At the end of January this year, a large crowd of people gathered at the Kanagawa Prefectural Hall in Yokohama. They were there for the opening of a large solo exhibition of the work of Korean woman painter Baik Soon Sil, but they had also come to hear a solo performance by Yang Sung Won, a well-known Korean cellist who is a friend of the artist. Such an opportunity to enjoy both art and music is not necessarily common in Japan, and I was one of those who had been drawn to this double event. The names of Schubert, Brahms, and Kodály were listed on the program, increasing my expectations of the evening.
As I entered the gallery before the concert, however, and looked at Baik’s work, I suddenly felt ashamed at my greedy expectation of receiving two gifts. The more than 60 paintings and 100 prints, which I was seeing for the first time, revealed an abundant world of painting with great clarity and depth. Each work radiated creative energy that seemed to bubble up from a spring, causing me to stop and stand still. I felt sorry for my impertinence and realized I should have made the trip from Tokyo just to see these works of art. At the same time, I experienced a great sense of satisfaction.
All of the works in the exhibition were from the Ode to Music series that Baik has been working on for the last several years. The title of each work is made up of the name of a composer and an opus from the classical repertory which provided the inspiration for the work. Of course, there is a special listening experience linking the particular piece of music and picture that cannot be directly shared by a third party, so it would not do to make connections and interpret the music and the picture in a simple way. First of all, it is hard to imagine that sonatas played with an orchestra, concertos, which are composed of multiple musical themes, or even single movements of a symphony could be treated comprehensively in a single painting or print. What is taken from each piece of music ultimately derives from the artist’s freedom and her secret whims and inspirations.
Even so, there is no mistaking the fact that Baik’s paintings evoke music. It is not necessary to know what piece is represented in a particular painting or to search for it in the painting. The form, structure, rhythm, color, and material pulsation, which correspond to the reverberations and melodies of each piece of music, are assembled and breathe on the pictorial surface, where they live and breathe as entirely painterly phenomena. In fact, Baik’s paintings work as completely independent paintings even to the eye of the viewer who knows nothing of their conceptual source. Furthermore, these paintings are configured in a way that emits a marvelous painterly rhythm that expresses a wonderful musical world.
On reflection, we have been careless in thinking that painting and music are separate forms of art based on totally different principles. Although there are differences based on the factors of seeing and hearing, spatiality and temporality, we can have quite a different experience if we stop looking at paintings with attention only to visible forms and develops an esthetic sensitivity to their musical reverberations. Since ancient times, Chinese artists have given more importance to “resonance of the spirit, movement of life” in painting. Modern painters in Europe have also explored the connection between art and music. Cezanne put musical rhythm in his brushwork, Klee and Kandinsky brought out elements shared by painting and music. Informalist painters and Serge Poliakoff paid attention to visualized reverberations emitted by the material textures of dynamically applied paint. Looking over the current condition of painting, however, it can hardly be said that expression of musical qualities in painting has been pursued self-consciously by many artists.
That is why the musical resonance in Baik’s paintings has such a fresh quality. I do not know how aware she is of these historical developments, but judging from the work, she has sufficiently absorbed the experience of painting history and created brilliant paintings that reverberate with a rich and dazzling music. The clear planar forms that she has developed through long experience in printmaking interact with a frothy and painterly matière, demonstrating that the expression of musical sensations can bring true abundance to painting.
When Yang Sung Won played a Kodály cello sonata that evening, it resonated with special intensity.
( July 25th, 2008)