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(Yonhap Feature) The Wind and the Sea: Jeju artist Byun Shi-ji

All News 09:00 January 21, 2011

By Anne Hilty
Contributing Writer

Jeju Island, South Korea, Jan. 21 (Yonhap) - Two elements dominate the works of world-renowned Korean artist Byun Shi-ji: the sea that appears in nearly all of his paintings of the past three decades and the wind, evidenced in the sway of the trees, the bending grass, the shimmering light.

The Jeju-born painter says that he thinks deeply about the sea when painting it, and that wind is an undeniably defining aspect of the subtropical island, a popular vacation spot for Korean and foreign tourists.

Sometimes called the "artist of the storm," Byun cites Ernest Hemingway's novel, "The Old Man and The Sea," as one of his favorites. He considers the nature of Jeju to be the "mother" of his work.

"The natural beauty of Jeju gives me deep emotion with simplicity and purity," he says. "The liveliness of the Jeju sea is the essence of my creativity."

Byun, 86, is arguably one of the best-known contemporary Korean painters. Two of his paintings were chosen in 2007 for a 10-year exhibit in the U.S. Smithsonian's new Korea Gallery, an honor bestowed upon only one other living Korean artist.

When he was six, Byun and his family moved to Osaka, Japan, where he grew up and graduated from Osaka Fine Arts School and became a student of Terauchi Manjiro in Tokyo. There he gained early fame as the youngest ever to win the Grand Prize of the Kofukai exhibition, in which he has continued to participate.

He returned to Korea in 1957, living first in Seoul for nearly two decades where he taught at Seoul National University and further developed his art. He married and created a family with artist Lee Hak-sook.

In 1975, Byun returned to his hometown on Jeju. For the sake of his wife's career and family ties, she and their children remained in Seoul, where they reside to this day.

Byun readily admits to a deep loneliness and a longtime struggle with depression, but also states with certainty that as an artist he was compelled to return to Jeju, to create art inspired by the island and to live out his days in the place of his birth.

"My own re-establishment in Jeju," he has said, "enabled me to better understand the sea and discover myself, and has provided the quiet spaciousness that I needed to concentrate and to develop my creativity."

Byun's early works included landscapes and portraits, and heralded his training in classicist, realist and impressionist schools of art. It wasn't until he returned to Jeju, however, that his work matured into his own unique style, including traditional 'Oriental' aspects such as calligraphic black ink on handmade paper, monochromatic and minimalist echoes of his early training in Japan, and a Western use of flow and light that reflect a visit to Europe and his love for the work of Vincent Van Gogh.

Primarily painting in oils, he has also explored the use of India ink as well as drawing and sculpture. While in his early Jeju years he was inclined toward large canvases, he has moved to increasingly smaller works of late.

The themes of Byun's Jeju paintings, for which he is most well-known, center on a solitary man with few material possessions, often depicting the relationship between the man and his horse, and always with a view of human and nature as one.

"Mankind cannot control nature," he says. "In fact, mankind is one of the elements of nature. If mankind tampers with nature, serious consequences ensue."

The artist has often been asked if the man in his paintings is meant as self-portrait, and has remained enigmatic in his response.

The solitary figure, he indicates, symbolizes the universal quest to transcend suffering and loneliness. He emphasized the value that he places on solitude.

Secondary themes in Byun's Jeju works include the 'haenyeo' or diving women, the crow and the thatched cottages of traditional Jeju village life. He liberally uses symbols of hardship, political repression, the struggle for democracy and hope.

"Jeju residents are melancholic," he muses, "but diligently face challenges."

One of Byun's more recent paintings, entitled, "One Dot" (2005), depicts an infinitesimal black boat on an ochre background of wind, sea and light. It has prompted local curator Jeon Eun-ja to note that the artist is "slowly removing the frame."

"'One Dot' simplifies Jeju's nature," the artist, who passionately reads books on philosophy, reflects. "The real beginning starts again at this point."

In the past few years, Byun and his art have received particular attention. In 2006, his work was featured in a special concert of the KBS Symphony Orchestra, "Light and Wind of Jeju and Byun Shi-Ji".

The following year, KBS-Jeju filmed a documentary of the artist's life. Last year, the broadcasting company again honored him as part of their 60th Anniversary Commemoration, sponsoring an exhibition of his work at the Jeju Museum of Art (http://jmoa.jeju.go.kr/) and a corresponding hardbound photo book. The exhibition has been extended through the end of this month.

Byun's two paintings on display at the Smithsonian are representative of his Jeju works. One painting, entitled "Boisterous Dance," depicts a lone male figure in a traditional Jeju house, with a horse nearby and a swirling flock of crows in the sky. The birds, according to the artist, are a traditional Jeju symbol of both doom and hope.

The other work, titled "Leaving Along the Path Like This," includes the same figures of a lone man and horse, walking along a path away from the traditional house, a stand of pine trees nearby and the sea in the background. In Korea, including Jeju, the pine tree symbolizes longevity; Byun uses it to indicate the endurance of Jeju people.

Carole Neves, a director at the Smithsonian, refers to Byun's work as "exhilarating" and "brilliant." In 2009, during her first visit to Jeju, she wrote, "I am fortunate to have a few drawings by the greatest living treasure of Korea."

The artist has shown his paintings in numerous galleries, museums and special exhibitions over the years. He modestly declines to share information about the estimated value or sale of his works.

Korean art critics have typically praised Byun's work over the years, as did their counterparts in Japan before them.

"Byun's pictures refreshed my heart," wrote critic Oh Kwang Soo, "after its having been in indigestion from conservative realist pictures."

"Among the elder painters, he is one of the most friendly men and I love his art the most," critic Won Dong Seok recorded. "Localism is recognized, not by the limited color and illiberality, but by recreation and rediscovery of aboriginal emotion."

"His native canvas, consisting of pure forms, does not give out any unnatural elements," critic Lee Ku-yol has said. "As time goes by, his artistic inclination seizes me with its uniqueness."

While he admits to feeling his age of late and gives a visual impression of a somewhat feeble elderly man, Byun's spirit is strong and he continues to create three to four paintings per year.

Many of his works are housed in the Kidang Art Museum in Jeju (http://www.a-r-t.net/art/), where he is the honorary curator of the Byun Shi-Ji Special Hall opened in 2006. .

The artist intends to give more than 500 paintings - his life's work - to a new museum being planned in his honor.

"While I am alive, my paintings belong to me," he states, indicating that he found it comforting to be surrounded by them. "But after I am gone, they must belong to the people of Jeju."

Asked how he would like to be remembered, the artist humbly suggested that until the last moment, he simply lived ... like a dot on the landscape, neither significant nor unique, making a small contribution to the world.


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