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Plum blossoms herald spring

When Chinese plum trees bloom into clouds of puffy white and red blossoms, we know spring is just around the corner.

The flowers are likened to “seonbi,” or a firm and right-minded scholar, in Korea because their soft and fragrant petals peep out despite the chilly weather.

This herald of spring is one of the “sagunja,” or four gracious plants, which also include orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo.

Avenuel, the upmarket section of Lotte Department store in Sogong-dong, central Seoul, recently set up a three meter-wide and two meter-tall painting of thousands of plum blossoms on its first floor.

The work is by Huh Dal-jae, a Korean painter best known for plum flower paintings. He is currently holding a solo exhibition at Avenuel, mainly in Lotte Gallery on the ninth floor of the department store.

“Galleries were not so much interested in Korean paintings in the past twenty years. They have been calling me only recently. But they keep asking for plum blossom paintings. I don’t want to have a limited repertoire but I just keep end up doing it,” Huh said, jokingly, at a press conference last week.

His plum blossom paintings, however, have much more to them than he implies.

Huh learned how to paint when he was six years old from his grandfather, Uijae Huh Baek-ryeon (1891-1977), a legendary painter who was famous for beautiful sceneries of ponds and gardens. There was a big Chinese plum tree in the back yard of his grandfather’s house, said Huh.

“My grandfather esteemed highly the class and dignity of plum blossoms. He always said that it is easy to learn the basics but it is not easy to think right-heartedly. He told me to read and study a lot because a good painting comes from a good mind,” Huh reminisced. 
Artist Huh Dal-jae
Artist Huh Dal-jae

Following his grandfather’s teachings, Huh trained all his life, painting the plum blossoms over and over again. Fifty years passed and now he knows by heart everything about the flowers to the tiniest details. He can simply paint what is in his head and casually add a modern touch of his own which is known as the “Huh Dal-jae style.”

In his paintings, the blossoms of the Chinese plum trees are more bountiful compared to those seen in traditional sagunja paintings.

“Plum blossoms are actually very abundant, almost as much as cherry blossoms. If the seonbi emphasized the noble spirit of the flower by depicting a single branch, I wanted to express its abundance,” said Huh.

“There were times when we used think that tradition could only be passed down when we copy the style exactly, but times have changed. Now, I think it is okay to make it a bit modern, so that it can fit into the perspective of contemporary men, all the while maintaining the dignity.”
“White Plum” by Huh Dal-jae (Avenuel)
“White Plum” by Huh Dal-jae (Avenuel)

It actually started as an alternative to “hanji,” or Korean traditional paper made from the inner bark of mulberry trees, which is very expensive, but the special paper Huh uses, dyed in black tea, adds a special mood to his works as well.

For those who like it more modern, Huh often sprinkles gold foil on top of the paintings to give an extra sparkle or paints only on the top half of a folding screen so it they can be placed behind a sofa or bed.

“We used to take out folding screens only to hold memorial services. But now, if we change our way of thinking a little, they can surely be used to decorate Western-style homes or offices,” he said.

Huh is currently working in three cities ― Seoul, Gwangju Metropolitan City and Beijing in China. He went to Beijing for an exhibition three years ago and decided to set up a studio there because there were so many things to learn.

“You can encounter not only the Chinese culture but also the culture of the world in China these days. By working there, I am learning how China and the world are changing,” said Huh.

Paintings of tea sets which were favorably received at his show held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing in 2008 are also on display at this exhibition.

Huh will be holding a solo show at the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy in Qi Baishi Memorial Museum in Beijing and the Shanghai Art Museum later this year.

At Lotte Gallery in Avenuel in Sogong-dong, central Seoul, the exhibition runs through March 20. The paintings will be displayed throughout Avenuel until April 25. For more information, call (02) 726-4428~9.

By Park Min-young (claire@heraldcorp.com)
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