A Painting That Speaks with Melody

Seo Sung-Rok 
President, The Association of Korean Art Critics 

Baik Soon Shil is a very passionate artist. Devoting all her energy to her creations all year round, she has participated in numerous group exhibitions and has had thirty-one solo shows in Seoul, New York, Paris, and Tokyo. This means that she has had a solo exhibition almost every year since she graduated college. Although she has a small figure, her appetite for painting and her creativity is stronger than any other artist.

The years of hard work in her studio also have come to another fruition; she has completed one hundred and twenty paintings about music titled, Ode to Music, as a series, each of which has been published in a monthly music magazine, Piano, for seven years. This is not her first time completing a collection. She also published a book, Searching for Korean Sound, which consists of sixty­-four prints that were serialized in a monthly music journal, Auditorium, for six years. 

Ode to Music is an experiment in visualizing music. Specifically, Baik created the paintings based on her interpretation of certain pieces of classical music. Not only did this require sensitivity to music, but in addition it required the ability to express visual images, as well as a unique passion and tenacity for art.

A painter is not good at all kinds of paintings, however. He or she usually has their own preference – it may be still-life, landscapes, or abstract to drawings, to name a few. Each person pursues a genre fit for their taste and temperament. Due to this fact, it is challenging for a painter to attempt to do work in an unfamiliar field. Nonetheless, Baik daringly attempted Ode to Music, with a distinguished ability to interpret music and express it visually. This not only revitalized her creative journey, but also broadened her horizons in terms of her painting format and style.

Visualization of Music
Ode to Music consists of both prints and paintings. Compared to painting, printmaking is known for its complicated work process. It is much more laborious to make individual plates separately and adjust the margins of each plate. Also, printmaking is more difficult than painting because no one knows what the final image will look like until a sheet of paper is run through the printing press. In other words, the artist herself cannot predict the exact results of the print. The form and color of painting, on the other hand, are directly controlled by the artist. The high labor, high risk, and diminished reward of printmaking have caused artists to tend to evade print as a medium.

Baik Soon Shil, however, undisturbed by its difficulty, and fully understanding the nature of her work, chose to do the prints. In her works, technical problems never crossed her intention or disturbed her artistic expression. The materials responded to her every action accurately and promptly, like the needle of a chronometer.

The series Ode to Music stands out because it integrates painting with music. It can even be called a revolutionary work. Baik translated the works of numerous composers into a visual language through her paintings, which no one had tried before. This was only possible because she was well versed in music, while at the same time she had a great sense of form and color; this allowed her to translate the sounds into paintings. With talent and integrity, she translated the language of tone and rhythm into that of space. 

Paul Klee, a German artist, also construed music into painting. Klee earnestly studied the relationship between music and painting. He called Mozart “the most prominent figure in the world of art,” and absolutely adored Bach. As he said, “One day, I will be able to improvise freely a keyboard of color or the range of colors on my palette.” He, like Baik, strove to convert music into visual art. Not only was he inspired by music, but he was also a musician who played songs with rhythm and color.

There is a story about him when he arrived at the Bauhaus at Weimar in 1921. Klee stayed in a room next to Georg Mühe’s studio. Mühe wondered what the drumming sound from the next room was. He asked Klee, “Did you hear the weird sound a few minutes ago?” Klee answered with a blush, “Oh, that sound? I shouldn’t have made noise like that. I don’t know why I started to dance when I was painting a picture. I am embarrassed that you heard that sound. But I do not dance in usual circumstances.” This story shows how sensitive Klee was to his internal rhythm. His musical ability enabled him to create numerous masterpieces known as Polyphonic Paintings, such as Solitude, Nocturne of Soul, New Harmony, and Stage Scene.

Baik’s Ode to Music deals with music of notable composers in the history of music. For instance, among them are Sarate’s Zigeunerweisen, Liebesfreud by Kreisler, Grand Canyon Suite by Grofe, Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo, Cello Concerto in E minor by Elgar, L'Arlsienne Suites by Bizet, Fantasia on Greensleeves by Vaughan Williams, Clarinet Concerto No.1 by Weber, Poeme for Violin And Orchestra by Chausson, The Three-Cornered Hat by Falla, Violin Concerto No.2 by Wieniawski, G. Faure’s Requiem, Violin Concerto by Mendelssohn, Haydn’s String Quartet No. 63 in D major also known as The Lark, Lyric Suite for String Quartet by Alban Berg, and 24 Caprices by Paganini.

Baik fills the canvas, much like writing notes in a picture plane. She has changed music heard by the ears into art perceived by eyes. In other words, she has converted an acoustic signal into a visual sign through introducing a unique sense of color and imagery.
Led by Melody
Baik has produced many amazing works of art using a wide variety of materials. She has presented paintings that have produced a vivid color effect by using natural materials such as stones, clamshells, and coffee powder. She has explored and played with color ever since she learned oil painting in her teens. Color is her language; it is her companion. Her work without color can be compared to a concert hall without any performers. Baik’s paintings emanate with a bright smile, like that of a bride who is about to walk down the aisle. In her paintings, blues roll like waves, yellows lift up their face slightly with a big smile, and reds dampen the canvas like the sky at twilight with delicate light greens and bashful purples.

Let’s look at her painting dedicated to Clarinet Quintet by Brahms. Clarinet Quintet is known as the song in which Brahms expressed the agony and grief he suffered in his relationship with Clara. How did Baik express the mood of this song? If you step up to the painting, you can see the canvas covered by brown, reddish brown and dark chocolate colors. It looks lonely, like a solitary boat on the ocean at twilight, or a lonesome wanderer walking on the road in autumn with his head bowed. Baik interpreted this song of Brahms as a space filled with melancholy and silence.     

The painting for Winter Wanderer by Schubert has a similar atmosphere. Shubert was a composer who suffered from poverty and depression for most of his life. Winter Wanderer, which consists of 24 songs, is full of death, compassion, fear and sadness. It ends, however, with a hope for spring. Baik represented the flow of this song with a wild flower that blossoms in the middle of a snowing field. There is a roaring wind in the snowy sky. Small black circles float around the sky. Fallen leaves are rolling on the road in the lower part. In her painting, she interpreted Winter Wanderer as a frail gesture, burgeoning life in spite of severe ordeals. The pink flower that blooms during the snowy, chilly winter reminds us how much it is important not to lose hope when facing a predicament. The brilliant color arrangement brings the musical substance to life.

How about Kol Nidrei by Max Bruch? Whenever I listen to this song – as one of my favorites – I feel as if my mind is lifted up with ‘pious wings.’ Bruch arranged this song as like a hymn heard on the Jewish Day of Atonement in the form of variations. Every part of this song is filled with intense grief. Baik expressed this sorrow with a melancholy Prussian blue. It conveys fear about the vastness of the world, like the endless depths of the ocean. Like the title, ‘The day of God,’ if you experience the infinity of the Divine, you would shiver with fright. The artist, however unexpectedly adds a pleasurable note that never seems suitable for such fear. Baik intended to create space where pleasure and sadness coexist. She seems to emphasize that it is a blessing for human beings as creatures to meet God in the middle of confession and atonement. A box shape enclosed by a yellow line at the center of the picture seems to insinuate the Holy Tabernacle, which symbolizes not only the sovereignty of God, but also the sacred place where only penitents can occur.

There are other paintings that use this same contrast. Four Seasons is another example. Four Seasons by Vivaldi is one of the most famous songs beloved by music patrons. I listen to this song often charmed by its variegated tone and musical flow. In his music, Vivaldi described birds singing in the spring, the tedious and languid hot summer days, the sudden burst of a storm, an exciting hunting scene, the farmers’ joyful harvest dance in fall, the bitter chill of the winter and people walking on ice. Baik expressed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with a composition like a staircase. Falling snowflakes in the upper part of the picture are accompanied by an autumn scene, colored by a red and green forest with summer yellow in the background. A spring landscape, with thin trees whose branches are about to burgeon is on the right side. Also, the blue keyboard form at the lowest part of the painting alludes to the fact that music is a motif in this painting. Its rise and fall also augments visual rhythm. In her work, she expressed a dynamic seasonal change full of ‘life’ and ‘vitality’ through bright colors and a well-balanced composition.

In the picture dedicated to Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, the bloody red color of the upper part is in contrast with the ash-colored bottom. A box shape in the lower portion is wrapped with a black stripe as if it isolates the box from the world. It seems like a prisoner’s cage or a high fence breaking down a will for freedom. Shostakovich was a Russian composer who suffered hardships by disobeying a request for Social Realism by the Soviet Union. He did, however, finally comply with the system. As the title, ‘Revolution,’ tells, this symphony is a strong political work, which propagandized the idea of revolution. Baik expressed the world without freedom, where the red army’s marching sound makes life more impoverished and human life more dismal.
Into the space in the beginning of the world
Although the subject matter of Baik’s paintings came from music, she always integrated her own perspective and sentiment into it. In her poetic space, she used minimal images and decorative patterns, rather than conspicuous descriptive figures, to bring concreteness to her art. She used various techniques such as drawing, painting, dripping and dotting to show diverse expression. Forgetting their musical-representational nature, she carefully detailed her paintings as visual art.

On the one hand, in her other paintings, images like signs and symbols float around the surface with brown in the background. The background, rather than the mere surface, plays an important role in her paintings. She built the background by painting, scratching, and layering over the materials on the canvas several times, so that it creates a sense of depth that a single act of painting cannot make. Thus, the background of the paintings mostly looks stained, wounded, or smeary. Far from a thinly painted surface, she built up the space as she constructed a house based on a solid foundation.

The background of her paintings is related to the “Mother Earth.” Baik regarded the earth as the symbolic space to bring up creatures. We cannot live without the earth. We depend on it when we farm, ranch or even take a walk; we rely on the earth in everything we do. Based on the sublime meaning of the earth as the cradle of life, she cultivated the background of her paintings as the fertile earth in which everything planted grows well.

On the other hand, Baik’s paintings conjure up memories of the past. In her paintings, the decayed leaves of ginkgoes, outlines of various leaves, buds that sprout from the earth, seeds and stems of plants all stand out. It is easy to ignore these images if you do not pay attention to them. That is, they can be misconceived as signs in abstract paintings.

All plants hold the secrets of their birth. The seed has its determinate clue. The seed keeps all the information on one’s birth, growth and characteristics in its DNA. The circle forms in every painting make us pay attention to this secret of the plants. Baik puts a certain pattern or vague image into them. These circles neither represent something like the eggs with an oval form nor have a decorative function. As Baik does not disclose their nature outright, the viewers become more curious about what these circles signify. It seems that the circles signify the secret power in every plant that gives way to its birth and death.

Baik’s main focus in her work is the importance of the life, the secret in the birth of living creatures. From her point of view, the world is built upon awe and wonder. This mysterious secret has driven her to create up until this time. Baik Soon Shil will always be close to nature and under God’s hand which created it.