At 20 years old, Kim Whan-Ki entered the Creative Arts programme at Nihon University. During his time in Japan, he once studied under the tutelage of Tsuhuharu Foujita and Seji Togo. Since the Taisho period in the early 20th century, Japan had been importing the Western Modernism movement. Such progressive artistic atmosphere attracted Korean artists, such as Kim Whan-Ki, Yu Yong-Guk, and Yi Kyu-sang, who were studying in Japan at the time. Kim returned to Seoul in 1937 and delved further into the study of abstract art. After immersing himself in the art circles in Paris and New York, he gradually established a unique visual vocabulary of his own. Painted in 1956, both Montagne Bleue (Blue Mountain) (Lot 7) and Montagne (Mountain) (Lot 8) are pivotal pieces that mark the beginning of Kim's Paris period (1956-1959). Using the Korean cultural elements from celadon, white porcelain, and traditional landscape paintings as the foundation, the artist infused the lines, colours, and spatial concept of Western abstract art in his works.
CONTRADICTION AND HARMONY
Two of the masters of Western abstraction- Wassily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian-took dramatically different directions in their abstract visual languages: the lyrical abstraction of Kandinsky has an unbridled improvisation quality. Its imageries are vibrantly coloured and full of emotional tension (Fig. 1). On the other hand, the geometric abstraction of Mondrian are dominated by straight lines, square shapes, and primary colours that express a supreme sense of rational order (Fig. 2). As a nomadic painter who spent half of his life away from home, Kim Whan-Ki had the exceptional perspective of a transient that enabled him to observe and savour the nuances of Western art.
The lines in Montagne Bleue (Blue Mountain) have an unparalleled agility: the jagged outlines of the mountains are accompanied by two blooming circles. Bracketing the painting on the two sides like foliage, their delicate appearance bestow life onto the picture. The repeated black brushstrokes that delineate the mountains have a fortitude that defies the rectangular shape of the canvas. The visual interplay between these forceful lines and the geometric shapes forms a symbiotic relationship that sets the picture in perpetual motion. The infinitely varying line-weight gives the brushstroke an expressive life force that is reminiscent of Kandinsky's organic treatment. Using bold lines to divide up the picture plane and geometric shapes to reconcile with the poetic aspect of the painting, it achieves a perfect balance between the two contrasting elements of lyrical abstraction and geometric abstraction.
Lines and geometric shapes have always been the essence of abstract painting. The picture plane begins with lines - such lines mediate the relationships between geometric shapes and their positions. Finally, by highlighting the different characteristics within the imageries, a coherent structure is accomplished. In the painting Montagne (Mountain), not only does it mark the beginning of Kim Whan-Ki's extensive use of blue hues that began to evolve when he was in Paris, it also showcases the immense tension as the result of the masterful placement of the three geometric shapes. The vessels placed together on the lower half of the painting and the circle above work together to stretch the sense of dimension and depth in the painting. At the same time, this placement compresses all the elements onto the same plane, thus focusing the viewers' attention on the interaction between the elements. By directly manipulating the spatial relationship within the painting, a strong sense of unity is achieved through the equilibrium of energy. The judicious uses of line and flat geometric shapes not only conflate the interface, it also declares the aesthetics of visual succinctness.
French art critic Pierre Courthion once said 'Whan-Ki's work, like nature, is more open, one can always go in, try and go further in his formulation and comprehension.' Despite having dramatically different approaches in abstraction, the commonality that Kandinsky and Mondrian share is that the work is most often an end in itself. The Western theory in composition champions the idea of delineating space with brushstrokes. On the contrary, Kim Whan-Ki approached the issue of space by following the footsteps of the Eastern landscape painters - the space in the painting is considered to be infinitely large. This gives the visual forms an extra dimension of meaning (Fig. 3). Kim Whan-Ki's cosmology and personal cultivation are the basis of his artistic endeavor, and it is apparent that his understanding of nature gives his paintings a breath-taking vastness that is in complete harmony with the universe.