Byun Shiji: A Painter of Storms (English Edition)

  • 140X220mm 188pp 2017.12.10 25,000KRW ISBN 978-89-301-0597-2

Preface to the Revised Edition

This book is a collection of writings about Byun Shiji, which are based on my encounters and conversations with him at his exhibitions and atelier, as well as at various locations on Jeju Island. It may seem a little out of the ordinary that such a book would come from an art world outsider. Nevertheless, these writings are a modest dedication to a great painter as well as a line of inquiry posed to the art community, which has been swamped by contrived Western-style modernism and stubborn traditionalism.

Byun Shiji passed away in June of 2013. It happened so suddenly, and to a man whose life embodied the pilgrimage of a truly great artist, beginning with receiving the highest prize from the Kofukai Exhibition (光風会展) at the age of twenty-two, and reaching major milestones, such as his decision to return to Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War and ultimately settle down in Jeju Island. Having been displayed permanently for ten years at the Smithsonian Museum in the United States, his two paintings have recently been returned to his hometown in Korea. Plans are now underway to hold more than 500 paintings at a museum and memorial house.
As I prepare the preface article, I am constantly reminded of the kindness of the great painter, who took time to explain his works to me in detail. For this second edition, I added a chronology of events and other related materials, and changed some of the photographs. I extend my appreciation to the editors at the Youlhwadang Publishers for doing a splendid job with my humble manuscript.

Summer of 2017
Soh Jongteg


Preface to the First Edition

It was in the 1980s that I first encountered Byun Shiji’s paintings, and they made a vivid impression on me. His works seemed primordial and mythical; the result of a deep insight into the desolate nature of existence that lurks under the outward phenomena of life, characterized by an exposure to the apparent starkness of nature. At the very least, the intensity of the messages that his paintings convey to me is something that no other painters could accomplish.
His paintings blend inexpressible sadness and loneliness in a peaceful manner. In a way, it may seem absurd to say that sorrow and solitude coexist in a ‘peaceful’ manner. However, images of austerity and ellipsis fill his compositions, and examples include: a seabird flying over a crooked man standing before a fishing pole under the blazing sun, appearing as if in the tilted world of a storybook illustration; and a rundown cottage, a pony facing the sea, a crow on a stone wall and a pine tree, all to be swept away by a whirlwind. He opened his world with an ocher color that blended heaven and earth, and expressed quaint, rustic beauty and energy through Oriental black-ink lines. These compositions create a primordial despair and sorrow that touch upon the roots of human existence. Just as the sweetest songs reveal the saddest thoughts, and just as the greatest dramas show the deepest struggles and defeats in tragedy, his style of revealing sadness and loneliness leads to an aesthetic pleasure that is both tranquil and peaceful. The aesthetic pleasure leads to a form of cosmic pity, which stands at the highest level of human emotion and provides an archetypal image of aesthetics in life and art.
I met Byun Shiji for the first time at a small teahouse in Insa-dong, on an autumn day of 1987. He looked at me with a youthful expression, although he was already in his sixties. The elderly painter wore a beret and held a cane in his hand. He was a man with a small frame and a genial face, and spoke with the inarticulate voice of a boy. At first, I thought his long life in Japan was to blame for his inarticulateness, but he seemed far from being an astute and worldly person. Then, at one point, he began to walk in a slantwise fashion and I reached out to support him. He lifted his cane and pointed at the bar in front of us. He smiled like a naughty boy, and I got blind drunk that night.
How does the wind and earth of a place influence the artists who grow up there? What was the meaning of Spain’s Catalonia to Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró? What about Mediterranean humidity and heliotropic plants to Albert Camus? What is the meaning of earth and wind to Jeju’s Byun Shiji? The southern scenery of Jeju Island in Byun Shiji’s paintings was something more than love for his native place or a lyrical ode to nature. He found his method and developed his philosophy from the lines, lights, and forms of Jeju. He seemed to undertake a journey into solitude and find mythic narratives within these lines, lights, and forms of Jeju. The sun, sea, winds, seagulls, storms, crows, and ponies were borrowed as motifs for an exploration of existence, rather than as mere objects of a landscape. Being deemed a painter of the provincial or of landscape poetics was not his creative raison d’être. He constantly modified, deleted, and added such motifs to represent the existential situation. His artistic pilgrimage, from Jeju to Osaka, then to Tokyo and Seoul, and finally back to Jeju, finally culminated in the discovery of an ocher color, which embodied the prima materia of his thoughts.
I met Byun Shiji many times. The first time I met him was by appointment at a teahouse in Insa-dong. I also walked into his atelier in Seogwipo City without notice. I must admit that I came to write this book from a place of ignorance, which reveals a sort of reckless bravado in my case. As an aspiring painter-turned-professor who teaches literature, I find a sense of loss for painting hidden in my curriculum vitae. I used to wander around the streets of Insa-dong after becoming tired of the monotony of daily life, or when feeling hollow inside. I would often walk along the long corridor of the exhibition hall of the Gwacheon National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, and turn away from it only after purchasing a fine art print. Whenever a painting on display reminded me of the language of my dreams, I shivered. What I like is one thing, what I know is another. Moreover, the method and level of critique can be an issue when one attempts to say something about an artist. Still, Byun Shiji’s paintings inspired me to ignore all of this. More than anything, I am afraid that this book may unintentionally add another layer of color over his artwork.
To help the readers better understand his works, I included Byun Shiji’s own writing, Art and Climate: Artist Notes on Lines, Colors, and Forms (Seoul: Youlhwadang Publishers, 1988) in the new publication. I also made small corrections to Korean expressions that were used inappropriately, a problem associated with his long-term stay in Japan. I would like to thank CEO Yi Ki-ung of Youlhwadang Publishers for approving the publication of this book. I also want to thank Won Yong-deok and Yoon Se-young for kindly providing me with information and guidance.

On an early spring day of 2000,
Soh Jongteg

Table of Contents

Preface to the Revised Edition
Preface to the First Edition

A Little Boy on Pony Back
Days of the Third Parthenon
The Kofukai Tornado
In Search for the Archetype of Korean Beauty
His Thoughts on Earthiness
Sea of the Storm


Art and Climate Byun Shiji
Chronology of Events

Soh Jongteg

was born in Gangjin, South Jeolla Province and majored in Korean literature at Korea University. As a professor of Korean modern literature and literary fiction writing, Seo taught in Hongik University and Korea University. He is now Professor Emeritus of Korea University. Creative fictions of Seo Jongtaek include “Power of Conflict” (Galdeungui Him), “Waltz” (Wonmu), “Landscape and Time” (Punggyeonggwa Shigan), “Summer of Idiots” (Baekchieui Yeoreum), “Seon Juha: An Autobiography” (Seon Juha Pyeong jeon) and “Outing” (Oechul). He has also authored academic publications, including “Modern Novels and Social Conflicts in Korea” (Hanguk Geundae Soseolgwa Sahoe Galdeung) and “A Treatise on the History of Contemporary Korean Novels” (Hanguk Hyundae Soseolsaron).

Yuhyun Catherine Park

Yuhyun Catherine Park (朴由鉉) majored English Literature at Ewha Woman’s University, received an M.A. in Interpretation at Hankook University of Foreign Studies and a Ph.D. in North Korean Studies at the University of North Korean Studies. Park is a conference interpreter with extensive experience in political science and multilateral diplomacy, including numerous posts with the UNGA, APEC, ASEAN, and ASEM.

James Maxwell Milne

James Maxwell Milne received a B.A. in English Literature from Manhattan College and is currently working on a Masters in Psychology at Columbia University, Teacher’s College. He lectured on rhetoric and public speech at Seoul University of Foreign Studies (SUFS) from 2012 to 2016 and has been an editor for the SUFS Interpretation and Translation Center since 2013.