Byun Shi Ji
(born 1926)

The following information is from an essay by Korean art critic Lee Ku Yol. Please see more critiques at The Byun Shi Ji Art Gallery.

Byun Shi Ji was born in Sogwipo, the southern harbor of Cheju Island, and moved to Japan, following his father, in 1931. He spent his young days in Osaka and made a debut as a painter. He majored in oil painting at the Osaka Art School. The news of Independence from Japanese colonial rule found him still in Japan in 1945. He continued to stay in Japan after the change.

His career as a painter began in Tokyo, the capital of Japan. He got awards from the Kofukai, when the club invited the young artists to join in a prize contest for best works in 1947. In the same year, he was more recognized by getting an award from the Japanese National Arts Exhibition, sponsored by the Ministry of Education, which was an authorized annual exhibition in Japan. The second participation in the Kofukai Exhibition allowed him to be awarded to golden prize and to be spotlighted in the public. His connection with the Kofukai still continues, by his taking part in their club.

The awards made his career and position firm in the Japanese art world. In 1957, he returned to Korea, from his experience in Japan, at the age of thirty one. Until then, he could not have any acquaintance with artists in Korea, and was not informed about the Korean art world.

His firm will made compete and stand in the Korean art world, only with his artistic technique, pocketing his feelings alone. He showed the inside of his art in Japan, through the first exhibition, which was held in the year after his return at the Whashin Department Store Gallery. People who were impressed by the level of technique there expected his potential for outstanding and affluent creativity. He held to his principle to be devoted to his canvas by traditional painting awareness, rather than to try to join new artistic trends from the West.

He, however, had tried to paint an abstract or semi-abstract canvas, which implied modern plastic consciousness out of a new observative attitude. This was around the time of his return to Korea. Such attempts were shown in his first exhibition in Korea and made a good contrast with his original naturalism. That was the first and only trial. Since then, he as made a clear adherence to the natural spirit.

Young Days in Japan

His young days's works, which preceded the elaborate and emotional landscape paintings in Seoul, took their themes mostly from man. Composition, color and touch of brush make expressive canvases. Each of these works divulges the outstanding.

'The Woman in a Beret' and 'The Woman Who Holds a Mandolin', which brought the golden prize to him from the 1948 Kofukai Exhibition, are indoor, sedentary figures. Pose in composition, expression of face and hands, use of color and texture of touch make such works valuable and his capability confirmed. After his winning the prize led him to be a member of the Kofukai, he sent two exhibits, 'Rest' and 'The Man Who Has a Violin', to the 1949 Kofukai Exhibition. Their touch and color attracted people.

Two exhibits, 'Femme' and 'A French Lady' and 'A Woman' which got a prize in the 1947 Japanese National Arts Exhibition have his firm and investigating plasticity harmonizing the whole mood of the canvas with the figures. The method was taught by Terauchi Manjro, who was an outstanding academic realist and was leading the Kofukai Club when Byun Shi Ji moved to Tokyo after graduation from the Osaka Fine Arts School. Terauchi Manjiro even wrote a recommendation when Byun Shi Ji held his first exhibition in Tokyo in 1949. Mr. Byun's winning in the Kofukai Exhibition might have had much help from his teacher.

As I mentioned, Byun Shi Ji still participates in the Kofukai Exhibition every year. He, on the other side, got many prize from the Japanese National Exhibition and made his debut sure before he returned to Korea. His efforts can be found in 'Portrait of Memo', 'A Lamp & a Woman', 'The Portrait of Mr. K', 'A Man' and 'Three Nude Women'. The 'Three Nude Women', which especially catches eyes, was formed realistically but composed of different poses and countenanced, with soft lines and unique composition in the coherence and change of red tone. The canvas is very well framed and has the beauty of plasticity. It may be considered his masterpiece of the 1950's. Besides, one of his rare landscapes, 'Afternoon', which got a prize in the 1950 Japanese National Arts Exhibition, has calculated plasticity very correctly, taking its theme from a factory scene with a contemplative view. It basically took a horizontal composition, but building, wall and railroad are emphasized in lines. The method which uniquely caught the calm mood and time of summer afternoon appeared in 'A White House & Black House' in 1946, with its sentimental view.

Those works of his young days were confirmed in Tokyo. Soon, he brought the base to Seoul and tried this method in his mother land.

Seoul Age and Biwon Series

Settling in Seoul, he devoted himself to landscape paintings, which were about forests and lonely paths, as if he wanted to fulfill his long nostalgia for the nature of his mother country. He tried to give his canvas liveliness through light and atmosphere, touching softly with eye and heart and describing lonesome and desolate nature closely and in detail. That was his return to an academic and realistic method. 'Road' which was made in 1960 and 1961 reflects this attempt.

He did not mind the response of people about this method. He believed that artistic creativity should be an unpretended self-realization of an individual as an artist.

In 1960's, he had an opportunity to teach students of the sorabol Arts College (former school of the Chungang Arts College). Marriage with Lee Hak-suk, who majored in Traditional Korean painting, gave him domestic peace and lively activity. Until then, he went on with the academic and realistic method. It was around 1963 that he was charmed with the beautiful scenery and historical beauty of Biwon (Secret Garden) and was absorbed in Biwon series.

He was alone in the central art world, which gave him much time to be immersed in his work. The beauty and historical meaning of Biwon touched the deep emotion of his painting. Until he returned to Cheju Island and became a professor, he continued to paint the color of Biwon for years.

The series are 'Autumn of Biwon', 'Pu-yong Arbor', 'Pan- do Pond' 'Biwon', concerning U-hap Pavilion, 'Ae-yon Arbor', and 'Biwon in the Autumn'. Besides, other old palace with realistic sentiment and reappearance through painting. All of them mirror his long nostalgia piled during his stay, in Japan, of many years. He caught the scene of blue summer, colorful autumn and white winter of Biwon, omitting only spring. He might have thought that the blossom of flowers would deter the soundless depth of a historical atmosphere. His canvas, what is more, does not show any man. Only silence and calmness can be found, which reveals his private heart and mind.

It is noticeable that some change appeared, about 1970, in his canvas. He used more fresh and lucid colors. Unlike the works painted before, scenes of summer and autumn were emphasized by colorful beauty and liveliness of nature in 'Path in Autumn' and 'Summer'.

Return to Cheju and New Self-realization

The landscape paintings of Biwon were exhibited in the Shingi Club Exhibition and the Korean Art Club Association Exhibition, where he became a member, and drew much attention with thorough, realistic method. The method was compared with landscape paintings of Mr. Son Eung-song, who worked during the same period (He died in 1979).

When he returned to Cheju Island and got a job as a full time instructor at the Department of Fine Arts Education in the Cheju National University, he made another change of painting method and expression. Exotic Cheju Island gave him different emotion of painting. He found romantic and local scenes everywhere. These soothed him and fulfilled his nostalgia. He began to try a new technique out of affection. That was his integrated and symbolic expression of love for his native island, and a clear and impressed image different from the realism in Seoul. It was really a change!

In fact, he kept on using the realistic method in Cheju Island for a while. It was between 1976 and 1977 that he suddenly changed his method into the traditional Korean painting method. He absorbed his native island's beauty and its unique life and took its symbols, such as blue sea and long horizon, blue sky and clouds, black rocks and seashore, and stone walls and thatched houses, into his canvas. Those began his use of the oil painting method, like a traditional painting. The first such use is shown in 'Sea Village', 'Io-do' and 'Summer in Cheju Island'.

Apart from the realistic description of objects, the realistic use of color and the thorough objectivity, light yellowish brown is covered on the whole canvas, and black or something like that simply describes the concrete objects of a scene. This unrealistic and plain method confirms him as a local romanticist. He still loves the yellow and black colors. Limited natural color of yellowish brown and black lines as well as the extremely simple development of theme make the scenic beauty of Cheju Island seem dense. He is creating the very art which can only be made by a true artist of Cheju Island.

It is also noteworthy that he depicts native ponies, cows, and people of Cheju into canvas to introduce life to the scenic beauty of Cheju. What is more, another man with a stick appears in the canvas, who is not a farmer or a fisherman, but himself. That is, to describe himself, because it can be clearly explained if we notice a man painting a picture in a small thatched house standing between the sea and a hill.

Introduction of the Oriental Painting Spirit

Byun Shi Ji produced a lot of works, traveling the Europe in 1981. He moved onto his canvas, in a series, his impression of a journey to Italian cities such as Rome, Firenthe, Venezia, Pompeii and Napoli, as well as to Paris and London. His method follows the style used in Cheju Island, the same black lines on the yellowish brown canvas. Here, though, the lines gave relative importance to the situation. Again, a man with a stick shows himself on the canvases. His appearance results from his complex psychology.

His naive canvas, consisting of pure forms, does not give out any unnatural elements. As time goes by, his artistic inclination seizes me with its uniqueness. First of all, the black lines, which are originated from the traditional painting and produced heterogeneous taste with oil colors, are results of his creativity.

When he returned to Korea from Japan, he said in an interview that.

"I came back because I felt that I should establish my are on the national basis, getting older."

Leaving for Cheju Island, he joined with some advocates the Oriental Art Club, which aimed to revive a traditional Oriental style, and led it for years. That shows his will to realize the Oriental painting spirit, through oil painting. At that time he began to try traditional painting in India ink. It is very helpful to understand him through all his surroundings.
I think that he will continue his attachment to the theme of Cheju Island even past his sixties. Not minding the views of people towards his spiritual realism, he will show further his self-realization.

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