Seund Ja Rhee

1918Jinju, South Korea | 2009Tourrettes-sur-Loup, France

South Korean painter, engraver, and ceramicist.

Seund Ja Rhee studied at the Jinju Girls’ High School and at the Jissen Women’s College in the administrative district of Tokyo. She was separated from her three children by the Korean War, and left Asia to settle in Paris in the early 1950s. She continued her artistic training at the Grande Chaumière academy, with Henri Goetz and Yves Brayer. Her early paintings were marked by depictions of her everyday life in Europe and an esthetic close to that of abstract art. One painting in particular, La Neige sur la rue Vaugirard [Snow on the rue Vaugirard, 1956], attracted the attention of Parisian critics for its sharp contrasts of light and dark colours, edging on abstraction. During the following years, she introduced basic geometric figures, such as lines, triangles, squares, and circles, which appear simultaneously as subject and as background. Today this period in her output is often named “Woman and Earth”.

Although she produced relatively few abstract compositions during the 1950s, abstraction became an identifiable part of her work by the beginning of the next decade. Indeed, the 1960s marked a turning point in S. Rhee’s work as she moved toward the abstraction which would define her signature works. Some of the dot patterns these works employ bear comparison with those found in aboriginal art, a link made all the more apparent by her use of wood as a support (she created dozens of woodcuts). However, the influence of Asia accounts for the omnipresence of the two forms to be found in her iconic work Yin and Yang, May 1975 No. 1 (1975). Starting in 1970, she developed a whole iconography inspired by the Yin and Yang symbols, her homeland’s emblem. These two elements both express the duality of her personal journey between East and West and reveal her genuine progression towards spirituality. She also used them later to plan her imagined studio and living space, which she built in Tourettes-sur-Loup, in the department of Alpes-Maritimes.
In S. Rhee’s work, poetry and literature fuel the spiritual existence. She has created several works with Michel Butor, a close friend she met in 1977. These include artists’ books in which words by one of them are accompanied by engravings by the other, and vice versa (Replis des sources, 1977).

In many of her later works, earth, mountains, and cosmos mingle with her favoured emblem, transformed into genuine celestial landscapes. The large format series Chemin des antipodes (1980-1994) represents the peak of her visual study of simple geometric shapes. The different versions, unveiled in the two main colours of the Korean flag – red and blue – offer a moment of contemplation outside of the common reference points of space and time. It is within this world that the sensation of voluntary weightlessness sought by S. Rhee operates.
A prolific artist, she had left behind more than 1,300 paintings, 12,000 engravings, and 500 ceramics when she died in 2009, the majority held in public and private South Korean and French collections, especially those of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (South Korea) and of the Centre national des arts plastiques.

Fanny Verdier

Translated from French by Clara Bouveresse.

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