People / Critic

Kim Tschang-yeul : From 'Emptiness' to 'Nothingness', From 'Nothingness' to 'Return'

posted 31 Mar 2021

On January 5, Kim Tschang-yeul, the “Painter of Waterdrops” passed away. He was a Korean virtuoso, who had achieved artistic and societal recognition for his lifelong devotion to paintings of waterdrops. As an era of waterdrop paintings comes to an end, a commemorative has been organized, an examination of his artistic achievements. Kim’s remains were buried under a tree at the Kim Tschang-yeul Museum of Art in Jeju-do. Like the aesthetic generation and dissipation of waterdrops, Kim too has forever returned to nature.

The 〈Recurrence〉 series depicts waterdrops that have formed upon the Thousand Character Classic. Shim Eun-rok, an art critic, sees this as symbolic of Confucianist and Buddhist beliefs. Kim Tschang-yeul’s “recurrence” is a Taoist return to wu wei, or inexertion, a return to the nobility of humanity, the origin of the universe.

Kim moved to France in 1969, where he spent time painting. He was a pioneer that contributed to the formation of the Art Informel movement in Korea. “A microcosm, void, or nothingness, Plato’s conception of reality and phenomena, meditation, sublimation and catharsis, the origin of life in the universe, and so forth.” It seems perhaps natural that there is such a diverse array of interpretations of waterdrops that exist in the East and West. Of such diverse interpretations, Kim replied that “The nature of waterdrops depends on the person, they are free, and they have the right to be so.” He once stated that “Waterdrops are related to the concepts of nothingness in Taoism emptiness in Buddhism. Of his religious beliefs, Kim stated, half seriously and half in jest, that he believed in the “Three Teachings” But for someone who is not particularly religious, the term “Three Teachings,” which has strong religious connotations, might not be appropriate. Perhaps it would be more proper to describe him as a student of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

The Confucianist Era, the Courtesy and Virtue of Kim’s Grandfather

김창열의 4~5세 시절 평안남도 맹산 생가에서 촬영한 가족사진. 사진제공 아트인컬처

Family photo of Kim when he was 4~5 years old. Image provided by Art In Culture

The title of his recent series, which depicts waterdrops forming on the Thousand Character Classic, is 〈Recurrence〉. It depicts a nostalgia for his happy childhood, when he studied the classic under his grandfather. As evident in the series, Kim was born and raised to an environment that could be characterized by the classics. He was born in a small community in Maengsan, Pyeongnam-do in December 1929, during the Japanese colonial era. The panorama of a magnificent black pine forest of Maengsan unfolds behind the house where he was born, and the clear, river waters of Daedong-gang, an embodiment of the spirit of the ancient Goguryeo Dynasty, flow before the village. Kim Tschang-yeul’s grandfather, Kim Chan-gyu, had an enormous influence on him. A devout scholar of Confucianism and a renowned calligrapher in the community, Kim Chan-gyu was well-respected for his learning and moral character. Kim Tschang-yeul depicts his grandfather reading Chinese poetry with his friends, his low and clear intonation, and the way he taught by example.

The Buddhist Era, To Emptiness

Kim experienced the most turbulent periods of modern Korean history, including the liberation of Korea and the Korean War. For three years, starting in 1966, he spent time in the United States, where he studied printmaking and continued his artistic career at the Art Students League. During his time in the United States, Kim underwent the most difficult part of his life, artistically, culturally, and psychologically. Early in his stay, he was able to visit numerous art museums and universities at major cities thanks to the support of the Rockefeller Foundation. Yet, the American art establishment, despite the size of the country, had been completely taken over by the pop art movement, and other genres of art were looked down upon. As an artist who did not belong to the pop art movement, Kim was shocked at the fact that he could not even exhibit his work. The general atmosphere of regarding life itself with frivolity, as if it were not full-time occupation but rather a part-time endeavor; pop techne, a style of art where the minority is neglected and only the masses appear to exist; a deluge of overwrought language and advertisements in place of quiet, deep cordiality, these intolerable lightness of Western existence were not unlike “emptiness” for Kim.

The Taoist Era, To Nothingness

In 1969, upon his arrival to France, he was beset with a feeling of awe at the beauty of the waterdrops, shining in the light of the dawn that cast away a long night of pain and worry. It was a feeling of awe at the sense of fulfilment of existence, despite these waterdrops existing but for a brief instant. Thus, his first painting of waterdrops, 〈Evenement de la Nuit〉(1972), was born. A single, clear waterdrop, liberated from the weight of madness and pain, forms upon the canvas, dark and deep like the ocean in the night. It is the emergence of emptiness, the waterdrop, from nothingness, a black monochrome background. This waterdrop, so liberated, was exhibited at the 《Salon de Mai》, well-respected invitational in Paris, and thus, Kim Tschang-yeul debuted as the “waterdrop artist.”

This waterdrop, having emerged from a fathomless night ocean, embarks on a sojourn on the earth. From the clear and ripened waterdrops of his early paintings, slightly more relaxed waterdrops, waterdrops so full that they appear ready to burst, long and dripping waterdrops, to waterdrops closed like the monade of Leipnitz and open waterdrops. “As I painted the waterdrops, I began to think of the characteristics of waterdrops. Waterdrops were a part of nature, so I thought they should be situated in nature. When I first painted waterdrops on the canvas, I felt that the canvas helped emphasize the transparence of the waterdrops, and so I looked for things similar to the canvas. And those things ended up being hemp, sand, and wooden boards.” And so the waterdrop continues on its journey, on primer-less burlap sacks, sand, and the grain of wood. Lee Ufan, a world-renowned artist and critic, said the following of Kim: “[He] achieved worldwide renown through waterdrops, and so many people speak of these waterdrops. It is of considerable importance that through the metaphor of the waterdrop, [his] legacy left a mark in art history.”

〈물방울〉 캔버스에 유채 228×182cm 1977. 사진제공 아트인컬처

〈Waterdrops〉 oil on canvas 228×182cm 1977. Image provided by Art In Culture

From the mid-1980s and onward, the waterdrops form upon the Thousand Character Classic. It is first a commemoration of Kim’s grandfather, who was a devout Confucian scholar, and it is also a ‘return’. But is it merely a Renaissance-like revival of Confucianism, like the Renaissance’s revival of the classical period? “When I painted only waterdrops on a larger painting, they appeared like stones, and after some consideration, I painted the waterdrops on an everyday canvas, the newspaper. That turned out to be a work of art. And so, I began to wonder, ‘what is it about these newspapers?’ I realized that the writing emphasizes the transparence of the waterdrops. I decided to add lettering, like the newspapers, and I painted waterdrops over English, Korean, numbers, and any form of writing I could find. But it was when the waterdrops were painted over Chinese characters that they appeared most at ease. The Thousand Character Classic is a source of nostalgia for me; I learned it before I even learned Korean, and moreover, not a single character is repeated. Chinese characters expand toward the mind-space, from the concrete to the metaphysical. The characters expand in all directions. As I continued to work, I came to agree with the statement, ‘The alphabet was made by man, but the Chinese characters were made by God.’” The Roman alphabet is phonetic, a representation of the sounds of “humanity.” But logograms like Chinese characters were made in imitation of nature, which was made by God, and so it is valid to describe them as being “made by God.” Although the percentage of true pictograms in among Chinese characters is around 4% at best, the percentage of pictographic radicals is 70%. Pictograms, the foundation of the Chinese written language, are therefore important despite their small share. As such, that the painting of waterdrops, a form of natural imagery, pairs best with Chinese characters, which already embody the imagery of nature, is natural. Therefore, this act of “returning” is secondarily a return to nature, the language of God.

However, the painter adds that “Not all Chinese characters can bear waterdrops.” At times, the Chinese characters that are magnified by the waterdrops do not pair with the droplets. Moreover, it is not enough for the characters to pair well with the waterdrops. For example, he paints a waterdrop over the Chinese character for light (光), because the meaning is suitable. “Light-waterdrop!” But resting over the Chinese character, the waterdrop does not appear at ease. The waterdrop is moved up, so that it rests between “Night” (夜) and light. A “Night-waterdrop” and a “light-waterdrop.” The meaning is suitable, and finally the waterdrop is at ease. The waterdrop that rests between night and light thus appears peculiarly like morning dew, which embodies the world as it rests upon blades of grass. Each and every waterdrop must embody and harmonize time, space, meaning, and form. Only then can they emerge. Is it because a waterdrop is ephemeral, that it can rest between light and night, between existence and nonexistence?

The Taoist Transition, “Return”

〈회귀〉 리넨에 먹, 유채 160×195cm 1993. 사진제공 아트인컬처

〈Recurrence〉 ink and oil on linene 160×195cm 1993. Image provided by Art In Culture

Having spent four decades in the East and four decades in the West, Kim expresses upon the canvas the spirit of Eastern culture in a Western style, and the results are natural. He becomes one with his work, and the conception of Three Teachings as evidenced in the waterdrops upon the canvas not only symbolize Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taosim, but also the major religions, traditions, and culture of the East. Confucianism, the belief system of intellectuals and the ruling class, reflects on the real world. It is practical in nature, meant to educate the literati that exist in the real world. The belief system was a major influence on Kim in his childhood. Buddhism speaks of the existence of non-existence, the non-existence of existence, or the emptiness that lies between existence and nothingness. Buddhism teaches that the worldly things are not worth obsessing over, that they are “empty.” Taoism arose from folk beliefs, and it teaches that worldly things arise from nothingness. It pursues the course of “inexertion,” of neither ruling nor subjecting to rule, neither deviating from the original essence nor form of worldly things. Taoism has influenced Kim’s art from when he moved to France to his death. All things must return to their original status. That return is fundamentally a Taoist transition. Of Kim’s art, an interesting piece depicts five waterdrops dripping down, leaving wet trails. The waterdrops appear almost human in form. The path taken by the dripping waterdrops is the path taken by human beings, and these pathways adopt the form of a human being. These waterdrops will eventually evaporate and return from whence they came. This act of return, depicted in artworks based on the Three Teachings, transcends a return to childhood. It is a return to nature, or perhaps a return to the source of the noble, beautiful character of human beings.

Like it or not, the ocean can only be an ocean if it accepts all streams that flow into it. Kim’s work, based on a life and philosophy grounded in the Three Teachings, are a drop of seawater lifted from a myriad contemporary art styles, which include both the Art Informel style that he favors as well as the Pop Art style that he dislikes.

Kim Tschang-yeul
Born 1929, in Maengsan, Pyeongnam-do. Defected to South Korea at the age of 16 and studied painting at the Seongbuk Painting Research Institute, established by Lee Qoede. Enrolled at the Seoul National University College of Fine Arts in 1948. In 1957, established the Korea Fine Arts Association and spearheaded the Art Informel movement in Korea. In 1965, moved to the United States to study printmaking at the Art Students League of New York. In 1969, moved to Paris. In 1972, the first waterdrop painting was exhibited at the Salon de Mai. Held about 60 solo exhibitions including at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in 2012, Jeu de Paume in 2004, and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea in 1993. His work is on exhibition at the Centre Pompidou; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; and Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. Received the National Academy of Arts of Republic of Korea Award in 2017; the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France in 1996; and the Silver Crown of the Order of Cultural Merit, South Korea, in 2013.

※ This article was originally published on the FEB 2021 issue of Art In Culture and is provided by the Korea Art Management Service under a content provision agreement with the magazine.

Shim Eun-rok

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