Family stays faithful to artist’s visionPark Bo-hyun remembers how her artist father, Zi-hong, was so devoted to his work that he lost track of his environment.
As he spent hours in his atelier, he would absentmindedly reach out to grab his cigarette. One day, Ms. Park put away his cigarette and ashtray and left a bowl of snacks in the hope that he’d stop smoking.
The next day in the atelier, she watched her father grab a snack and put it in his mouth, not realizing that it wasn’t a cigarette.
“It was as if all these gestures that were taking place while he worked were happening in his unconscious state,” says Ms. Park. “He just swept away all his mental drifting through his works. Nothing else seemed to matter.”
Zi-hong’s offspring show the same kind of devotion to their father’s art and his vision, so much so that they would rather be poor than treat his work as a mere commodity to be bought and sold, even though the family is struggling financially.
Since the artist’s death in 1991 at the age of 75, the family has kept most of his paintings at home, about 500 in total. The family wanted to set up a museum in Gyeongju, Zi-hong’s hometown, where his artistic sensibility was heavily rooted. He had already purchased land there, about 10,000 pyeong (17,000 square meters). That plan had to be abandoned, however, because artist’s eldest son and Ms. Park had health problems, and the family had to sell the property to pay the medical bills.
The eldest son died three years ago, at the age of 54 of a kidney disease. Now Ms. Park, whose nerve disorder has left her in a wheelchair, her mother and her younger brother, a philosophy professor at Kyunghee University, are carefully trying to find a way to sell the artist’s work to support themselves.
The family hasn’t given up hope of finding a permanent home for his work, as they continue to search for a museum that will house the complete collection of Zi-hong’s are. If that happens, Ms. Park says the family is willing to practically give away the art, though it would impose a great financial burden on them.
Selling Zi-hong’s art hasn’t been an easy task either, as the family is avoiding commercial channels such as galleries or professional dealers. “We don’t think holding onto his works is the best way,” says Ms. Park, who is also an artist. “But we are afraid that we might carelessly sell away his works and damage his reputation.”
It also doesn’t help that many of the artist’s works are being reproduced by black marketers outside of Seoul, debasing the value of the artist’s originals.
As for the family, there seems to be a tinge of guilt as well as they attempt to sell his work. Ms. Park is concerned that the family’s personal problems might draw unnecessary sympathy from people and divert the public’s attention from her father’s art.
Zi-hong Park swayed the world of Korean painting while he was alive. Some of the most respected art critics and artists of the modern era have raved about his work. Whanki Kim, a renowned painter, described how Zi-hong’s paintings conveyed the deep, indigenous roots of his home. Gu Sang, a veteran poet, called Zi-hong an artist who practiced art as meditation.
Thomas Kerry, director of the U.S. Cultural Center of Korea in the 1950s, called the artist “one of the most original Korean painters” who adheres to complex subject matters.
Paul Tilich, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University, wrote in a review for the Los Angeles Times in 1959 that Zi-hong’s images implied an inclusive epitome of the universe that could only be seen with the eyes of one’s mind.
“When I saw his paintings for the first time all I could see was ... helpless blackness,” he wrote after the artist’s private exhibition in Los Angeles. “For a minute, I tried to calm my breath sitting quiet on the chair. At that moment, I could perceive how his mystic spiritual experience was expressed into the work.”
Despite the unreserved praise for the artist’s work, Zi-hong was always on the outside of Korean mainstream art circles, mostly because of his natural distaste for secular ambition and his lack of effort to actively promote his paintings through commercial galleries for fear of cheapening his art.
He also didn’t go through proper art training in Korea ― he studied traditional painting in China and Japan ― which hindered him in a field that heavily relies on academic connections and networks. The artist, however, was received with much enthusiasm abroad and among the local critics who embraced experimental art.
Zi-hong’s conceptual interest seems to lie greatly in spiritual subjects. At one point, the artist was baptized a Catholic, though his paintings often seem to possess greater meaning outside of Christian themes, expressing a hybrid of spirituality.
His earlier paintings even embody signs of shamanist ideals that borrow from traditional folk tales and ancient myths. In the 1960s, his interest gradually turned to re-creating images of Buddha through a series of abstracts. The artist tried to distort the natural image of Buddha by stretching, bending or breaking up shapes, giving unlikely textures to colors and using other technical strategies like incorporating text.
In one of his traditional ink paintings on a scroll, he has the hands of the Virgin Mary resembling a common posture of Buddha. He also has a set of shocking images of Mary as an Asian woman in a traditional Korean costume.
Another painting depicts Mary and the baby Jesus surrounded by a web of bold strokes of black ink, as if to suggest a heavenly fate for the mother and the son. The painting is displayed in the basement chapel of Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul. Some of Zi-hong’s highly spiritual works have been either sold or donated to Catholic monasteries and Buddhist temples.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, when Zi-hong was at his most prolific and was holding international exhibitions, he concentrated on a series of abstracts using traditional black ink. The work he produced during those years are iconic, incorporating bold experiments influenced by Western traditions.
Some of his works, “Human” and “Extreme Distance” for example, demonstrate the typical model of Western formalism while employing strategies used in traditional ink paintings.
A quick glance at these two paintings reveals an abstract imagery, describing a form that is irregular or organic, often derived from shapes found in nature. Yet upon a closer look, it’s clear that the artist is playing around with the idea of volume and the depth of field.
In “Extreme Distance,” he has intricately laid out a series of thin strings throughout the picture, so that the canvas presents an entirely different image depending on where the viewer stands. This innovative configuration reflects the artist’s desire to go beyond the formalist tradition within art while remaining rooted to two-dimensionality.
While the artist continued switching styles, insisting that every piece of artwork deserved a different way of expression, the traditionalists within the field devalued his work. They interpreted Zi-hong’s experiments as an inability to develop a single style. It is well known, however, that an artwork derives its originality from the variety of the styles used.
“Through his paintings, I feel a sense of sublimation and exaltation to transcend this everyday life to the universe where I feel at home,” says Shin Myung-A, a critic of literature and art. “In the letter painting ‘A Birth,’ we observe a kind of a seed bursting forth to the universe in forms and colors so joyous and profuse that the spectator feels the shock of the encounter with the expansive universe.”
Ms. Shin quotes the famous theorist Jacques Lacan, who said the notion of “the real,” which goes beyond our ordinary perception, can only be encountered by deviations from normal forms of writing: “It is no wonder that in the works of the greatest artist, we witness foreign letters of this world that delineate the various facets of the universe.”
by Park Soo-mee
Zi-hong’s art can be seen at www.zihong.co.kr.