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For more on the class, click here to read Jessica Sicard’s article from earlier this year. — Ed.

My husband and I live on Jeju Island where we took classes in muninhwa art for about 9 months in 2012. We were the only Westerners that attended, so there was a language barrier, and many Koreans prefer to study Chinese characters which provides them with experience in brush-and-ink technique. Learning is easier for them, but after we had worked with Teacher Kim Seung-jun (김승준) — whose art-name is Jeung San — we came to realize we shouldn’t have worried. Language turned out not to be a problem. He drew pictures freely; if anyone asked him to repeat he would do so patiently until we understood. We had met the right teacher! Everyone really enjoyed the class and at last we were able to paint our own full scenes.

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Teacher Kim Seung-jun (Jeung San). Photo by Petya Campbell

Muninhwa (문인화, 文人畵) literally means paintings by people of culture, which refers to the Korean seonbi or literati upper-class. This means work other than that of professional or dedicated artists. There is also an implied reference to the “four gentlemen” or “four noble/gracious plants” (사군자, 四君子) orchid, bamboo, chrysanthemum and plum blossom, which form an important element of the subject matter for East Asian ink-and-wash painting (수묵화 水墨畵). The style originated in China and arrived on the Korean peninsula near the end of the Samguk period (57–668) soon after the development in China of soot ink. Korean muninhwa reached its golden age during the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910).

“The goal of ink and wash painting is not simply to reproduce the appearance of the subject, but to capture its soul… To paint a flower, there is no need to perfectly match its petals and colors, but it is essential to convey its liveliness and fragrance. East Asian ink wash painting may be regarded as an earliest form of expressionistic art that captures the unseen.” (Wikipedia)

Master Jeung San from Jeju has been practicing calligraphy and painting in this style for 37 years. He provides introductory lessons and high-level instruction in this art form he loves, at his studio and at public facilities in Jeju City and Seogwipo City. “The black ink can endure over 1,000 years,” he said, “and seven or eight distinct shades or feelings can be expressed only with this single color.”

“Ink wash painting artists spend years practicing basic brush strokes to refine their brush movement and ink flow. In the hand of a master, a single stroke can produce astonishing variations in tonality, from deep black to silvery gray. Thus, in its original context, shading means more than just dark-light arrangement, it is the basis for the beautiful nuance in tonality unique to East Asian ink wash painting and brush-and-ink calligraphy.” (Wikipedia)

Have the Koreans modified the style from the Chinese? “Not greatly,” Jeung San replied, “actually the Koreans came to imitate the Japanese expressions of muninhwa, but some of the younger painters got tired of copying Japanese scenery because the Korean natural scenery is quite different. This resulted in the jingyeongsansuhwa (진경산수화, 眞景山水畵) movement during the mid-Joseon period.” He says he was motivated by a periodical magazine Friends of Freedom (Jayu Euiboet), which contained beautiful muninhwa, and became determined to expand on his study of calligraphy and accomplish the art. Has he ever veered from this dream? “Absolutely not,” he said. As is the case with many Korean muninhwa painters, especially men, his favorite subject is bamboo.

Among the four gracious plants, plums (mae, 매) flower at the end of winter, representing purity and overcoming the adversity of harsh conditions. Plum blossoms give hope. The orchid, which blooms in spring, symbolizes love and beauty. It lives deep in the forested mountains, separated from the secular world and isolated from populist influence. Summer’s bamboo is a symbol of the seonbi scholar, uprightness, modesty, and the ability to withstand strong wind yet stay green in cold weather. Scholars say about bamboo that one must become it before being able to paint it. Chrysanthemum keeps blooming all through fall even into the snows, and denotes longevity, endurance. Though a pretty flower that imparts plenty of warm color, wild chrysanthemum is not particularly gaudy. This humility is taken to be a virtue.

Jeung San himself is quiet and humble and is highly respected on Jeju. He teaches these four noble plants to beginners — yet some of his most focused students, rather than going on to more complex of the typical set of muninhwa subjects such as pine trees, lotus, birds and landscapes, concentrate on just one or two of the noble plants. One of them, a dedicated elder in Seogwipo, elected to paint bamboo for years on end.

Artist Kim Seung-jun, center, with the author and her husband Eugene Campbell. Photo courtesy Petya Campbell

Artist Kim Seung-jun, center, with the author and her husband Eugene Campbell. Photo courtesy Petya Campbell

Korea’s history was heavily influenced by men of the seonbi class, the scholars, and they were historically influential in all three Far-east countries. Jeung San mentioned four in particular, Confucius and Mencius from China and Hwang Hi and Yul Gok of Korea. He also cited two role models of his own: for his writings, Chusa (Kim Jeong Heui 김정희, 1786–1856) who was exiled to Jeju by the Joseon king for political opposition but who is still widely revered, and Weol Jeon (Jang U Seong 장우성, 1912–2005) for his art.

To prepare for an important painting, Jeung San said he often meditates. As to be expected, he derives joy and satisfaction from his work, serenity in particular. He also admitted sheepishly that amateur art is not the way to become wealthy: “Artists are usually poor.”

When asked if he had a particular method different from others who paint this style, he only said he has been experimenting with different subtleties, working toward something unique. To the untrained eye, however, it may be hard to distinguish significant differences between the work of one muninhwa master or another. Other styles such as Western or modern art depict a great variety of subjects, but ink brush painting limits itself to depicting nature. Moreover, learning artists tend to copy the work of a master as closely as possible, in hopes of perfecting the technique. When asked about the inherent creativity in muninhwa he said it is quite sublime, not merely a matter of the painting itself, and spoke about the five elements of Far-eastern philosophy and medicine (오행, o-haeng), metal, water, fire, wood and earth.

  • metal: sweeping movement of the arm (e.g. long, slender orchid leaves)
  • water: flowing from movement of the wrist (e.g. bamboo leaves, plum blossoms)
  • fire: from the twisting of the fingers (e.g. orchid flowers, grape vines)
  • wood: strokes interrupted by a jabbing motion (e.g. jointed bamboo stalks)
  • earth: poking (e.g. the earth dots at the base of an orchid)

Four other characteristics can describe a stroke of the inked brush — ji 지, slow, sok 속, fast, wan 완, relaxed, or geup 급, hurried — and it begins to become clear what he means by, “not merely a matter of the painting itself.” This is not just the brush action on the paper; it also includes a depth of understanding and plenty of practice just to load the brush with ink in a way that results in the desired image. The ink can be diluted with water to a consistency of black or grey, and more than one shade is frequently loaded into the soft bristles. An impatient beginner may become easily frustrated.

Comparing it to modern art forms, he admitted, creativity is lacking in a certain sense: “In a Western style, through different colors we can look into the mind of an artist, but in muninhwa with this single black ink, one can perceive vigor or melancholy, lethargy, energetic — the condition of a painter’s heart. A simple line can be expressed in various ways, with a combination of possible feelings. It’s like looking at an ink blot in a psychiatrist’s office.” Jeung San can utilize colored ink quite adroitly in the rendition of birds, landscapes, trees and flowers, but he does not experiment with other styles and materials as do some younger artists he has taught. He says he would rather stick with the traditional.

Muninhwa never expresses negativity, resentment, anger — always joy or calm, peace; perhaps this is what can be said to be its most significant characteristic and highest expression of value. It was pleasurable and meaningful to learn from Teacher Kim Seung-jun, to understand more the philosophy, tradition, movements, positive thinking and poetry of this ancient Asian art form.

Classes, which resume March 4, are every Monday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. until noon at the Seogwipo Continued Learning Center (Seogwipo Pyeongsaeng Hakseupgwon) in Seogwipo City. They will happen every two months until autumn. For more information, call 064-760-2261 or Eugene Campbell at 010-8873-3268.