Calligraphy outside the lines

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Calligraphy outside the lines

He has been called a hidden jewel of Korean calligraphy.
For generations, classic Korean calligraphers won fame through national competitions and thrived with public exhibitions. They become popular by inheriting the style of their predecessors and adhering to the norms of the times.
But not Kim Gwang-eop, also known as Unyeo, an honorific title endowed to prominent figures.
Kim Gwang-eop’s works incorporate prose- and poem-like calligraphy based on ancient pictograms and graphic elements created by woodblock prints and freestyle brush painting. The result was considered “too avant garde” or “extreme” according to the standard of his day (1906-1976), but now they have become a priceless collection of astounding works.
“The World of Kim Gwang-eop: The Nirvana of Letters,” on display at the Seoul Arts Center in Seocho-dong, is the premiere posthumous exhibition of more than 240 works by the long-unknown calligrapher, who had never participated in competitions or sold his creations while alive. Unyeo’s works were made as personal gifts or donations only.
Unyeo distanced himself from the mainstream calligraphy style dictated by pundits and scholars, according to the show’s curator Lee Dong-kook. Unyeo’s works were occasionally shown in tea salons by a close circle of friends and followers in Busan, where he lived most of his life.
The Pyeongyang-born Unyeo earned a degree in ophthalmology from Seoul University’s Medical School. With the Korea War in the 1950s, he settled in the country’s southernmost city of Busan. There, he opened a studio to pursue his passion in calligraphy.
In 1956 he encountered a celebrated Buddhist monk and painter, the Venerable Seokjeong, who became Unyeo’s critic, soul mate and mentor for the next 20 years. Their discourse about philosophy and art became the source of inspiration for the calligrapher, and continued after Unyeo moved to Los Angeles in 1973.
Many of the writings and paintings being exhibited are, in fact, correspondences between the calligrapher and the monk. What mesmerizes critics today is that Unyeo, a devout Christian, was, in a true sense, a free man, who discussed through his artistic medium his metaphysical understanding of truth that transcended society, religion and time, and that his works were a unique taoistic vision created by a devout Christian.
As an avid collector of ancient tiles that had originated in ancient China, he sought artistic inspiration from pictograms that flourished in China’s Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.) and Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220). The graphically minimal yet highly symbolic images were casually expressed with his personal sense of humor and satire. Throughout his life, Unyeo was almost obsessed with the highly abstract effect of woodblock prints, which artistically accompanied his brush writings.
In calligraphy, he recomposed the proportion of letters by distorting and replacing the spaces and fragments of the letters, and by controlling the chiaroscuro of the ink and brushstroke. For example, in a Chinese character meaning “ocean,” the component meaning “water” is removed from the left and placed in the bottom, but then transfigured for new balance.
He dared to minimalize a broad concept with only dots or magnified certain segments out of proportion to create an entirely new proportion. In each work, there is a contrast, or what Mr. Lee, the curator, calls “a balance of extreme” ― straight versus curved lines, space versus form, and poetry versus painting. The innovative style and composition in Oriental calligraphy was to create a cross between a letter and a painting, abstract art and poetry, an ingenious harmony of ancient-meets-modern.
In “Dharma Crosses the Ocean on a Leaf,” as shown left, Unyeo drew the figure of Dharma as if he writes letters.
“Unyeo’s works are as if you’re looking at the evolution of letters and paintings in the modern times,” Mr. Lee said. “He reinterpreted and personalized the ancient formula so successfully in his works, which are being rediscovered and reevaluated these days.”
The works, either owned privately or by Tongdosa Temple in South Gyeongsang province, include pictograms derived from ancient Chinese roof tiles, large letter writing, woodblock prints, horizontal and vertical writings and paintings.
Choi Sun-woo (1916-1984), the former director of the National Museum of Korea, was one of a few critics who followed and admired Unyeo’s works. “His life as an artist is comparable with a spiritual prayer of a Taoist hermit,” Mr. Choi wrote about Unyeo’s lifetime achievements. “His paintings or prints were a heritage left behind by a true free man completely devoid of worldly control and greed.”

by Ines Cho

“The World of Kim Gwang-eop” is at the Seoul Arts Center until July 13. Admission is 3,000 won ($2.50) or 1,000 won for students. Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, except for July 7. For more information, call (02) 580-1511 or visit the Web site at
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