A major exhibition of contemporary Korean ink painting is currently on show in New Hampshire. Park Dae Sung transforms meditative observation into monumental artworks that revitalise traditional Korean brush-and-ink techniques for a modern audience. His paintings couple large scale (several works in the show are more than 25 feet long) with technical finesse, reinterpreting ancient landscapes and objects. With many of these works exhibited for the first time, Park Dae Sung inspires viewers to rethink modernity via tradition and engage with the impact of the past on life today.

The show is organised into four sections: Landscapes, Birds and Animals, Still Life, and Calligraphy that feature paintings which rethink landscape, still life, modernity, and tradition. Ink Reimagined aims to capture the essence of Park Dae Sung’s practice by exploring a deeper contemplation of traditional East Asian art and the diversity of styles – meditative, dramatic, tranquil, and powerful – that exist in the medium of ink. Viewers will walk away from Park’s work with a newfound understanding of what it means to find beauty in what is old, and with a fresh perspective upon humanity’s contemporary relationships with nature, identity, and homeland. His scenes present an imaginative reinterpretation of history that in turn encourages a more progressive and stirring vision of the future.

Korean Ink Wash Painting

In her chapter entitled ‘The Search for Modernity in Korean Ink-wash Painting’ in Interpreting Modernism in Korean Art (Routledge, 2021) Mingyi Kang discusses the background to Korean modern art and writes that with the introduction of Western art styles and techniques in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Korean painters were faced with a daunting challenge: how to preserve tradition while embracing modernity. The social changes that marked the modern era can be traced back to the 18th century, when the collapse of the feudal system severely disrupted the existing class hierarchy, enabling ordinary people to conceive of independence and individuality for the first time. The search for modernity in Korean ink-wash painting correlated with the partition of calligraphy and painting, which for centuries had been unified in traditional Eastern art. The modern era brought profound changes to the education system, particularly with the implementation of mandatory general education for all children, regardless of social class, as well as age-stratified schools.

Korean ink painting (hangukhwa) traditionally prioritised the use of shape and line in ink to depict scenery that was not real but rather so idyllic that anyone might wish to imagine oneself there. Scholars believed that painting and calligraphy should channel the artist’s creativity and inner being, a ‘landscape of the mind’, rather than simply depict the world.

Park Dae Sung was born in 1945, the year that marked Korea’s independence from Japanese colonization and the end of World War II. Even in the remote city of Cheongdo where he lived, Park was not spared the grip of the Korean War, which began in 1950. Park lost both his parents and his left arm during an attack by North Korean sympathisers, which left him physically disabled and marginalised by his peers. His formal education ended shortly thereafter, and he turned to painting and calligraphy as a source of solace while confronting the hostility of the world around him. Such adversity at a young age informed Park’s creative philosophy later in life. He states, ‘When the body is uncomfortable, the mind does not become sluggish and is awake. I achieved what I have because of my disabled arm, so I refrain from being (too) comfortable’.

Self-Taught Artist

As a primarily self-taught artist, Park Dae Sung picked up the brush at an early age and turned to painting and calligraphy as sources of solace from the adversities in his life. Despite his earlier hardships, Park believes that a state of discomfort stimulates his mind and pushes him to perfect the art of ink painting. Althåough Park’s artistic practice began with daily calligraphic practice and the imitation of work by earlier Korean masters, his landscapes became novel because they represented imagined ideals through direct observation. He evokes the mood of the land around him while still capturing a unique Korean sense of abstraction. Through a mixture of learning from old masters and painting directly from observation, Park seeks to capture the vitality of the natural world with his brush. With an earnest dedication to his craft, Park is now well-regarded for his contributions to modernising Korean ink painting.

Inspired by the outside world, Park’s paintings also possess a meditative quality that invites viewers to reflect on nature’s power. Minimising human presence, they allow one to focus on the organic rhythms and energetic flows of the landscapes depicted. Park, leading a hermit’s lifestyle, rejects modern conveniences to this day in order to fully immerse himself in his work. From the astonishing vastness of mountains to the individual leaves of trees, Park demonstrates a sensitivity to the perception of both large and small details and employs unusual perspectives, such as the aerial view in Heaven, Earth, and Human. His hyperrealistic interpretations expand the uses of line through varied thickness, darkness, and texture. Rather than an austere portrayal, Park creates dynamic, vibrant images.

In East Asia, calligraphy and painting were traditionally viewed as having the same origin in the media of ink and paper, with the two respective practices embodying what was perceived as fine art.

20th Century Painting and Calligraphy in Korea

In the 20th century, the view of painting and calligraphy as an intertwined practice was abandoned, but Park rebels against this separation, creating artworks whose philosophical core lies in their combination. The practice of ink and wash painting involves carbon-based black ink applied to paper or silk, with meticulous attention to technique and the rendering of lines. Unlike the opaque paintings with which Western audiences are more familiar, Park’s Korean ink painting is a notoriously unforgiving medium – all the brushstrokes are final and unchangeable, and stroke thickness, type, darkness, and texture all contribute to the works’ expressiveness. Park’s paintings represent the breadth of possibility in East Asian ink painting, with some featuring powerful, bursting lines and others being hyper-realistic and detailed.

Park is celebrated for continuing the East Asian ‘true view’ landscape painting tradition that dates back to the 18th century, with a modern, innovative style. In his focus on calligraphy, a practice that fell out of favour as fine art in the 20th century, Park brings vast expressiveness to Dartmouth Associate Professor of Art History Sunglim Kim, curator of the exhibition, adds, ‘Ink Reimagined is a great opportunity for the Dartmouth and Upper Valley communities to meet this world-class artist in person and see his magnificent works first hand. Park is very humble and deliberate in personality yet passionate and exuberant when engaged with painting. Visitors will see two contrasting characters in his sensitive bird and still life works; long handscroll calligraphy; and bold, energetic, and gigantic landscapes. We hope the exhibition will deepen Western understanding of Park’s modern style and inspire interest in the long tradition of East Asian ink painting, as well as contemporary Korean art and culture’.

Korean ink painting, until 19 March, 2023, Hood Museum, Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu.

Variations of this exhibition will also be shown at the Charles B. Wang Center, Stony Brook University (14 Sept to 10 Dec; and at the University of Mary Washington (26 Oct to 10 Dec 10, 2023. Catalogue available