Good art simultaneously awakens numerous senses. When listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” scenes from each season come vividly to mind. In East Asia, art that unites the spirit of literature and the visuality of painting was highly valued. The words of the Northern Song poet Su Shi (1037-1101), “There is poetry in painting and painting in poetry” speak of the essence of calligraphy and painting. Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072), a literary figure of Northern Song, transformed sound into literature. In the form known as bu (Cn. fu), which means “ode,” he expressed the solemn providence of nature that he felt in the sound of the autumn wind in the poem “Ode to the Sound of Autumn.” In 1805, more than seven hundred years later, the Joseon artist Kim Hongdo (1745-post 1806) visualized this image of autumn. His painting The Sound of Autumn (Chuseongbudo) seems to convey the sound of the chill autumn wind.
The painters belonging to Dohwaseo, the Joseon Dynasty’s Bureau of Painting, were considered the finest artists of their time but were also disdained for living off the work of their brushes. This contempt was rooted in their practice of marrying amongst themselves and thereby creating a kind of monopoly within Dohwaseo as they handed down their skills within their own families. Kim Hongdo, however, became the highest court artist on talent and hard work alone.
Behind his entry to Dohwaseo without the help or any relatives and his rise to become the artist most favored by King Jeongjo (r.1776-1800) was a profound understanding of literature. Though skilled in all types of painting, he excelled particularly in expressing poetry and stories from the past. It is known that King Jeongjo gave the highest praise to Kim Hongdo’s folding screen titled Paintings After Zhu Xi’s Poem (Jubuja siuido) (collection of Leeum Museum of Art).
If literary painting is the art of interpreting the meaning of literature and philosophy with the brush, Kim Hongdo surpassed the heights of this genre, the realm of cultured amateurs, although he made his living from painting.
The Sound of Autumn exquisitely interprets Ouyang Xiu’s poem in both content and form. The scene depicted in the painting comes from the first half of the poem.
The narrative unfolds through the image of the scholar sitting at the table and the movements of the servant boy, while the moon and the quivering branches give us a sense of the time and place. Kim Hongdo covered the background in light ink to create the night atmosphere and painted the trees and rocks with a dry brush to capture the dryness of the autumn mountain landscape. The sound of the dry branches brushing against each other in the wind and the rustling of the fallen leaves can be felt in the brushstrokes. Not only does the painting vividly reproduce the scene of leaves blowing about in a gust of strong wind it even seems to carry the sound of the wind.
Kim Hongdo wrote Ouyang Xiu’s poem in the margins of the painting and at the end of it he put down the date: “Painted by Dangu [artist’s penname] three days after the winter solstice in the Eulchuk year.” This corresponds to the fifth month of the eleventh day of 1805. It is the final painting by Kim Hongdo to bear a clear date. At the age of 61, the artist was struggling through life. After the death of his greatest patron, King Jeongjo, his circumstances grew so bad that he even had to worry about paying for his son’s education, and as his health deteriorated he spent his days in pain. It is difficult to deduce the artist’s exact motivation for painting The Sound of Autumn. It would have been physically and mentally taxing to join two pieces of paper together to create a large canvas and transfer onto it the words and images of the poem “Ode to the Sound of Autumn.” It may be that the old artist, sensing that his death was near, silently moved his ailing body to paint what could prove to be his last work.
The Sound of Autumn is a feature attraction for June in A Collector’s Invitation – The First Anniversary of Lee Kun-hee’s Bequest, held at the Special Exhibition Gallery of the National Museum of Korea. There Kim Hongdo’s masterpiece from his later years greets visitors.