The Vibrations in the Soul: Conversations with Beethoven

Choi Byung-Shik 
Art critic and Professor at Kyung Hee University 

Baek Sheun Shil explains succinctly the fundamental reason for basing her work on Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is his deeply ingrained "humanism." Among the fourteen new works featured in this exhibition, ten works present Beethoven as the main focus of her work. There are four works based on the symphonies, five works on the piano concertos, and one work is on the violin concerto.


Beethoven's music cannot be translated in the manner we can translate languages. Through the lens of subjective interpretation, personal experiences and sensibility intervene into the domain of Beethoven's music. In analysis, we can only guess at the generating conceptions by Baek Sheun Shil. However, by getting some insight into Beethoven's exhausting ordeal with deafness and ultimately how his music became a kind of anthem for all humanity, we can follow the traces of Baek's thoughts and inspirations.


While Beethoven's music essentially never departed from its foundation in the Viennese Classical style, the emotional depth, epic crescendo, and immense length of his works served as an important bridge between the Classical and Romantic era styles. Instead of his deafness impeding his composition, his revolutionary spirit, fierce determination and individualistic style only intensified, and his music would come to personify the indomitable human spirit which delivered inspiration and catharsis to many artists.


Besides the "Dongdasong" series, Baek has been working on the "Ode to Music" series for the past fifteen years. In comparison to the consistent style and density expressed in the "Dongdasong" series, the new works took a shift to engage with new materials, colors, and geometric elements. All the individual works depict a diverse range of soundscapes using unique styles, as if every time we climb up a new hill a completely different landscape awaits us. It is an unexpected artistic development from an artist who is a serious tea drinker. In contrast to the repetitive, formal nature of the tea ceremony to achieve spiritual transcendence, Baek's works depict myriad images and the new visual configurations unfold like a film before our eyes.


The new works featured in this exhibition at the Korea University Museum undergo two major changes - "Brevity" and "Dissonance." In comparison to the previous works, these works show the more basic forms of shapes and dissonant elements increasingly enter the foreground. The simplicity of the vertical pictorial plane, the strict division of the plane surface and the reconstruction within the field of the canvas are all impressive as well. The scale of the work has expanded and the changes are dramatically heightened. Through Baek's interpretation, we are brought into a sense of space of Beethoven's music that encompasses solemnity and spirituality. It also resonates with her soulful journey through music uncovering the inner world.


In the visual arts field, how does the artist create works that visualize the sound tonalities, the tonal structures and relationships used in musical compositions? For Baek Sheun Shil, it is a whole body immersion in its own subjective experience. Although profound knowledge of formal and technical analysis is important, the experience of hearing the "vibrations in the soul" encourages artists to break free from the pictorial constraints of form and subject matter.

Of course music is an emotional language that is elusive and personal. However, some general understanding of technical and expressive issues in music is required from the viewer to fully appreciate a work of art that is based on music and how the artist is conceptualizing the various musical components.  


"2016 Ode to Music1602 Beethoven: Symphony No. 2 in D major (Op. 36)" is set against the pink background exuding gaiety and the diagonal lines resonate with visual chords which stand resolutely in the field of the canvas. The arrangement and the emotional qualities of the slanting lines seem to be associated with echoes of Beethoven's personal life - his struggles, depression, triumph and joviality.


Beethoven's Second Symphony was written during his stay at Heiligenstadt in 1802, at which time he was confronted with the crisis of his deteriorating hearing and his sorrow at losing Giulietta Guicciardi (1782-1856) led him to write the "Heiligenstadt Testament," the famous letter expressing suicidal thoughts. In spite of his desperate state, Beethoven overcame his personal tragedy and especially in the finale (allegro molto), he emerges full of vitality and joy of life.


Baek Sheun-Shil's interpretation of the "Second Symphony" offers a singular perspective. The tensions and the compositional relationships of the maximum vigor of the monolithic keyboard forms produce an energy that flows throughout the plane, expressing Beethoven's high spirits overcoming the calamity which led him to contemplate suicide.


"2016 Ode to Music1603 Beethoven: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat major, Op. 60" has abstract plant motifs in black tones against the yellow background. The faint floral dots are gracefully scattered across the picture plane. In contrast to the dynamic linear qualities of the Symphony No.2, the No.4 expresses romantic lyrical emotions overlapping with the music.


Beethoven composed the Fourth Symphony in 1806 at the age of 36 during a period of relative peace in his life when he was in love with Josephine von Brunswick (1779-1821). Full of feminine grace and romantic emotions, it is a sweet minuet, fresh, spontaneous, witty, but also dramatic and flamboyant. Sandwiched between the landmark symphonies No. 3 (Eroica) and Symphony No. 5, No 4. is considered to be an intermediary symphony full of feminine sensibility.


Perhaps it is a coincidence, but among the works featured in the exhibition at the Korea University Museum there are the ones inspired by Beethoven's Symphony Nos 2, 4 and 8 which are his even-numbered symphonies that did not achieve the popular status of their companions. By contrast his odd-numbered symphonies such as Nos. 3 (Eroica), 5 (Fate), 7 and 9 (Choral) are among the most well-known. Beethoven's odd-numbered symphonies are often classified as those that are heroic, dynamic and militant while Baek Sheun Shil's even-numbered symphonies resonate with grace, humor, lyricism and emotional qualities. Perhaps the selection made by the artist who has kept music as her companion for decades potentially connects to her view of the world.


Music became central to Baek Sheun Shil's work since the "The Classical Music of Soul Recited by the Poets and Painted by the Artists" music magazine series in 2002. The "Ode to Music" Series consists of over 100 works which cover most of the classical music genres and various themes ranging from symphony, opera, sonata, chorus to adagio and concerto.


This series of works and Baek's "Dongsadong" paintings which began in her twenties show two distinct tendencies of her mode of expression. She became engaged in the "Dongsadong" Series in the 1980s, and after her 1988 "Gloryrich" gallery exhibition, she developed her distinctive style for over 40 years. In this exhibition Baek has included two works completed in 1992 and 2011 from the "Dongsadong" series which set the stage that presents challenging and yet liberating new possibilities for the artist. The two series of music works form two distinct, but interrelated elements of a body of work are the crucial means of projecting the subject and the style.


This exhibition also features works that present other composers such as Édouard-Victoire-Antoine Lalo, Isang Yun, Carl Nielsen, Henryk Wieniawski, Henri Vieuxtemps, Anton Josef Bruckner, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Gustav Mahler, and Frédéric François Chopin as subjects for her paintings. In "2016 Ode to Music1606 Bruckner: Symphony No. 7 in E major" the artist looks to Bruckner's Symphony which was written in 1883 featuring Wagner tubas in the grief-stricken second movement that became Bruckner's memorial to Wagner (1813-1883). There follows in the third movement a scherzo dominated by a restlessly repeated humorous and festive strings and a pastoral loveliness. Similarly Baek Sheun Shil builds the movement on two contrasting ideas - the lower section of the painting is solemn with black curves and the upper part is pastoral in colorful mode.


All of Baek Sheun Shil's work share similar technical characteristics. Whether the work is based on Beethoven, Bruckner, or Sibelius, the artist builds up the details of the canvas which seems to permeate with sand-like minuscule tea leaves. It is clearly different from the background color or any acrylic paint. In all of the works both the background and the detailed elements on the canvas are elaborated by the layers that soak up the enriched profundity of the artist's experiences.


There are many famous composers who were passionate about art and interacted with artists through influence such as Claude Debussy known as the Impressionist composer, Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns and Franz Liszt. However, in Korea it is still a rare topic to explore the aesthetic connections and mutual influences of plastic arts and music. Baek Sheun Shil makes explicit the influence of music in her work. Through extensive travel she satisfied her craving for music, and together with her fellow music lovers she organized concerts which all represent the artist's model of artistic production to acknowledge how the relationship between classical music and visual art has shaped her artistic practice and visual expression. Tea drinking and classical music are Baek's two distinct but interrelated impulses that offer infinite possibilities. The question of how the connections and the mutual influences of the two seemingly heterogeneous cultural forces will take shape in her visual playing ground remains as floating melodies in a tea cup.