Gaze and Imagery
by Jeon JunYeop Aritst
Kang Hui-an <Painting of a Lofty Scholar Contemplating Water> and Caravaggio <Narcissus> Jeong Seon <Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang> and Cézanne <Mont Sainte-Victoire>
While matching Western and Korean paintings, I discover reasons why artists express differently even when they are looking at the same thing. Even the most well-known painting can reveal fascinating stories when viewed through the lens of the artist’s life, history and culture.

Flowing Water

Water is used as a metaphor for life in two ancient Chinese proverbs: “clear mirror, still water” and “the highest good is like water”. The former highlights still water, whereas the latter signifies flowing water. Still water is like a clear mirror that reflects the world truthfully. The latter teaches a life lesson about learning wisdom from the nature of water which flows from high to low places while embracing everything. In the West, the clear mirror, still water approach was used to find one’s inner self and to understand the world, whereas the East used philosophy of the highest good is like water to find peace of mind. Painting of a Lofty Scholar Contemplating Water by Kang Hui-an (1417-1464) makes us ruminate about the meaning of the highest good. Despite its small size (23.4x15.7cm), the painting gives a strong visual impact. The artist’s mastery and striking brush strokes are immediately noticeable. The face of the scholar gazing at the water which he skillfully rendered becomes unforgettable and lingers in our mind.

Painting of a Lofty Scholar Contemplating Water Kang Hui-an (1417-1464), Joseon Dynasty, 15th Century, Ink on paper, 23.4x15.7cm

The scholar in the painting captures the viewers’ attention first. Unlike the rock painted with dark ink and a thick brush, the scholar is drawn in lines only, but still nevertheless draws the attention. The scholar is portrayed in such a way which reflects the properties of water that the weak defeats the strong. His bald-headedness suggests that he is a middle-aged man, but with a child-like face. His face features and clothing resemble those of a Chinese, suggesting the Chinese influence in the early Joseon Dynasty.
The whole painting resembles flowing water. The artist was most likely thinking about a river, valley or lake while working on this piece as seen by the cliff in the background and a scholar slumped on rock gazing at the water. Water is portrayed with horizontal brush strokes which depicts its continuous flowing. The painting’s overall ambience suggests that the artist’s intention to use flowing water to embody the scholar’s true nature. The artist intended to show more than simply just the scholar looking at the water at a specific site; but wanted to illustrate his desire to live like water. This painting should be viewed as a conceptual landscape that expresses the artist’s belief in the happiest way of living a life and the idealistic path that everyone dreams of. The painting ultimately addresses the spirit of Joseon scholars to be more like nature, away from greed and restraint.

Still Water

Narcissus by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) emphasizes the imagery of water in order to highlight the theme of self-love. Caravaggio painted it at the age of 24 and with a motif from the Narcissus myth. The painting still speaks to contemporary audiences and makes it difficult to tell that it was created over 400 years ago. Narcissus is an undeniably great masterpiece that answers what artistic talent means. Caravaggio employed a dramatic composition for effective storytelling. By contrasting the dark background with the use of the spotlight on figures, the canvas almost looks like a stage set. This artwork exemplifies the artist’s distinctive style. Only the man who is in love with himself in the pictorial space is highlighted.

Narcissus Caravaggio (1517-1610) 1595, Oil on canvas, 92.0x110.0cm, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, ⓒ Photo RMN. Paris- GNC media, Seoul *Image credit: The Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN)

The dramatic contrast allows the viewer to focus on the story depicted in the painting. It simply portrays a man gazing at his own reflection in the pool, as if Narcissus is looking straight at himself, and yet we can immediately understand this painting is portraying the story of Narcissus. The composition supersedes contemporary paintings. The composition is formed from a circle with the prominent knee in the center which draws even more attention. The emotion displayed on the face is fascinating. It demonstrates a masterful expression of self-admiration. Caravaggio is regarded as one of the greatest geniuses in Western art history, despite the fact that he was known to be arrogant and narcissistic. The boy in Narcissus is not looking at water or does not seem to be concerned about the meaning of life in the clear mirror, still water metaphor. Instead, he is preoccupied with his own reflection in water, suggesting the humancentric individualism of the West.

Energy on Flat Canvas

Jeong Seon (1676-1759) and Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) are two geniuses who left their names in the history of art with their mountain paintings. Born in Seoul, Jeong Seon found the true beauty of the Korean mountains in Inwangsan Mountain that he saw every day and developed a new genre called true-view landscape painting, jingyeong sansuhwa. Similarly Cézanne discovered true shapes of nature from Mont Sainte-Victoire in his hometown Aix-en-Provence and opened a new door to the radically different world of art.
One of Jeong Seon’s most popular paintings is Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang. It illustrates Inwangsan Mountain, full of clear energy and spirit after the rain. Based on the composition, it must have been seen from today’s Gwanghwamun Gate. The actual Inwangsan Mountain looks different from the painting because the artist intentionally deleted, modified and exaggerated, which are stylistic characteristics of jingyeong sansuhwa.

Clearing after Rain on Mount Inwang Jeong Seon (1676-1759), Joseon Dynasty, 1751, Ink on paper, 79.2x138.0cm, National Treasure, Bequest of Lee Kun-hee, 2021

The composition around the peak appears as if viewed through a concave mirror.
Mountain peaks converge like a fan towards the clouds in the center. Peaks and hills that make up the skyline including the rocky mountain in the middle are not accurately drawn but were altered. Jeong Seon removed flat lines between peaks and drew outlines to highlight the mountain terrain. He carefully arranged the composition in order to represent Inwangsan Mountain’s freshness and powerful spirit after the rain. The dynamic view of Inwangsan Mountain must have been overwhelming and moved the artist. Jeong Seon who had a gentle nature and sensible temperament wanted to express the feeling he was experiencing which was aroused by what he saw in front of him.
Flattened and painted in dark ink, the powerful energy bursting from the mountain appears abstract. The tip of the peak in the middle stretches to outside of the canvas, resembles a piece of modern art. It was recently discovered that this was not the artist’s intention; Jeong Seon originally painted an outline of the main peak up to the top, but it was said that the painting became what it is today in the course of the mounting process after passing through many hands throughout history.
Ironically a mistake like this enhances the powerful ambiance of Inwangsan Mountain.

Angles on Flat Canvas

Cézanne created about 60 paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire. Like fate, Cézanne was drawn to this mountain. When the death came close to his doorstep on October 15, 1906, he was facing his canvas at Mont Sainte-Victoire and he died a week later due to pneumonia caused from being caught in the thundershower.
What was it that Cézanne was looking for in this mountain that he was so obsessed?
Cézanne believed paintings should each individually be constructed in a world of their own using key artistic language such as point, line, shape and color, rather than telling stories or imitating reality. In order to achieve this, Cézanne developed a new principle of pictorial composition. He attempted to find true appearance by looking at nature from various perspectives, believing that he would never see the truth by looking at an object from only one angle. He came to a conclusion that an object’s essence can only be captured when it is depicted from all angles including front, side, top, bottom and back. Since the emergence of his unorthodox paintings, western paintings left the 3,000 year-old principle of imitating the real world and started to embrace the new era.

Mont Sainte-Victoire Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) 1904, Oil on canvas, 73.0x91.0cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, ⓒ Photo RMN. Paris- GNC media, Seoul *Image credit: The Réunion des Musées Nationaux (RMN)

It is all thanks to Cézanne that art history could progress to modern art and infinitely expanded thus far. The Mont Sainte-Victoire was a perfect model to experiment this ground-breaking idea. This painting is part of his Mont SainteVictoire series. The landscape does not try to illustrate a majestic mountain nor a charming little forest village. Instead, the canvas is made up of many different elements that compose a landscape. First, the Lego block-like flattened brush strokes draw attention and it shows the artist’s belief that nature is formed upon cubic masses. (Cézanne saw nature in the forms of cylinders, cones and spheres.) He did not follow the western art tradition of visual perspectives.
The sky and the mountain were both blurred with a similar palette and brushwork and only the outline of the mountain reveals its shape.
To Cézanne, painting encompasses a construction of canvas with colors and brushworks and hence this painting can be understood in such a way that it borrows a real landscape for an independent space called painting. Completed in his later years, this painting had a profound influence on many artists including Picasso and led to the birth of Cubism.