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Details
KIM WHAN-KI
(Korean, 1913-1974)
Fleur de Lotus (Lotus Flower)
signed 'whanki' (lower right); titled & dated 'Fleur de Lotus 1956' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
60 x 30 cm. (23 5/8 x 11 3/4 in.)
Painted in 1956
Provenance
Acquired directly from the artist, thence by decent to the present owner
Private Collection, France

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Lot Essay

Kim Whan-Ki is one of the most highly recognised pioneers of abstract painting in Korean modern art history. Kim's nomadic life from Korea, Japan, France and finally to America embodies his endless quest to develop his own abstract painting style. Like many other modern Korean artists, Kim first studied Western abstract art in Japan, where he reflected upon the works of European geometric abstraction painters from Cubism to Neo Plasticism. However, he always felt an urgency to liberate his Korean spirit from the strict Japanese academicism and the pronounced European influence prevalent in the art world he encountered at that time. With his return to Korea in 1953, specifically during a sojourn in his hometown, a small island in southern Korea, Kim seriously began to delve into the issue of Korean aesthetics. Kim expanded his artistic experiments with varied Korean motifs. In particular with Joseon Dynasty white porcelains, Goryeo Dynasty celadon and traditional literati paintings. There he found limitless inspiration in their austere and regal beauty. His interest was in capturing the poetic emotion and spirit imbued in both the naturalism and actual nature of Korea. As described in his poetic notation, "round sky, round jar/blue sky, white jar they are surely one pair", nature and tradition were the same thing to him. His way of depicting nature was to extract from motifs, such as clouds and cranes inlaid in Korean ceramic or plum blossoms in literary painting, in order to remold them as simplified forms in his own art. Kim furthered his experimentation of Korean motifs during his study in Paris from 1956 to 1959.
Kim departed for Paris with the intention of gaining direct exposure to Western art. It was a short yet prodigious period which saw the advent of a newly flourishing artistic ingenuity. His affection for indigenous motifs grew even stronger after arriving in Paris. In this period, Kim continued to explore in depth various classical Korean motifs and landscapes, eventually schematising them with simplified outlines and vibrant colour fields. In the realm of diaspora where subjectivity and the experience of being the cultural "other" underlies many interactions, Kim devoted himself to the very difficult question of how to accommodate or embrace mainstream culture, while still adhering to his own subjectivity. In this lifelong journey of artistic and personal development, Kim consistently set his identity in Korean traditional culture and natural landscapes. Untitled (Lot 17) and Fleur de Lotus (Lotus Flower) (Lot 18), featured in the Evening Sale, are the great examples to represent his artistic achievements in Paris. Fleur de Lotus (Lotus Flower) painted in 1956 illustrates how Kim combined quintessential Korean motifs and simplified them. Here he brought the crane and clouds found in traditional celadon ceramics and combined them with the imagery of the moon which was widely used in antique folding screens, and combined those with a lotus flower, the ultimate symbol of Buddhism, in a profoundly poetic and meditative manner. It is from 1956 when he arrived in Paris that Kim's signature blue palette began to appear as in Fleur de Lotus (Lotus Flower). Evoking the sea and the sky, blue is a colour universally loved by artists. But Koreans are more deeply devoted to the colour blue since it is innate in their tradition from their royal garments to the Blue and White Porcelain made famous by Korean ceramics. It can be found in the works by Nam Kwan and Rhee Seund-Ja, who are widely recognised as pioneers of Korean abstract art along with Kim Whan-Ki. It is also the primary colour in the famous series, From Point and Line by Lee Ufan, one of the most renowned second generation artists of Korean abstract art. Untitled painted in 1958, epitomises Kim's pursuit of his own abstraction. It is a rather small yet significant work in Kim's artistic career, demonstrating his success in a new experiment of symbolizing the motifs through further simplifying them and placing them in completely flat colour grids. The thick brushstrokes in the painting are powerful and uncontrived, reflecting his long pursuit of the traditional Korean sensibility of preserving the natural. It is also important to notice that the small squares in the painting are the earliest hint to the basic assembly of Kim's signature style of abstract painting in the 1970s, what he called 'pointillism.'
Kim's artistic achievements are further elucidated, when compared with those of Zao Wou-Ki. Both of these key figures of modern Asian art shared a genuine native consciousness and a parallel personal trajectory. Starting from their artistic practices which were influenced by European modern art, they both reached essential levels of originality with a unique style of pure abstraction that still contained traces of their motherlands. Without any exchange between them, their evolution as artists followed parallel tracks, with both artists thinning their oils into softer washes, akin to ink, a move reinforced by their Eastern roots and imbuing a subtle grace to their works. They both lead a nomadic life from Paris to New York and imparted the harmony of East and West to modern Asian art, maintaining a rich cultural dedication to their origins. Nevertheless they broke through the linguistic barriers and the cultural chasm between East and West, further bestowing a deeper insight into their identity. Sharing a similar poetic aesthetic as Zao, Kim emphasized harmony in colour and pattern, and evoked the flowing charm of Asian ink paintings. Painting a nature of his own, Kim's works eliminated conventional representation fully after his move to America in 1963.
During his New York period from 1963 to his death in 1974, Kim explored a variety of materials and techniques, including gouache, sand mixed with oil paint, oil on newspaper, collage, and paper maché. Through his constant effort and ceaseless experiment to deconstruct and simplify forms, the artist's own approach to 'pointillism' began to appear in his works in the early 1970s. At first glance, we can easily mistake them with Western geometric abstraction. Close inspection reveals, however, that the origin of all lines and dots is that of the common shapes of mountains, trees, or little islands which can be found throughout the Korean landscape. It is crucial to understand that his lyrical paintings from the 1950s, such as the two works featured here, to his pure abstraction from the 1970s are essentially drawn from nature. His ultimate aim was to return to nature. Kim's work is nature itself, as he stated "art is not an aesthetic, philosophical, or literary theory. It just exists like sky, mountain, and stone."

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