KIM WHAN-KI (1913-1974)
signed 'whanki' (lower right)
oil on canvas
19 x 63 cm. (7 1/2 x 24 13/16 in.)
Painted in the 1950s
Acquired directly from the artist, thence by descent to the present owner
Private Collection, France
Sale room notice
Please note Lot 9 is painted on canvas laid down on cardboard.

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Lot Essay

Kim Whan-Ki, one of the most important pioneers of abstract painting in the history of Korean modern art is widely known as a painter who epitomized the archetype of Korean aesthetics. While studying Western art in Japan, Kim always felt an urgency to find his own way to express his Korean spirit. With his return to Korea in 1953, Kim seriously began to delve into the issue of Korean aesthetics. Kim expanded his artistic experiments with varied Korean motifs, especially summoning baekja, Joseon Dynasty white porcelains, Goryeo Dynasty celadon, and traditional literati paintings. There he found a limitless inspiration in their austere and regal beauty. His interest was in capturing the poetic emotion and spirit imbued in both the naturalism and the actual nature of Korea. 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 schematizing 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.

Two marvelous oil paintings featured in an Evening Sale, are the great examples to represent his artistic achievements in Paris. Untitled (Lot 5) painted in 1958 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 simplified geometric forms, in a profoundly poetic and meditative manner. Another Untitled (Lot 9) appears to be painted in 1958 as well, as the specific composition and brushstrokes can be found from other works created in the same year. It is from 1956 when he arrived in Paris that Kim's signature blue palette began to appear and evolved into various shades of blue as in these two works. 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 Seundja, widely recognized as pioneers of Korean abstract art along with Kim Whan-Ki. It is also the primary colour in the famous series featured in an Evening Sale as well by Lee Ufan, one of the most renowned second generation artists of Korean abstract art. Both works epitomize Kim's pursuit of his own abstraction. Both are significant works 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. Sharing a similar aesthetic approach as Zao Wou-Ki, Kim emphasized harmony in colour and pattern, the flowing charm of Eastern ink paintings. 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.'

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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