An idea knowing no boundaries in the world
These illustrations, taken from the book The Life of Jesus were painted in the early fifties by the Korean artist, Kim Ki-chang when he was a refugee in the south and the country torn apart by war. Already a successful painter, this period of enforced seclusion proved of great significance to him both artistically and spiritually for it was here that he took up the work of portraying the Gospels.
The idea had been suggested to him some time before by an American missionary , who, realizing Kim's gift for genre painting, had urged him to illustrate the New Testament in this style. At that point however the artist was preoccupied with other affairs, and did not pursue this advice. He had long been a Christian through the influence of his devout mother who used to take him to church with her when he was a child. When he was about seven he was shown a picture postcard of Jesus and never forgot his delight in it, nor his resolve to one day execute such ''lovely paintings'' himself. Afterwards he became familiar with Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress which had been translated into Korean in 1894 and illustrated by a local artist.
Now, when he was living in Kunsan, by the sea, the war and its implications heavy upon him, he decided to put everything else aside and throw himself heart and soul into this work. He thought constantly of Jesus, he says, dreaming of him, feeling himself ''haunted'' by him, and many times his room seemed to him to be ''overflowing with light.''
He believed that what Korea was enduring had certain parallels with the story he sought to convey, and hence tried to ''superimpose the life of Jesus on the Korean experience.'' Christianity had been known in the country for two centuries, surviving fierce persecutions. It demanded great courage to be a Christian there in the old days; between 1791 and 1873 thousands of Koreans had been martyred for their faith. Kim saw this as a fight for the freedom of religion and wanted to incorporate into his painting some hint of their bravery, and to show ''the great sacrifice and love of the Christian church.''
Once the work had begun, everything flowed together for him. The village where he was living, with its rustic houses and country people provided him with the models he needed. He had been obliged to leave most of his brushes behind in Seoul, and he had no paint, but the Mayor of Seoul managed to get him what he needed from Japan. He was familiar with every detail of the old Korean costume, in which he dressed his characters, and we are assured that his depiction is absolutely accurate. The Bible had never before been illustrated in Korea in this manner, but the artist insists that though he felt it right to do it as he has, his conviction that Jesus is a universal figure, appealing to every nationality and race, is emphasized above all.
He did over thirty sketches for the book. At first he had planned twenty-nine , but a German missionary who visited him and saw them told him that the resurrection must be included. Kim Ki-chang accordingly painted Jesus walking among flowering peach trees.
In translating this tremendous theme his style is gentle and mild, the colors soft - pale grays, light blues and fawns, a touch of red. The personages, rather lightly brushed in, are portrayed with restraint, dignity and grace. To the westerner the pictures may seem, at first, slight though agreeable, but one must remember that much of the art of China, Korea and Japan is distinguished by its deliberate understatement, its reserve, its implications.
This approach accords with a Ch'an (or Zen) Buddhist canon, very familiar to the Oriental viewer, which states: ''To see horns behind a hedge and know at once that they are buffalo's; in one corner to make the nature of the other three clear . . . that is like daily bread for the disciples of Ch'an.'' Many great Southern Sung artists in China, particularly the famous Ma Yuan, had employed this principle, so that everyone knew exactly what lay behind it.
Jesus walking the wave and saving Peter presents us with a striking delineation of a turbulent sea, conceived very much as the Japanese would have it. The contrast between the storm and the calm assurance of Jesus, and his strength, compared with Peter's distress, is very marked. In the Entry into Jerusalem we have a delightful picture of an old walled Korean town with its gates and the heavy, overhanging eaves of the great buildings, while the throng is a splendid example of Kim's mastery of genre painting. The most beautiful picture of them all is perhaps the Flight into Egypt, with the old tree on the left, and on the right the donkey daintily picking its way over uneven ground under a crescent moon. It is a delicate, moving scene, imparting a sense of holiness. The book is without doubt a great achievement.