ART REVIEW Inner Landscapes by a Pioneer Abstract Artist

Yoo Young-kuk (1916–2002) was a pioneering artist whose paintings captured the essence of mountains using the basic elements of dots, lines, planes, forms, and colors when abstraction was still an unfamiliar concept in the Korean art world. “Yoo Young-kuk, Absoluteness and Freedom,” a retrospective at the Deoksu Palace branch of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (November 4, 2016 to March 1, 2017) commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth, showcases some 100 artworks spanning 60 years, shedding new light on the master of Korean abstract art.

“Composition with Straight Lines” (1949). Oil on canvas, 53 x 45.5 cm.

The deep red mountain sparkles like a diamond. Full of such a vivid red that it looks ready to explode, it fills the entire canvas. Green, orange, and blue mountains rise up, pulling the canvas taut. The mountains rendered in simple triangular shapes of various colors throb with intensity. The sturdiness of the triangles draws the viewer in. The brilliant color planes exude both passion and coolness.
“The mountain is not in front of me, but in me,” Yoo Young-kuk once said. This overlaps with the words of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whom Yoo greatly admired: “Our subjective vision and experience make it impossible [for us] to be happy. But we can escape the tragic oppression through a clear vision of true reality, which exists, but which is veiled. If we cannot free ourselves, we can free our vision.” For Yoo, painting the mountain inside him was an exploration of the human soul. Rendered in many different colors and forms, the mountain represented the inner landscape of humans that he had seen and felt. The Mountain Painter Yoo was born in 1916 in Uljin, North Gyeongsang Province (then Gangwon Province), a place with many mountains and deep valleys. The mountains were Yoo’s playground. They were a part of him, his silent friends from childhood, and a subject that consistently appeared in his paintings throughout his life.

“I created many paintings titled ‘Mountain,’ probably because I grew up in the mountains. Likewise, my forest paintings were inspired by memories of the village forest where I played when I was young. The sun shining down on the grass through the lush leaves and branches had a pristine and lively beauty. I like to express through my paintings the feelings I had in places that I know well, places that I can always run to whenever I want,” Yoo said.

“Morning” (1958). Oil on canvas, 100 x 73 cm.

Like the French artist Paul Cezanne, for whom Mont Sainte-Victoire was a source of inspiration, the mountain was an intimate subject for Yoo that offered many possibilities in composition and color. In the 1960s, after he settled down in Seoul, Yoo frequently climbed Mt. Dobong and Mt. Bukhan and visited the Namhan Mountain Fortress, where he soaked up the vital force of the mountains, seeking to assuage the suffering of a country writhing in pain in the process of modernization with his vivid triangles shining with happiness. Art historian Lee In-bum said of his works that they “uphold human dignity and the possibility of freedom through abstraction.” Exploring the Unbeaten Path Yoo was seemingly well aware of the difficulties of pursuing abstract art in Korea back in the 1950s. Yoo Jin, the third of his four children and director of the Yoo Youngkuk Art Foundation, tells an anecdote from his school days. In junior high, his teacher was conducting a survey of parents' occupations. When the young Yoo answered that his father was an artist, the teacher asked what kind of artist.
“I asked my father what kind of paintings he did, and he told me to say, ‘abstract art.’ I said that they would ask me what that is, and my father said, ‘Then say it’s modern art.’ Again, I told him that no one understood what that meant, to which he said with a laugh, ‘Then tell them I’m an avant-garde artist.’ Much later, when someone bought one of my father’s paintings at his solo exhibition, he smiled and said, ‘Do my paintings sell too?’ I'll never forget that.”

“Thawing of the Ground” (1961). Oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm.

“Work” (1967). Oil on canvas, 130 x 130 cm.

In his youth, Yoo had gone to Tokyo in 1935 to study art at Bunka Gakuin. There he associated with prominent abstract artists, such as Saburo Hasegawa, and joined the avant-garde art movement. In 1938, he won the grand prize at the Association of Free Artists’ second exhibition and was active in the Tokyo art scene. Around this time, he also studied photography at the Oriental School of Photography and submitted avant-garde photographs to exhibitions.

“Circle-A” (1968). Oil on canvas, 136 x 136 cm.

“Mountain and Lake” (1979). Oil on canvas, 53 × 65 cm.

After returning to Korea in 1943, Yoo had to give up art during the turbulent years of the nation’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War as he had to support his large family; he turned to the family fishing business, and later engaged in the brewery business. But when he turned 40, he resolutely announced to his wife, “I don’t want a gold mountain or a gold field. I have to paint,” and with that took up his art again. He actively participated in artist groups such as the Neo Realism Group, Modern Art Society, Invitational Exhibition of Contemporary Artists, and Sinsanghoe (New Form Group), leading the abstract art movement in the country. Then he abruptly broke all ties with art groups, and after holding his first solo exhibition in 1964, he lived in seclusion, devoting himself solely to his art.

An Artist Without a Legend
Taciturn, ascetic, stubborn, persevering — these are among the adjectives often used to describe Yoo Young-kuk. He is an artist without a legend. Compared to his contemporaries like Kim Whanki, Lee Jung-seob, Park Soo-keun, and Chang Ucchin, who under the dark shadow of colonialism rose to prominence as geniuses or were labeled eccentrics, Yoo lived an upright, monotonous life like an ascetic. He kept to a rigorous daily schedule, like an “art laborer,” going to the atelier at 8 a.m. and painting until 6 p.m.

Yoo Young-kuk works at his studio in Yaksu-dong, Seoul 1 in this photo by Limb Eung-sik, dated around 1968.

Of this rigid lifestyle, novelist Kang Sok-kyong said that “he sought to remove all vestiges [of his life] from his work and remain only as a ‘good artist.’”
Like the mountains in his paintings, Yoo aspired to a pure and transcendent spirit. Artist Kim Byung-ki, his classmate in Tokyo, said, “He was a free-spirited fellow with a cheerful temperament. He abhorred convention.” Yoo quit a much-coveted professorship at Seoul National University after two years and three months, and likewise at Hongik University after three years. Rather than blending in with the crowd, he preferred to be alone in his atelier and converse with the mountains inside him. “Painting is about putting yourself forward,” he said. “The source of my images is nature and my surroundings. I intended to study the basics until 60, and thereafter return to nature with a softer approach.”
Yoo said the same thing to his children. “Our father talked about studying art all the time. He said he would focus on art studies until 60. When he was 70, he said, ‘The fifties are a young age.’ Then at 80 he said, ‘The sixties are the prime of life.’ I also remember him saying, ‘I did abstract art to make a better world.’”

The majestic mountain standing tall rendered in strict geometric form and intense color planes painted with a knife in thick, uniform strokes seems to speak for the artist who wanted “to live freely without interference.” Absent of pomposity and superfluity, only the very essence of the subject remains on the canvas, which takes the viewer into a world of absolute tranquility, freedom, and peace beyond the mountain.

“Mountain-Red” (1994). Oil on canvas, 126 x 96 cm.

Moral Landscapes
Looking at Yoo’s works divided among four galleries according to period brings to mind the old Asian saying, “A benevolent man loves the mountains.” The fresh air and high spirit flowing from his paintings lead the viewer to contemplation and lyricism, as if deep in the mountains.
“Mountains, especially, he regarded as the soul of the Korean heritage, and his faith was always evident in creating a ‘harmonious whole.’ As the artist’s ideal was the harmonious balance of life, art, and nature, rather than merely pursuing the harmony of color in his work, it must have occurred to him that the essence of color speaks of the value of harmony itself. This is why his paintings of mountains are regarded as ‘moral landscapes.’” (From Chung Young-mok’s review “Yoo Young-kuk’s Mountains: Moral Landscapes,” in the book “Yoo Young-kuk,” 2012.)
Some of the mountain paintings in the Yoo Young-kuk retrospective can be freely viewed from anywhere in the world. The National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art has collaborated with Google to showcase 20 of his major works on the online art exhibition platform Google Arts & Culture. For the first time in Korea, Yoo’s works have been photographed by the Art Camera developed by the Google Cultural Institute, capturing the finest details of his paintings in ultra-high resolution images, which allows viewers to appreciate even the texture of their surface.
The majestic mountain standing tall rendered in strict geometric form and intense color planes painted with a knife in thick, uniform strokes seems to speak for the artist who wanted “to live freely without interference.” Absent of pomposity and superfluity, only the very essence of the subject remains on the canvas, which takes the viewer into a world of absolute tranquility, freedom, and peace beyond the mountain.

“Work” (1989). Oil on canvas, 65.4 x 91 cm.

“Work” (1994). Oil on canvas, 66 x 91 cm.

Chung Jae-suk Editorial Writer and Senior Culture Reporter, The JoongAng Ilbo
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