Korea, whom Clio has allowed to suffer the chronic peril of being a golden apple in the eyes of China, Russia and Japan, has also many times been bitterly divided within its own frontiers. Though exposed, in consequence, to frequent conflict and misery, the artists of "the Land of the Morning Calm" have flourished undeterred, maintaining their distinct and buoyant identity in painting, in music, and in the arts of the goldsmith, the stonecutter and the potter. Their work has been characterized by a native flair compounded of humor , gaiety, musicality, a feeling for color and a lightness of touch, elements that have shielded them from being overinfluenced by their great neighbors.
Today artists everywhere face problems germane to our century -- a great medley of ideas rush in upon them. The painter has always had to discover for himself what vehicle best suits his talents; now as the world opens out he stands as though on windy crossroads, seeking his path. This choice is, in general, easier for the Occidental, accustomed to a wide latitude of outlook, than for the Oriental, trained in a traditional discipline. Suddenly, whether he hails from the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia, Taiwan, Japan or Korea, he recognizes that he has no obligation to remain within national confines of taste, that even his public may lie abroad. The question is one of direction.
One artist who has successfully grappled with this problem is the Korean Kim Ki-chang (better known at home as Unbo), acknowledged in his own country to be its foremost contemporary Oriental painter. His "White Cloud" was painted in 1978, on silk with Indian ink, and shows the Sulak Mountains in rain and fog; rising above the mists are two great birds, symbolizing himself and his wife, Pak Naehyon, also an artist.
Kim's life has been passed in troubled times. Shortly before he was born the Yi Dynasty, having endured for over 500 years, ended and the Japanese occupied Korea. It was a period of shock, humiliation and anguish for this proud people. When at last the Japanese were forced to leave, in 1945, the affairs of the nation did not develop at all as the patriots had hoped. In 1950 the Korean war broke out, ending in the division of the land north and south.
Kim was shielded in some measure from these events, partly because of his artistic gifts, and partly because as a young boy he became totally deaf. A loving family mitigated this seeming misfortune, till now he feels that in some ways it has almost helped him. For instance, not knowing other languages, he can look at foreign art in a completely detached, independent and exclusively visual manner.
In his youth he followed the styles of the great Chinese masters of antiquity , always dear to the Koreans, who are steeped in Chinese culture. It was not till the outbreak of the Korean war, when he and his wife were living quietly by the sea, at Kunsan, that he began to open his thought to other modes and disciplines, trying to solve for himself the dichotomy of East-West painting and experimenting with the techniques of Western abstract art. He came to evolve a free fusion of various styles, while retaining his Oriental sense of form and a certain Korean subtlety of feeling. He is a well-known teacher and his lead was followed by many local artists. Versatile and prolific, he continues his search for inspiration and for a further mastery of the brush.
An abounding vitality enlivens his nature studies, which range from swarms of crabs and hosts of twittering sparrows (painted on many-folded screens), to tigers in the snow and herds of galloping, neighing horses. His landscapes are lovely, his flowers brilliant and vigorous -- in whatever style, Oriental or abstract, he employs. He takes a particular delight in the traditional Korean dances, and paints them extensively, especially the masked dancers, whose symbolism and satire are made evident by the swift strokes of his brush, pungent with wry understanding. Genre scenes, court orchestral groups, musicians and actors are animated by a flowing rhythm and grace -- the flutter of a sleeve, the tap of an upturned foot, a quick gesture. He shares the deep musical feeling of his countrymen and is so aware of music in his heart that he conveys its sense to us, whether suggested by the picture "Tolling Bell in the Early Morning," by the thundering beat of horses' hoofs, or the cry of birds of prey.
His coloring is part of another national trait: with him it is sometimes bold and brilliant, or very subtle, with soft ochres, greens, ivories and grays. This ability is shown to advantage in his street scenes, and in his meticulous depiction of the old Korean costume, which is today fast disappearing. His illustrations of the life of Jesus, which are gentle and sympathetic, constitute , aside from the message of the story, something of a record in this way, as he puts the Gospel figures in the dress of his country.
Kim's career, with its ever-widening scope, his courage and resilience, is heartening, seeming to constitute something of an augury for a brave people struggling with a sea of troubles. He is greatly admired at home and abroad, and is helping many to discover Korea, an important, gifted little country with a unique niche in the world.