Stories of Genius Painters in the History of Korea: Introduction to Korean Art (Part 1)

If somebody asks you of who your favorite artist is, what would be your answer? Maybe Warhol, Lembrandt, Da Vinci or Monet… There must be many names that have come up in your mind. However, I bet nobody has thought of Korean artists. It is such a pity that Korean art remains to be an undisclosed area. Only a small number of people knows the beauty of Korean art and the interesting stories behind it. Here, I will introduce you to the world of Korean art in three serial articles – I will start the first article with telling you the hidden stories of Korean artists in history of Korea.
There would be nobody who has not heard of Van Gogh. The famous artist who had cut his own ear, is nowadays mentioned as a good example of a crazy genius. There was also a crazy genius in Joseon, who was called Choi Buk (최북). However, even Korean students would tilt their heads when they hear the name. Choi Buk was the gifted artist who had poked his own eye. Vincent Van Gogh once said, “It is only too true that a lot of artists are mentally ill- it’s a life which, to put it mildly, makes one an outsider. I’m all right when I completely immerse myself in work, but I’ll always remain half crazy.” Choi also categorized himself as a lunatic and attributed his craziness to “too intact and moderate world”. Choi had the biggest ego as an artist even when he was starving to death. He never groveled to anyone or for anything. When a rich high official had come to Choi and asked him to draw a nice picture with his nose in the air, Choi had drawn the rubbish and handed it over acting as if it were an important masterpiece. The ignorant official did not sense a thing at the moment and later on let himself got ridiculed by his colleagues for what Choi had drawn for him.

Choi Buk loved drinking as much as he loved drawing. It was very difficult to find him sober, and he was extremely poor that he had to draw all day long just to have one meal a day. One day, he was asked to draw for one powerful official’s family. Choi could not refuse the request, so wielded his brush to draw a painting. While he was drawing, the arrogant official assumed an air and nitpicked on Choi’s painting. At the very moment, Choi stood up and poked his own eye, saying “Should I be taught by such a fellow as you.” Choi after that incident had to live with one eye but still was the master of Korean landscape painting. You can feel the old man who did not have any worldly cares in his painting. His style of brushing is intense and strong and his painting gives the sense of freedom to us. It is such a pity that Van Gogh who shot himself to death has been reborn so many times in contemporary artworks and exhibitions while Choi Buk who starved for ten days to death in the cold winter cannot be found anywhere in a mere art book.

However, not every artist has lived the tough life as Choi Buk. There was a painter named Sol-go (솔거) in Korea, whom almost every Korean must have heard of once in one’s life. Sol-go was a so-called ‘unearthly painter’ who drew everything so alike with the reality that people cannot tell which is which. He was a talented painter who knew how to draw from his birth. Even before he turned into three, he already drew better than just a normal adult. At the age of eighteen, he drew the picture that people could not see the difference between reality and his drawing. His paintings even deluded animals. For example, the pine tree painting, the most famous artwork of his, looked realistic enough to joke a bird. Birds like sparrows, kites and magpies flied into the painting in mistake. The story tells us that there were always bodies of fainted birds which had bumped their heads and fell off, under Sol-go’s pine tree painting. This story must have made you yearn for a sight of his painting but unfortunately any of Solgo’s paintings remain until today. However, you can imagine how they may have been as there are many paintings attributed to Solgo’s paintings. Sol-go never took advantage of his talent. He could have earned a lot of money capitalizing on his painting ability, but he rather chose a life of freedom; he drew in his command. His paintings and his life are still are passed down in the adulation of many Koreans until these days.

Beside from Sol-go, there was another man who knew how to infuse a life into a mere painting. His name was Kim Myeong Guk, the favorite artist of the king In-Jo in Joseon Dynasty. The paintings of Kim Myeong Guk are still appraised highly for his tough but strong brushing. Especially Japanese has been the fervent fan of Kim. It is written in history that Japanese high officials came to Joseon to ask Kim to sell his paintings. There is a story of Kim when he visited Japan as a Tongsinsa(통신사), the cultural diplomat at that time. One affluent official offered Kim a great amount of gold for one painting on his wall. Kim said yes but did not start drawing right away, instead he asked for a bowl of alcohol. Kim started drinking until his face got blushed due to too much drinking and at the same time the Japanese official’s face got red too due to his rude attitude. Just the moment the official was going to say something, Kim grabbed his brush and started to draw on the wall. One touch of his brush created a beautiful mountain and another touch created birds on the wall. The finished painting was such a masterpiece that the Japanese could not say a word but drop his jaw. One more interesting fact is that the Japanese official has earned quite a great deal of money enough to cover up the cost of painting by getting a coin for one view from people. The picture below is ‘Dalmado’, one of the most famous artworks of Kim.

What do you see in those pictures above? I see the lofty figure of the artists and the strong power in the paintings. This article would not be enough to show the beauty of Korean art and the talent of Korean artists in history, but I want you to at least acknowledge that there are many Korean artworks which have not received a deserved lighting in a museum and a lot of Korean artists who have been devalued than western artists.


Article by Ahran from Korea, a Junior in Business Administration

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