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The Godfather of Dansaekhwa: Whanki Kim

Dansaekwha (the Korean word for monochrome) would not have been prevalent in Korea during the early 70s if it were not for one pioneer painter: Whanki Kim. Born into a wealthy farming family in the South Jeolla Province, he went against his father’s wishes by secretly travelling to Japan and learning art at Nihon University. In his university years, he was passionate about the works of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. His mentors, Togo Seiji and Fujita Tsuguji, both of whom rippled the waves of Cubism and Futurism in Japan, furthered his interest in abstract art. Returning to Korea, he began to explore traditional Korean motifs such as peonies, cranes, or carps and was especially inspired by pottery from the Joseon (1392-1897) and the Goryeo (918-1392) dynasties. As part of the New Realists group, composed of other painters such as Yoo Young-Kuk and Lee Gyu-Sang, Kim delved into the poetic nature of Korean aesthetics.


But it was really his move to New York in 1963 that solidified his personal style of working with abstract dots that form linear horizontals, verticals, diagonal arrangements and different shapes. Although these dots may seem like a coincidence, they are in fact inspired by motifs from Korean landscapes, particularly mountains, which form approximately seventy percent of the country’s landscape. While his earlier works are vibrant with bright colours, in his later years, he explores his love for the colour blue, so much so that experts now refer to his signature blue-greyish colour as the “Whanki Blue”.


Take Kim’s 10-VIII-70 #185 from the ‘Where, In What Form, Shall We Meet Again’ series. Tens of thousands of separate brush strokes make up the artwork, all different shades of blue that he has mixed to highlight the different ways light touches upon the strokes. As an expatriate myself, I can imagine Kim bending over to paint each stroke, thinking about the people and places that he has left behind in his homeland. Although he was criticised in his time for reinterpreting Korean traditional motifs in his own way, each stroke is a journey to find his identity, walking the viewer throughout Korean history whether that be under Japanese rule or during the division of Korea. There is something entrancing about the uneven dots that exist on the surface without any specific orderly pattern, or design, but still leave us with a sense of calm. He writes in his diary, ‘I paint dots while I think of Seoul, of a thousand things. My painting reflects my soul. My universe of dots.’


In addition to being an artist, he also wrote poems under the pen name “Suhwa”, and he sought for his paintings to have a poetic effect on viewers. While studying in Paris, he wrote in his journal, “What I have felt since arriving here is a poetic spirit. Art, I think, should contain songs […] There are powerful songs in the works of great masters.” Especially during these uncertain times, Kim’s pictures continue to soothe us and remind us that hope is just around the corner.

[Image: Whanki Kim, Untitled
Image via Wikimedia Commons]