KIM WHAN-KI (1913-1974)
KIM WHAN-KI (1913-1974)
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KIM WHAN-KI (1913-1974)

Moon on Mountain

KIM WHAN-KI (1913-1974)
Moon on Mountain
signed and dated 'whanki 64' (lower right); signed, titled, inscribed and dated ‘MOON ON MOUNTAIN 1964 Whanki New York’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
62 x 86.5 cm. (24 3⁄8 x 34 in.)
Painted in 1964
Collection of Dr Albert Green, 1990s
Collection of Lillian Green, 2021 (Thence by descent to the previous owner in 2021)
Acquired from the estate of the above by the present owner, 2021

Brought to you by

Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

"We live under a blue sky beside the blue sea; our love for simplicity and white clothes made us create blue celadon and white porcelain." Kim Whan-Ki

As one of the greatest pioneers of abstract painting in Korean modern art history, Kim Whan-Ki is widely known as a painter who epitomized the archetype of Korean aesthetics, synthesizing aesthetics and philosophy to articulate the essence of nature through art. Featured here, Moon on Mountain painted in 1964 exemplifies Kim’s signature blue palette. Evoking the sea and the sky, it illustrates why the artist, with his profound desire to marry art and nature, developed such a strong affinity towards the colour. It is crucial to understand that his lyrical paintings from the 1950s to his abstraction from the 1960s such as Moon on Mountain and pointillism works 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.”

Like many other modern Korean artists, Kim first encountered European abstraction in Japan. Under Japanese academicism, he delved into Cubism and Fauvism. While freeing his creative spirit and profoundly extending his artistic capacity under this new autonomy, Kim began his artistic investigations with varied traditional motifs and natural landscapes. As described in his poetic notation, “round sky, round jar/blue sky, white jar they are surely one pair,” (Kim W., quoted in Yun Nanji’s essay “Modern Literary Painter Who Sang about Nature”, Kim Whanki, Gyeonggi-do, 2012, p. 40) nature and tradition were equivalent to him in their potential to spark inspiration. As Moon on Mountain displays, Kim’s philosophy that art should be drawn from nature and aim to return to nature became more and more mature. In 1956, Kim left Korea for Paris to gain direct exposure to European art and to develop his own visual language by learning from the masters. Ironically, his affection for Korean motifs grew stronger after arriving in Paris and he continued to explore traditional imagery and landscapes, eventually schematizing them with simplified outlines and vibrant planes of colour. During the three years that he spent as a foreigner in Paris, Kim devoted himself to the difficult question of how to embrace mainstream European culture, while still adhering to his own experiences. In this lifelong journey of artistic and personal development, Kim consistently rooted his identity in the traditional culture and natural landscapes of his motherland, as he sought new forms of inspiration.

During his stay in Paris, Kim’s signature blue palette began to dominate his canvas. 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 celadon. His experimentation with a traditional blue palette and abstraction of various Korean motifs gets profoundly matured during his New York period as exemplified by Moon on Mountain. In this work, Kim described the subjects with simplified lines in the monotone of blue background. Despite such reserved lines and colour, the canvas is mesmerizingly filled with vitality of nature. Painting a nature of his own, Kim’s works gradually eliminated conventional representation after his move to America in 1963 until his death in 1974.

Starting from his artistic practice which was influenced by European modernism, Kim reached essential levels of originality with a unique style of pure abstraction that still contained traces of his mother land. As a masterpiece from 1971 displays, Kim thins his oil into softer washes, akin to ink, a move reinforced by his Eastern root, imbuing a subtle grace to his work. Kim created the smudging effect that represents Korean art with the use of oil paints, the symbol of Western art. Beginning with the colours and subjects of Korea and its landscape, Kim finally sought a place where “the most Korean style is the most international style” like his well-known phrase.

As French art critic Pierre Courthion once said “Whan-Ki’s work, like nature, is more open, one can always go in, try and go further in his formulation and comprehension,” Kim approached the issue of space by following the footsteps of the Eastern landscape painters - the space in the painting is considered to be infinitely large. This gives the visual forms an extra dimension of meaning. Artistic journey of Kim Whan-Ki’s nomadic life from Tokyo, Paris to New York imparted the harmony of East and West to modern Asian art, maintaining a rich cultural dedication on to his origin, nevertheless, breaking through the linguistic barriers and cultural chasm between East and West, further browsing a deeper insight into his identity

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