Exquisite Loneliness

Would a bureaucrat give up his wealth, an attractive lover and a fine house to look for the maker of a beautiful object? To sacrifice himself for a vase? To stare into the kiln, and watch as the fire makes it… It is the final scene; one that suggests the allusiveness of the artistic spirit.

Artists. What makes them so odd, so different?

A few details might help us.

Jang Seung-up - known as Ohwon - is a real life genius.

Attracted to a pot a client has given his lover, Ohwon leaves to find the man who made it. A new upsurge of artistic curiosity is consuming him, though as yet he has no idea what he intends do, beyond finding the potter. It is desire that alone drives him; plus a vague sense that something will happen when he reaches his destination. Only later will there be fulfilment, if his talent, his enormous drive, and the particular circumstances of the potter’s art fuse together in his person, and so galvanise him into creative action. He has a long way to go. And he may never reach the place, that temporary paradise, where the flow of creative inspiration fulfils itself in the moment of completion. First Ohwon must find the potter. Then he must explore the medium. If lucky, he will create original work of his own. The artist’s life. Always it is a journey into the unknown.

During much of the film Ohwon is travelling. It is a metaphor for his restlessly productive nature; always requiring new things to stimulate him into fresh ways of expressing himself. To stay in a house, in a town, in a village, is the same as being stuck in one style; safe and prosperous but creatively sterile. Get up and walk out of here!  

Walking suggests a particular mental mode…the temporary suspension of directed activity. When Ohwon leaves he has little idea of where he will end up. Usually he is escaping from the pressures of his current circumstances – such as a nagging lover, critical students, or an overbearing aristocrat. Wandering around he nevertheless finds himself in places he wants to be: he meets his guru, reunites with a lost lover, discovers a spot to start his own school. So it is with his art. There is an incomprehensible logic - a hidden structure - that directs him, and to which he must trust himself. His talent must be allowed to wander around inside him until some instinct says: “stop; it is time to do something different.” He must float on the waves of his inner being until, the metaphor seems inevitable, he touches dry land. This feeling - the vibrations of a boat banging against the harbour wall - is produced by particular objects or events - one creative period begins we he sees a flock of geese disturbed into the sky1 - or by a specific emotion, usually linked to a woman; it is their loneliness, weakness, and sadness that stimulates him. These feelings are a theme. The other reason why he must always be moving on: his creative spirit is that of the exile longing after his lost home. Periodically he finds a new home; and tuned to its inner feeling the waves hit the beach, and a new style spills across his canvases. Afterwards, he walks - like a surfer who has rode the great wave - triumphantly across the sands, his admirers clustering around him, amazed at his breathtaking brilliance. Their chatter annoys him.

Ohwon finds his lover again. Mae-hyang, being a Catholic, has had to hide during the years of persecution. She now asks him to make another painting for her, like the one he did on silk, and which she has kept safe during these lost decades. His paintings have the power of a religious shrine for his devotees… A young beggar, who eventually leaves Ohwon because he finds the life too hard (there is so much walking!),2 keeps the masterpiece that was painted especially for him. He will never sell it, even when offered lots of money by a Japanese who is infatuated with Ohwon’s art. This painting, the beginning of a new style, which he took months to perfect, includes, we surmise, much of the atmosphere of his relationship with this boy; who intuitively recognises this. The painting expresses Ohwon’s grasp of the relationship’s transcendental quality; which in turn reflects his own sensibility; which is wonderfully summarised in a scene with a prostitute lover, who, angry and desperate with his obnoxious and drunken behaviour, says that she stays with him only because of his innocence. Ohwon is a wild man. He is a bad one too. And yet, it is true, he is also an innocent. Nicely symbolised by his late deflowering (he must be in his mid-twenties) by a prostitute who cannot believe that he is still a virgin. Ohwon distils his charisma into his work; which then becomes a magical property for those attuned to its aesthetic qualities. They will never it give up. Thus the care and devotion Mae-hyang has given to looking after that silk painting. She knows it contains the best of herself.

Ohwon is an innocent. He is also violent and abusive and utterly self-centred.  A lover (not Mae-hyang) therefore decides to end their affair, and demands a painting before they part - so she can sell it. But this is no mercenary act…

Money isn't important in this world. We see this when another prostitute (there are many in this film; it is the milieu to which Ohwon belongs; while their beauty and frequent aestheticism - Mae-hyang, for example, plays the saenghwang  - suggests that they themselves are works of art) asks for a painted screen. His reward: a night of love. Ohwon, though, is not interested simply in sexual intercourse. He wants to know about her - that curiosity again - while even sex requires the right mental atmosphere; its performance another aesthetic act with its own special rituals. He thinks she resembles his old love Mae-hyang, and wonders if she is her daughter… He is interrupted rudely. “I’ve had a long night, and I don’t want to hear you questions. We should just have sex.” Although she is young and beautiful Ohwon gets up without saying a word and walks out. It is a typical gesture. When angry he walks away. Later he will get drunk; and he may even try to kill himself. 

The suicide attempt is an odd scene. It occurs after he has been praised by his students, one of whom wants to keep a painting he has just executed using natural objects. His response: to jump into the river! Praise is as hard to accept as disdain. Words are weights that hold him down, and sometimes, like here, they can come close to killing him. Nothing must obstruct the free flow of his spirit. Too much commendation is a trap; it may encourage him to stick to a style, or it may create the pressure of expectation; itself an obstacle. No! No! No! Ohwon grabs and rips up his improvised picture. No one will own him! 

Ohwon has a tremendous sense of honour and pride - no-one is allowed to insult him, or deny or cheapen his work - as well as great humility: towards his painting master and to the classics. He can also be kind and gentle. His students, who are in awe of him, do not understand his mentality. It took a month to create such a beautiful screen, they say, and it is for a whore who sells it to a millionaire; and yet you don’t even have sex with her… Such actions do not make sense to them – they are too attached to the material world of things and appearances. Like many disciples, they do not understand their master; for although they may share his technical skills they do not have his unique spirit, the source of his transcendent talent. For Ohwon the material reward - money, flesh - is not important. It is the value the recipient puts on his work that matters. The work itself is everything. Although to be more precise: it is only creation that counts; a painting losing its value the moment after it is completed.  

The young prostitute is a barbarian. She has no feeling for his art. Her obtuseness thus spoils the ambience of their (transient) relationship; which he had expected to re-enact the feelings of the painted screen. Her crudity is like an ugly mistake on a canvas. He has to leave. His work has been soiled. It was not worth the spirit he put into it. It is dead for him.

The disciples have confused the finished object with the creative spirit that made it. Only the latter interests Ohwon. Always he is looking to the future. He is a galaxy away from those connoisseurs - prominent early in the film - whose only concern is the past.

But this is no mercenary act…

His lover may be crude, she may be uncivilised, but she nevertheless loves Ohwon, and so shares his spirit. But she cannot live with him. He is too egotistical to be bearable. There is no “give” in his personality. Yes, he can be thoughtful and gentle, but always it is on his terms alone – he can only be kind and sympathetic when it feels right to him, not when it is needed, when it is essential. The painting is a payment for the pain he has caused her. Worth thousands, he gives it to her for free knowing she will sell it. He doesn't care. He has an idea to execute. When he starts to paint she at first sits still and watches him. Later she gets up to touch him; later still, filling up with soft and floppy affection, she kisses him under the ear. He pushes her away. She is beginning to spoil the atmosphere of pain and hardness that he must put into this work.3

There is something hard about an artist. It is a quality Im Kwon-taek captures brilliantly in this film. The artist is an egocentric character, largely indifferent to the feelings of others; he has an obdurateness, which cuts him off emotionally from everyone else. The artist can be completely obtuse to the world. This is wonderfully conveyed in a scene where Ohwon stands in the road, and blocks the possession of the region’s governor. He doesn't know what is going on! even though those around him are making a show of ritual respect. Except when it stimulates his imagination the outside world doesn't exist; or it is a hindrance. To be beaten up by the governor’s servants a symbol of a wider fault in his nature.

His sensitivity is of an altogether different kind from that of his lover, as she cuddles up to him. This is a physical response, which displays itself in liquid movements. Ohwon’s sensitivity, in contrast, exists in his talent, and suggests a fluid mental quality, that is equal parts physical motion (his brushstrokes) and metaphysical atmosphere.

Ohwon is a wonderfully complex character, and Drunk on Women and Poetry is a scintillating portrait of his complexities. This is a man who doesn’t spend much time explaining himself; another insight in this often beautiful film.4

It is in the smallest details that we see the greatest artists.

There are distinctions in everything. Even in the selling of an artwork. To buy something that one loves can give it a particular value.5 Always it is the feeling that matters.

Artists need respect; and yet they can be very humble. When he arrives at the potter’s workshop, Ohwon watches the whole process, and then, when he is ready, he paints on an unglazed pot. But his hand is shaking (through drink or cold) and he spoils the work. A young potter, ignorant of his reputation, dismisses him as an incompetent. Later, when he sees Ohwon working properly, he changes his views, and apologies for his previous scorn; but the artist isn't interested - he hadn't noticed - he wants only to learn about the techniques of his trade, which like himself is subtle and complex: the brilliancy of the glaze will depend upon whether one is a potter, colourist or painter. Everything depends on the fire, he is told, and we cannot know the result until the pot comes out. We can only hope there will be a masterpiece.

Uncertainty is essential to art. Contingency too.

The man goes to bed. Ohwon stays behind to watch the fire. Later he crawls into the kiln. Wow! What a peculiar thing to do. Yet it is without drama – it is like watching someone climb into a cave in a familiar hillside. It is also spontaneous: until now he hadn’t thought of the idea; it had to grow inside him while he sat and watched the flames. So odd. So unexpected. So this is why he disappeared…

What does it mean? We speculate: he is sacrificing himself to the pot; fusing with its creation to make a masterpiece of which he will be a constituent part. It is a beautiful myth. And wholly within character - it is the success of the film that this bizarre act feels natural.

Earlier, a connoisseur had commented on the fire in Ohwon’s talent. A fire burns, it melts; it destroys… His ability to revivify a tradition, gone stale through too rigid adherence to convention, too attached to particularly the Chinese classics that stultifies experimentation and reform, is what sets him apart from the painters of his generation. Born outside the art world, and therefore free of its intellectual and aesthetic customs, he is able to disregard the fixed views and received opinions that dominate it.

This is a film about class. Ohwon is a commoner in a place where the arts are the preserve of the aristocracy.6

This is a movie about social change. Here is a society undergoing a violent transformation – the old order is losing power; there are reform movements; a peasants’ rebellion, and, cataclysmically, a Japanese invasion and conquest. A new spirit is challenging this highly traditional society; it is a spirit that Ohwon embodies, although - and it is crucial we understand this - he is not part of the forces of change: he is completely outside all the radical and reactionary movements. Ohwon is a man alone. He is abused by his poor father for drawing a picture. A rich man’s servants attack him because of his talent - only the wealthy and sophisticated can appreciate his genius. Later, at the height of his fame, he is beaten by the officials of an authoritarian governor. There is no comfortable niche for him in this world. He doesn't want to fit in. Given the highest honour - to be made into a court painter - he afterwards escapes from the king’s mansion. Thus the terrible irony when the peasants, believing him a decorator for the wealthy and powerful, burn his paintings; one particularly lovely piece going up in flames.7 His life is saved by chance: by the leader of the rebellion, who knows him.

Ohwon’s is a world of individual people, specific moments, and single acts of creation. There are also times of complete collapse; when he falls into drunken debauchery. Unable to live beyond these particularities he cannot fit easily into any institutional setting: only friends, servants, lovers, fellow painters and connoisseurs can understand him, and then not that well. The only ones to have grasped his essence are his master, his servant, and Mae-hyang; it is because they share it too – Mae-hyang has made a beautiful jacket for him, that she keeps in readiness for their reunion.

This spirit is subtle and multitudinous. It will sacrifice itself to what it honours and loves. In a chance meeting between Ohwon and his master we see the profound respect they hold for each other. The pupil prostrates himself at his master’s knees. The old man looks at an Ohwon painting. He is like a lover gazing at the minutiae of a beautiful woman - the kiss-curl on the vaginal hair; the nipple emerging like a fountain from the breast; the tiny birthmark on the inner thigh, shaped like a bud which his fingers will pinch into life… “Every detail is right”, he says. “Not a brush stroke is wasted. It is perfect. It sums up the melancholy state of our present country.” The master is wise and very intelligent, and he is in love with his student’s talent. Ohwon, we sense, is embarrassed by this - because it reverses the order of nature. A reversal he is usually only too keen to promote; attacking the snobs and the mediocre painters who use their aristocratic rank to belittle him. But not here; not with a person he considers his superior in art.

Once he upset the school by starting a painting before his master - art is part of a formalised ritual, done in public, often to music.8 Even though the governor had asked him to begin the work, he was excommunicated by the students, who told him that such licence was disrespectful - he should have rejected the request three times. His faux pas suggests his outsider status; itself the reason for his genius: having not inculcated all the social conditioning he is freer to experiment and do new things. But there is a price for such independence. His is a lonely talent.

Ohwon prostrates himself before his master’s house, and he is eventually given an audience. The master is gentle and full of wise understanding. “I have created the blue, out of which has come your indigo; this you must now propagate until others come and take new colours from you.” It is a beautiful moment, when the meaning of tradition is subtly expounded – not to copy classical forms; but to recreate them with contemporary energies, thus producing a spirit that is both old and new.

The transformative nature of tradition is encapsulated in a brilliant scene. An aristocrat, recognising Ohwon’s talent, tries to bring him up in his home. However, he is poor and has no food to give him (it is a comment on the corrupt and declining social system). He suggests Ohwon be a servant in another house, where he could learn the techniques of painting. The work is mostly drudgery. Then one night he takes the owner’s newly acquired book of Chinese classical prints and looks at it intensely. Fascinated by one of the pictures, he analyses it minutely with a magnifying glass. Afterwards he copies it – perfectly. The owner and his friends (after recovering from their anger) are amazed that someone could do such brilliant work with only one look at the original picture. They believe it is an exact copy until they notice one small difference - Ohwon has added a bird, that sits alone on another branch. It changes the atmosphere of the work, and suggests an aching melancholia – it is Ohwon’s impossible love for the owner’s daughter, the first person to really recognise his talent in this house.

Tradition is not copying. It is a respect for the old ways that at the same time recognises that they must be partially rejected – the artist must keep the tradition alive by making it new. This is a subtle reform and expansion of what already exists, not its erasure. Ohwon embodies this spirit, which accounts for his restless nature that only a few understand. He will shout, scream and do crazy things; but still he will work for those aristocrats he only yesterday despised – more than anyone else they are the upholders of a tradition to which he belongs.

An old friend suggests to Ohwon that he paint pictures that show the realism of this society; its pain and suffering. These aristocrats are so refined! so subtle. Like Ohwon, who correctly interprets this as a political manifesto; his pictures to be propaganda advertising reform. He gets up, and angrily walks out. Later, though, when his friend is arrested, he returns to his house and colours one of his paintings. It is a dangerous and pointless act that reveals the bond between them. For although they may disagree about the purpose of art, and Ohwon will never be told what to do, they share the same spirit, to which homage is paid by the completion of this picture. Tradition is about influence, and its subtle workings upon our feelings; it is not about authoritarian control or social reform. Slavish admiration is out too. Although there are exceptions: when Ohwon is a student he must take harsh lessons from his master in order to learn the true nature of tradition, which requires the casting out of its superficial forms.

Yet another prostitute appears. She wants Ohwon’s child, who, she says, “will be an even greater artist than you.” Like the master and Mae-hyang this woman - who talks about the meaning of what Ohwon is painting - has a sensibility that can connect with the inner nature of his work. Art conveys an atmosphere, to which only a few can respond; mostly refined aristocrats and society’s aesthetically minded outsiders. Technique is not enough. When he first arrived at the school Ohwon had a remarkable facility for copying the classics. But this will not make him into a great talent. You paint the classics as if you were writing a treatise, he is told. This is not the way! You must put your own being into your works. You must create the things you see. An example is given: the master shows how a painting conveys the yearning of a character; thus perfectly capturing the melancholy lines of the poetry it illustrates. The secret is to transfer one’s own mental atmosphere onto the canvas within the highly flexible but nevertheless distinct forms of a great tradition; Chinese and Korean. In a master, spirit and form merge to produce something new that expands this tradition; making it even more flexible.

It is the spirit that matters. But so much depends upon the times. Ohwon is free to create new forms because the time is right; the society is breaking down and so allowing new ideas and new people to emerge and to rise to eminence. In his small way Ohwon too is changing things, undercutting the exclusive superiority of the aristocratic class. This artist linked to an intellectual idea, which is banned in Korea, but which appears to reflect the zeitgeist

If painters can be commoners, why not politicians, even supreme rulers? This artist is a metaphor for a wider transformation.

One thing is clear. And we must remember it. Ohwon is a one-off. The peasant rebellion ends his love-making, and he spills his seed onto his lover’s thighs – he will not have a child; or found a new school of painting.

This failure has a social resonance: Korea is dying, and will soon be dead – it will be occupied by the Japanese. A great society, with a long history, and which produced art of the highest quality, will exist no more. Ohwon crawls into the furnace; it will be its one last late efflorescence…

 …the pot comes out.  On it is a man on the prow of a small boat. He looks lonely. He is looking into the distance.  Always, it seems, this man must look into the future he cannot see. Ohwon has gone. But in this pot his spirit remains. This spirit. It is Korea’s only hope.9

1.  Some of these moments are very good. Others are poor: they too close to New Age “spirituality”. It is the only failure in the film.

2.  It is a metaphor for the artist’s way of life. David Hockney on Ossie Clark: he couldn't be an artist “because all the artists he’d ever known had worked very hard.” (in Jenny Diski, A View from the Bed; and other observations)

3.  In William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives, a book as much about art as religion, an idol-maker tells the author that he always tries to be in the right frame of mind when making an idol. 

4.  The attention to the framing of the shots reminds us of Bergman. There are lots of carefully photographed images and scenes. There are a number of passages where we just see cameras shots of nature (think of Summer with Monika), while there is also a lot of movement in the theatrical scenes, much of which takes place into the background while the central participants are captured in close up. Watching the movie we are always aware, especially in the urban scenes, that a tremendous number of things are happening, and which we cannot quite grasp. Also like Bergman there are times we think Im Kwon-taek is using the camera like a painter – he is literally making pictures.

5.  This is wonderfully caught in Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, where the idol-maker differentiates between his bronzes for religious ritual and those made by workshops for the tourist trade. The religious statue must contain the maker’s spirit, otherwise it will have no magic.

6.  A similar social structure appears to operate throughout India – occupations like idol-making, singing, and epic recitals tend to be hereditary, and are linked to caste. (Nine Lives)

7.  The compacted image of the geese - the flock squeezed in the top and left-hand parts of the canvas - gives us a sense of their claustrophobic flight; while a huge hawk dominates the empty space in the centre: powerful, free and alone.

8.  Some pictures are done collectively as a gift to some important official.

9.  And our’s too… The current fragility of our high culture is wonderfully but painfully described in Nine Lives. Globalisation - in all its forms: economic liberalism, religious fundamentalism, populism and corporate consumerism - is destroying cultures that are thousands of years old.