Lot 1085
  • 1085

Kim Whanki

2,000,000 - 3,000,000 HKD
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  • Kim Whanki
  • Plum Blossoms
  • circa 1957-1959
  • oil on canvas
signed in English, framed


Private American Collection (acquired directly from the artist in 1966)
By descent to the present owner from the above


This work is generally in good condition. There is very mild wear in handling marks around the edges. Having examined the work under ultraviolet light, there appears to be no evidence of restoration.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Preserving the Past, Capturing the Future
Kim Whanki

When one turns to contemporary Korean art, Kim Whanki’s presence is never distant. From humble biographical works to weighty retrospectives, his name is often used in tandem to the construction of the identity of Korean contemporary art, its culture, its traditions, and its philosophies. Kim, whose eminence extends even to the contemporary Asian art movement as a whole, worked tirelessly throughout his artistic life, leaving behind a huge variety of works that span various media, including oils, paper, collages, ceramics and woodworks. The present sale presents Plum Blossoms (Lot 1085) which painted in the late 1950s, created shortly after Kim and his wife left Korea for Paris.

By the end of the thirties and upon his graduation from the College of Fine Arts at the Nihon University, Kim had already produced approximately five hundred original works, an early sign of the same arduous spirit the young artist would carry through to the end of his career. As a fresh graduate, Kim entered an original piece, When the Larks Sing (1935), into the Nikakai Exhibition for the first time. The piece, which was rendered in the Romantic styles of the West, hinted at Cubism and Futurism, artistic modes that Kim was no doubt exposed to through Japan. Despite its apparently Western rendering however, it was a work that did not shy away from Kim’s Korean identity and the art that was popular at the time; rather, it was in line with Modern Korean pieces that depicted quotidian scenes of farming, fishing, or indeed intimate domestic scenes. This adept amalgamation of Tradition and Modernity would become the basis for Kim’s entire oeuvre.

The quintessence of Korea would become all the more important to the artist during his first years abroad, which is when Kim painted Plum Blossoms. In 1956 Kim and his wife left for Paris, and it was while he was abroad in this great city of modern art, with a great distance between himself and his home, that a clear and comprehensive contemplation of all things Korean could be achieved. To study or work in Paris was a goal many young Korean artists worked towards, and to be able to show one’s works in the city of art itself was beyond dreams. When Kim arrived in Paris, the Art Informel movement had given way for Nouveau Réalisme, which would produce the likes of Yves Klein. But having been exposed instead to grand masters during his time as a student, Kim was drawn to other artists, such as Bernard Buffet, Alfred Manessier, and Pablo Picasso.

Turning to Kim’s Plum Blossoms, one can see both homage as well as a departure from the Korean Modernist style. Being an important symbol of strength in the lexicon of traditional Korean art, the plum blossom has here been depicted against a moonlit sky, its vast branches sprawling across the canvas in a great show of its vigour, being a plant that weathers even the harshest of winters to blossom in spring. In terms of the great masters who greatly influenced Kim during his years in Paris and when this work was created, one may even be able to detect Henri Matisse’s impact. In Plum Blossoms Green Background and Plum Blossoms Ochre Background, both painted by Matisse in 1948, vases filled with plum blossoms sit along the edge of a dining table, accompanied by a faceless figure. The plum blossoms have been rendered in a Western style, and yet, its existence presence is highly indicative of Matisse’s well-known Orientalist gaze, spurred on the West’s increasing interest in Asian objects. This attraction to the East is of course shared by many of Matisse’s contemporaries, such as Vincent Van Gogh, who likewise found much stimulus from Japanese works of art.

When one reencounters these in Kim’s piece, however, the plant exists solely as a pure distillation of what has been dubbed “Koreanness”, an essence that is perhaps all the more potent in the work considering the artist’s distance from his home country. Kim would go on to continue re-exploring the theme of the quintessentially Korean plum blossoms in his later works, but rarely are they so realistic and plump in their rendering. This nostalgic treatment of the plant is perhaps even more touching considering that Kim would only return to Korea once in 1959 for a short four years after painting Plum Blossoms, before he passed away in New York in 1974.

Even after his death in 1974 a slew of different commemorative exhibitions were held in both New York and at the São Paulo Biennale in November 1975. But perhaps the most important event to happen after Kim’s passing was the opening of the Whanki Museum in Seoul in 1992. There, finally, was a permanent place where the memory of Kim and his art could remain, fully solidifying his firm place as one of Korea’s most influential and noteworthy artists of the modern and contemporary era, and finally, a peaceful resting ground for all of his most cherished memories.