“In Korea, the sky is awfully blue, not just the sky but the East Sea, too, is so blue and pure, just like the sky. The East Sea is an ocean which can dye your white handkerchief with its blue water. Now, I’m here in Nice, on the Mediterranean, and I boarded a boat yesterday, but I found that my own East Sea was bluer and clearer. Koreans like purity, things simple and plain. We love white cloths and whiteness, and this is why we’re called the people who wear white. 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 is widely known as a painter who epitomized the archetype of Korean aesthetics. Kim’s nomadic life from Korea, Japan, France then finally to America embodies his endless quest to develop abstract painting style of his own. Like many other modern Korean artists, Kim first studied Western abstract art in Japan, where he reflected upon European geometric abstract art. 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, 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. His way of depicting nature was to extract from motifs such as clouds and cranes inlaid in Korean ceramic, or subject matters of literary painting, specifically plum blossoms, 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 schematizing them with simplified outlines and vibrant colour fields (Fig. 1). Untitled (Lot 1) featured here, is a great example to represent his artistic achievements in Paris. The work painted in 1958 illustrates how Kim combined quintessential Korean motifs and simplified them. It is from 1956 when he arrived in Paris that Kim’s signature blue palette began to appear as in the work. 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. His experimentation with a traditional blue palette and various Korean motifs is also epitomized by Untitled (Lot 2) painted circa 1969-1970.
Painting a nature of his own, Kim's works eliminated conventional representation fully after his move to America in 1963 until his death in 1974. Starting from his artistic practice which was influenced by European modern art, 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 (Fig. 2) 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 colors 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. It is crucial to understand that his lyrical paintings from the 1950s (Fig.3) to his pure abstraction from the 1960s and 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."