.He was known to have an artistic personality that was characterized by individualism and obstinacy. Although retained as a court painter, Kim was also a pioneering artist who insisted on creating works that were true to his personality and sentiments. He thus represented a new type of artist, clearly distinctive from his contemporaries, who more or less worked as craftsmen that faithfully replicated mainstream styles. His zest for life can also be seen in one of his nicknames: “Wine Lover.” In fact, his animated character was a catalyst for his boundless creativity. In this way, he sought to reveal the creator’s inner consciousness as well as the vast creative potential of the human mind.
.Revered in Japan
.In particular, Kim Myeong-guk was known for his masterful paintings of the venerated monks of Mt. Geumgangsan and Gangwon-do Province. In addition, he was unrivaled in Seon (Zen) Buddhist painting, referred to as Seonjonghwa. For these religious paintings, Kim would utilize two types of brush techniques: sumukbeop, in which black ink is applied with bold, forceful brush strokes, and gampilbeop that features a kind of minimalist style, with only three or four strokes being used to depict images. With these two techniques, Kim’s Seon Buddhist paintings reflect the individualistic nature of his artistic style. Nam Tae-eung (1687-1740), the most prominent art critic of the middle Joseon Dynasty period, noted the following about Kim’s style, which effectively opened a new chapter in Joseon-era painting: “Kim did not merely follow in the footsteps of his predecessors. He was an ingenious painter who was never restricted by formality, but instead transcended existing styles with his free will.”
.Appreciation for Kim’s paintings rose noticeably as a result of a surge in his popularity in Japan, which followed from his visits there as a member of official delegations from the Joseon court. As a court painter, he was part of the fourth (1636) and fifth (1643) delegations that visited Edo, present-day Tokyo. Korea dispatched the delegations to Japan as a diplomatic overture to promote friendly relations with the feudal military government of Japan (1603-1867), which was founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu. In Japan, Kim’s paintings created such a frenzy that Japanese admirers came in flocks from near and far to view and acquire his works. According to one account, Kim became distraught with exhaustion because an endless stream of Japanese enthusiasts, eager to purchase his works, would not allow him a moment of peace. In 1643, when Korea was preparing to dispatch another court delegation to Japan, the Japanese authorities sent a diplomatic message that stated: “It is hoped that a painter like Kim Myeong-guk will visit Japan.”
.Implied Form of Beauty
.Kim painted his Bodhidharma masterpiece, currently housed at the National Museum of Korea, during his visit to Japan in 1643, as a member of the fifth Korean court delegation. The work remained in Japan until it was acquired by the National Museum of Korea. This particular Bodhidharma painting is said to be the best of its kind not only in Korea but all of East Asia as well. Bodhidharma’s date of birth is not known but he died in 526. He was from the southern region of India and of the Brahman class. He traveled to Liang Dynasty China to propagate Chan Buddhism and came to be revered as a religious icon. Portraits of Bodhidharma were originally created to serve as prayer images. The paintings, featuring minimal, bold strokes, were produced for the appreciation of religious adherents. In Edo, Bodhidharma was beloved as one of Japan’s seven folk deities, referred to as Shichifukujin. In Japan, images of Bodhidharma were often depicted with whimsical or mischievous features.
.Compared to the popular images of Bodhidharma in Japan, Kim Myeong-guk’s Bodhidharma can be easily distinguished by the thick, bold brush strokes used to convey the outline of the robe. The boldness of his imagery no doubt intrigued and left a lasting impression on Japanese viewers. The face is gentle but vividly depicted with what appears to be a single stroke of the brush and a dramatic contrast of light and dark. The powerful imagery emits a palpable sense of vibrant energy and motion.
.Kim adroitly expressed the transcendent nature of ink painting with an implied form of beauty, which comprises the essence of Asian painting. The folds of the robe, which reveal the form, are derived from a harmony of the creator’s hands and spirit. The freely flowing, rhythmical brush strokes appear to be beyond the capability of a mere mortal. The vivid lines twist and turn abruptly, while rough, bold strokes contrast sharply with refined, flowing lines. This diversity of brush strokes gives a life-like quality to the work’s shape and form. Of note, the minimalist style and harmonious blending of contrasting brush strokes lend credence to a notion that Kim created the painting in a single breath, without taking the time to even think about any artificiality. Nonetheless, the form and shape of image create a oneness, as is true of the artist’s body and mind, leaving viewers with a sense of awe-struck admiration.
.The artist embraced a concept of oneness, a fundamental principle of Asian philosophy, which is applicable to the universe and the individual, objectivity and subjectivity, the material and the spiritual worlds, and the body and mind.
.With his unique creativity and artistic freedom, Kim created exceptional works without being restricted by form or technique, while using only the bold strokes of his brush. Such an approach represents the epitome of ink painting, or Sumukhwa. Kim Myeong-guk sublimated his dynamic personality into a refined art form, which is well manifested in the magnificence of his Bodhidharma painting.