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A significant tree

By Enid Saunders Candlin / November 7, 1983



It is encouraging to reflect that whatever difficulties South Korea may currently endure, the country continues to abound in gifted artists, particularly painters, musicians, and dancers. This has generally been true of it, as surely as it was in old China, when creativity never flagged even in periods rent by political ferment, war, and persecution. The springs of inspiration lie in another dimension from the troubled atmosphere of our dusty world. The ''Land of the Morning Calm'' has beeen buffeted on every side. Like Poland, it has not been favored by geography, yet it has never lacked those springs.

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The painter of this picture of two noble old paulownia trees guarding a country temple is a woman artist living partly in Seoul and partly in the country near the Suhrak Mountains. Chul-Rhee, Kum Chul Kim is an active and prolific artist as well as a teacher of painting, with many exhibitions to her credit and a wide interest in related subjects, including embroidery.

Nature is her theme: hills, flowers, birds, fowls, and trees. She will take a subject like that of the Suhrak Mountains and show it in all seasons - under snow (which she can do extremely well), partly veiled by autumnal mists, or in the fresh and verdant seasons. Sometimes she paints on many-folded screens, thus presenting a panoramic view of a landscape, or of a long bank of azaleas. Her colors, which are pure, bright, and yet delicate, she makes in the old Chinese way by grinding up semiprecious stones.

An ''Oriental painter,'' much influenced by the classic Chinese style, she portrays her own very individual and charming interpretations of what she sees, achieving something of an East-West synthesis. It is easy to see this blending of viewpoints and techniques in the depth of the picture shown here, where only a small part of the temple appears in the background, with the splendid twisted trees holding pride of place, one to the right before the other, in a Western perspective. The temple, important as it is, yields to the paulownias, whose status as guardians is clearly felt. Tall, gnarled, but magnificent, buffeted by storms for five hundred years, they become here symbols of endurance. Like Van Gogh's trees they seem almost moving in a strong rhythmic swirl.

This picture was made recently at Kyung-ju, the old capital of the Silla Kingdom, and a city of Buddhist temples. The artist presents a romantic view which touches us - the temple and the trees undoubtedly look like this outwardly , but they also evoke a vision of antiquity, silence, solitude, reverence.

In the Far East the paulownia has been for centuries a significant tree, associated with temples, and cherished for its beauty, its strength, and the grateful shade it casts in the long hot summers. Its downy rounded leaves and scented flowers, while not dramatic or brilliant, are welcome harbingers of spring and the pleasant months ahead. Its Western name is derived from Anna Paulovna, the daughter of Czar Paul I, and dictionaries speak of it as an ornamental tree, prized in Japan - where its pale mauve trumpeting flowers inspired the Order of the Paulownia Flower. However it came to receive this name , it far antedates such a gesture, appearing often in antique Chinese records, where it fits linguistically into the many varieties of trees called ''tung.'' The paulownia itself is the ''flowering tung.'' Another tree in this category is the wu-tung, which bore the legendary honor of being the only one upon which the phoenix would alight.

The wood of the paulownia from Szechwan was used in making zithers (which had jade pegs and silken strings), as well as the lovely harps of old China. There is even an old T'ang Dynasty harp made of it which is still extant, inlaid with flowers and birds made of mother-of-pearl. The 23 strings are attached to deer bone pins.

Considered from this angle, the picture pleases us even more, with its poetical allusions and echoes, something that is true of much of Chul-Rhee's work. She charms us, as does nature itself. Her delightful paintings of peacocks and other birds, her fresh, almost dewy, floral studies, and the plants she depicts with delicate tendrils and beautifully placed leaves are images we like to live with. Koreans may justly be proud of what she can do, and of the continuing tradition she upholds.