive view to the exhibition, 《Rhee Seundja: Road to the Antipode》

Comprehensive view to the exhibition, 《Rhee Seundja: Road to the Antipode》

Curator, Park Mihwa, commented about her works saying, “She embodies the artist’s spirit that continues to challenge herself to change and move forward.” This depiction summaries her ability to orchestrate her creative energy using a variety of art genres, including mosaic, tapestry, and pottery, as well as painting. The exhibition paid special attention to her prints, which were to her paintings as Yin is to Yang, as well as her pottery and illustrated poetry. One may, however, raise the following questions: Could the sagacity of the artist, who devoted her life to art for over fifty years, exploring changes be effectively delivered to the ordinary art lover? What if the Rhee Seundja’s ‘languages’ scattered around the walls and railings of the exhibition venue were treated in a more careful, subtle manner? Wouldn’t it be better to fill the gaps between her works with the languages born from her exchange with literary men and women and the literariness in her works in order to help viewers interpret their own legends within the works? What if the exhibition paid more attention to the cyclic working methods the artist maintained by frequently crossing the boundary between painting and printing represented by her two studios located at the opposite sides of a stream serving as her own Milky Way? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial for ordinary viewers to share the experience of the vast universe the artist explored by freely crossing the border between East and West, Yin and Yang, and abstract and representation?

The artist has gone, leaving behind her memories of her lifelong journey between France and Korea, and the earth and the universe, where now her works are ready to follow her, marking the beginning of a cosmic journey from a time-based, linear perspective.

※ This article was originally published on Monthly Art Magazine Misulsegye (JUL 2018, VOL.404) and republished under authority of an agreement between KAMS and MisulSegye.

Kim Yejin

Cultural Heritage Administration

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