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Artist Byun Shi-ji’s Jeju inspiration
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승인 2013.07.30  15:45:38
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▲ Byun Shi-ji, the Jeju artist who passed away in June at 97 years of age. Photo courtesy Gidang Gallery

Translated by Bogyeong Kim

[Byun Shi-ji passed away on June 8, 2013, at 87 years of age. His work is displayed at the Gidang Gallery, Seogwipo City.]

In Byun Shi-ji's memories of youth, the strong wind of Jeju remained. It was not the wind broken by skyscrapers, but the first wind that runs to the end of the uni-verse. The wind that doesn’t differentiate between oceans or islands, but just blows; the wind that intersects heaven and hell.

Thatched houses are easily blown down by the typhoons that come in summer. If you look outside when the wind is calm, the ship moving toward the shore is seen glimmering under the shining sun like a dot. Between the house and the ship there are farms and a whole ocean. Near to town, flocks of crows fly toward the woods. And on the grassland, ponies enjoy the grass.

The scenery and customs that occasionally appear in Byun’s work are called the memories of youth. Byun Shi-ji’s own journey was like that of the circling crow, for whom the starting point becomes the ending point. Born in Jeju, he moved to Japan, then Seoul and then back to Jeju; Byun’s artistic life was the samsara of wind.

Painting by Byun Shi-ji

Byun Shi-ji went to Japan when he was six, where his art eventually attracted the attention of Japanese painters. His career can be divided into the Japanese period (1945~1956), Seoul period (1957~1974), and Jeju period (1975~2013).

The Japanese period began when he graduated from Osaka Art School and drew paintings of people and landscapes inspired by his sincere interpretation of life. Byun received recognition through the “34th Gwangpung Prize,” for which he became the youngest winner at the age of 23. He also held personal exhibitions three times in Japan and engaged in various other activities.

However, Byun had trouble with his self-identity while living in Japan. It led him to finally conclude: “I am Korean; I’d rather go to Korea and create unique art on Korean landscapes and customs.” With that, he decided to return.

His work on Seoul was produced between 1957 and 1974. From 1963, he went to the Secret Garden to paint daily. The Secret Garden, his hidden place, inspired him to ask: “what is Korean beauty?”

▲ Going the way as it is Painting by Byun Shi-ji

The Seoul period is an artistic stepping stone in between the Japanese and Jeju periods. In the 1970s, Byun, scrutinizing the origins of Korean beauty, realized to himself that ‘Jeju’s essence is the most universal essence.”

For Byun, Jeju was a marvel, yet it wasn’t until 1975 that he returned to the island. The deep impression that had been deep within him from a young age had resurfaced as a catalyst to stimulate his art; he thus completed his journey.

By delving into Jeju’s nature, he not only embraced Korean beauty, but also the enchanting light and shapes of Jeju. To his 44-year-old mind and sight, he creatively added the new shapes of Jeju to his canvas. Jeju inspired a new direc-tion for his art, free from any restrictive conventions about how Jeju’s landscapes and culture should be represented.

Byun understood that “painting is just drawing what one wishes to draw.” He moved away from the realism that he had practised in Seoul. Of course, the realism he had embraced previously still formed the foundation for his art, but it had evolved.

People were still central to his work, and fundamental human emotions, such as loneliness, solidarity and longing, ardently remained.

Moving on in his later years, he felt that if his work were too cluttered, it would distract from these deep feelings. By that time, if the humans, birds, horses, houses, trees, wind or islands were to be deleted from his paintings, only dots would remain.

Byun stood in front of an easel all his life. His work gave the impression being complicated, but in fact it was minimal; to experience this is akin to entering the spiritual domain through the pleasure of exquisite art.

Brief profile

1926 Born in Seogwipo

1931 Went to Japan

1945 Graduated from Osaka University of Arts and entered the Athenee Francais French Department

1949 Held his first private exhibition (Tokyo Shiseido Gallery)

1957 Returned to Korea (Seoul)

1958 Held an oil exhibition at Hwashin Department Store, Hwashin Gallery

1975 Returned to Jeju as a professor at Jeju National University

1987 Exhibited 37 works at Seogwipo Gidang Art Museum

1991 Retired from Jeju National University and settled in Seogwipo

2007 Exhibited two of his works for 10 years at the Smithsonian Museum, Washington: “A wild dance” and “Going the way as it is”

2010 Held an exhibition at Jeju Museum of Art as part of a Jeju KBS project


Paint1 <A wild dance>, canvas in oils, 100, 1997.

Paint2 <Storm and gale>, canvas in oils, 30×44.5cm, 1997.

Paint3 <Loneliness is a bait>, canvas in oils, 30×40cm, 1994.

Paint4 <Endless wind>, canvas in oils, 30×40cm, 1993.

Paint5 <Going the way as it is>, canvas in oils, 100, 2006.

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