Kim Tschang-Yeul: The drop and the line

Tour of the exhibition with commentary by Mael Bellec, chief curator at the Cernuschi museum.

This Korean artist (1929-2021), although having accomplished his career mainly in France, returned to Korea in his old age. He is one of the three great Korean painters of the 20th century and a world famous artist. This exhibition is the first dedicated to him in a museum since the one organized by the National Gallery of the Jeu de Paume in 2004.

Born in Korea (North) under the Japanese occupation, he contributed, in the 1950s, to the establishment of abstract forms in the peninsula. In the 1960s, the political climate hardening, Kim Tschang-Yeul left for the United States where he was disappointed and experienced difficulties because abstract expressionism was outdated and Pop'art was already in vogue. In 1969, he left New York to settle in Paris, where he undertook to develop and perfect his artistic vocabulary.

The drops of water, for which he is particularly known, are first represented in trompe-l'oeil, then, using glazes and several layers, he creates luminosity in addition to relief. The first drops of water are placed in the center of the canvas leaving a large empty space around.

Water drop. 1973. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

Newspaper.1986. Watercolor on newsprint. Private collection.

Recurrence. 1996. Ink, oil and acrylic on canvas. Private collection.

The other process is the reproduction of Chinese writing which comes quite early, in the 1970s. He began by painting drops of water on newspaper, thus associating the writing and the drop of water, but it was from the 1980s that he integrated writing in the form of Chinese characters into his paintings. These characters are directly inspired by the Thousand Character Classic which he used to learn calligraphy in his childhood. This new way gives birth to the series Recurrence, on which he will work until the end of his life, alongside other series.

Recurrence. 1994. Ink, oil and acrylic on canvas. Private collection.

Recurrence. 2008. Oil and acrylic on canvas. Private collection.

The layout of the writing allows more or less skilful geometric compositions on which the drops of water are placed. In some cases, the characters are black, black and gray, red; sometimes the same color as the background, they are barely visible. This allows the artist multiple combinations and overlays. Some works executed on paper, combining watercolor, ink and acrylic, thus rediscovering the gesture of the calligrapher.

Kim Tschang-Yeul worked a lot on the textures as a support for the drops of water, using sand or sawdust.

Along with painting, Kim Tschang-Yeul creates installations and sculptures such as Recurrence (1995) composed of two copper parallelepipeds and glass balls.

In 2016, the Kim Tschang-Yeul Museum opened in Jeju Province in South Korea.

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