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Ro Eunnim, Artist of Life, Sings about Nature

Untitle, 1998, Mixed media on paper, 100 x 70 cm

Ro Eunnim (1946~) is an artist of life who fills her picture-planes with simple lines and primordial colors. She was the first Korean artist to become a full professor at the National Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg in Germany, where she contributed to art education for more than 20 years. She is also an artist who left strong footprints in the German art scene, through her activities at the Bauhaus, the House of World Culture in Berlin, the Berlin Documenta, International Peace Biennale, the 5th International Paper Biennale and many other prominent exhibitions. Furthermore, her art is featured in a French middle school literature textbook, a rare event for a Korean artist, and in November 2019 she became the first non-German-born artist to have a permanent exhibition hall established in her honor at the Michelstadt art museum. Yet, she has received conflicting evaluations within and outside Korea. In Korea, Ro is still known as an “artist who was formerly a nurse sent to Germany,” or an “artist who paints fishes with childlike innocence,” and there has been little art historical research in the country. The “dispatched nurse” tag followed her around with particular tenacity. During the 1970s, when it was unusual for a woman to study overseas, even the fact that a Korean woman had received formal education at a national university in Hamburg, and had been appointed professor at the famous institution, did not arouse interest among the general public. That her few years of work as a nurse has remained more noteworthy than her five plus decades of work as an artist reveals the reality of Korean women artists. Though the artists themselves place greater value on the days they strived to live as full-time artists, the public continues to project caretaking roles, such as motherhood and nursing, upon the woman artist. This paper begins from the awareness that it is time we evaluate them not as “women” artists, but as artists.

Nature (Natur)

A person’s face appears in a pile of fallen leaves at a roadside. This figure breathes in and out, as if she has become a life form in harmony with the leaves. The film My Wings Are My Burden (Meine Flügel sind meine Last) (1989), directed by Barbara Kusenberg, which is a documentary about artist Ro Eunnim’s thoughts on art and her work process, begins with this performance. Then the artist’s narration begins: “In the beginning, there was a human in this land, and as she sat on a hill, she became bored. So she made a person with clay, and then made another without giving it much thought. But perplexity struck her once she had completed the two humans. She could not come up with a reason why she had made these people, and had never thought about how these people should live. Feeling uneasy, she began to cry. She cried so much a river formed, which then became a sea. Heaven, do tell me, are you the creator of all things?” Then an image appears on the scene, of the artist forming two human figures with clay in a marsh.

Ausflug, 2021, Acrylic on paper, 78.5 x 143 cm

Ro Eunnim has shown diverse genres of work irrespective of media or place, from acrylic painting on Korean paper, to installation art, performance, terra cotta sculpture, and even stained glass in churches. Among such projects, her performances from the 1970s to 1980s in particular ask in-depth questions about the forces that compose nature. In the performance featured in Kusenberg’s film, the artist defines herself as a creator making figures with earth, against the background of a narrative resembling the creation myth of native Americans, and as an artist trying to reveal the mysteries of nature. Such positioning is also evident in the comment she once made to her sister, who had questioned whether it was possible to make a living by painting. “It is not living by painting, but living by selling animals… Germans are so fond of animals, they will buy a bird, a fish, or a cat that I paint.” Cho, Eunjung, “Ro Eunnim and Chang Ucchin: The Painterly Language of Simplicity Transcending Sublimity,” SIMPLE 2008: Chang Ucchin & Ro Eunnim, exhibition catalog, Chang Ucchin Museum of Art, 2018, p. 18.
This demonstrates the artist’s perception that an artwork is a life form she has created.

Ro has also carried out various performances, such as hanging leaves made of branches and paper on actual trees, and walking a plywood dog in a park in Hamburg. This performance took place in the presence of real dogs, which would actually approach the plywood dog out of curiosity, sniff it, confirm it was not one of them, and turn away. In the performance, which demonstrated the border between art and nature, Ro positioned herself as an artist traversing such boundaries. In Kusenberg’s film, Ro attached scales, leaves, branches and wings to the performers to transform them into a fish-human, tree-human, and bird-human. Through this performance attempting to combine the human and nature, she revealed her perception that humans are also part of nature. Such performances are examples showing that the artist’s works are rooted in “nature,” and that she has constantly agonized over how to unravel her thoughts in the name of “art.” Her unique views on nature can also be seen in her early drawings. Winter Erode contains the artist’s peculiar idea that in the winter the tree leaves will go underground to avoid the cold, while Conversation of 3 Birds (1978) brilliantly simplifies the chirping sounds of birds into certain symbols. Thus her works, which explore and visualize nature, can be explained through two major characteristics in terms of their contents: power (Kraft) and poetry (Poesie).

Power (Kraft)

It is said that while working at a city hospital near the Hamburg harbor, Ro observed a small boat tugging a larger ship with a rope so that it could anchor in the harbor. This amazing sight led her to question how the power to move a large ship could come out of such a small boat, and to contemplate on what was the origin of such power. This anecdote reflects just the beginning of the artist’s inquiry into the forces composing the unmeasurably gigantic universe, and on their methods of action. Such questions are clearly shown in her large-scale paintings made in the 1980s and 1990s. Beginning of Life (1984) contains the artist’s imagination of the beginning of the universe and what it would have been like. The arrows filling the large canvas, measuring over 2.5 meters in width, portray aspects of force flowing in various directions. The forces, scattered about in different pathways, clash and interact with one another. The life forms she paints, all things of the universe, would have occurred amidst such collisions. “If I make a dot, it becomes a line, which becomes a circle. Then it returns to the starting point… Even without my presence, nature will continue to circulate.” These words by the artist suffice as an explanation of the painting. The making of this work was an opportunity for Ro to find her own unique method of work, with topics based on her inquisition into “what nature is made of, and how the forces that compose it function.”

Am Anfang, 2020, Acrylic on canvas, 160 x 400 cm

The dot, which signifies the beginning of life, is a formative element that appears frequently in Ro’s paintings. The artist paints vivid portrayals of natural objects such as cats, fish and birds, using her unique method of applying almost-primary colors in bold brush strokes, and placing dots on them. According to Ro, these are visualizations of the life force, as the dot is an eye. One day, after seeing a blind fish at the aquarium, the artist realized that the living things in her paintings did not have eyes. From then on, she gave vitality to her works by painting the eyes, and these dots joined together to form lines. The lines gathered to be reborn into Ro’s beloved natural objects. The artist’s act of making dots on her clothes and shoes, and wearing them, can be seen in the same context. It is to bring life closer to art, and fill it with the life force. Like the moment the finishing touch is made, she expresses the life force by making a dot.

As the dots gather to create a line, the artist uses this to reduce natural figures into their simplest forms. Though the living creatures in her paintings, such as Running Animal (1984), which was completed in a single brush stroke, and At Night (1990), which seems to show a banquet of animals in the darkness, are made with simple, rough lines, they are full of the primitive life force created by the artist’s dashing brushwork. With regard to such simplification of form, Ro has mentioned its similarity to primitive art. “In my travels to old art museums throughout the world, I am astonished by the murals and pottery left by ancient humans How could the traces of survival be so similar?… That is why the figures in my paintings become more and more simple and primitive.” Kim, Jisu, “Kim Jisu’s Interstellar: A childhood spent in a zoo-like home became a lifetime asset,” Chosun Ilbo, July 28, 2018.
The artist has made handprints on her works, just like the handprint in the cave mural shown on the cover of Art on the Rocks: Postcard Book (1993)―a compilation of postcards of famous cave murals—which testifies to her keen interest in primitive art. By interpreting nature in the most direct and original way, as did primitive people, Ro Eunnim transfers its life force to her artworks.

Poetry (Poesie)

“This guest floats around in this space waiting for the moment that I can no longer control myself. So when I have been completely absorbed in my work, oblivious of all other thoughts, and then feel that I can do it no longer, that is when some living thing suddenly appears. In the moment that I am not thinking about anything. Then this guest soon vanishes. I think it is similar to being pregnant. The guest remains with me until then.”

Der Besuch, 2017, Acrylic on canvas, 160 x 224 cm

In an interview with Kusenberg, Ro Eunnim explained that during her painting of a work, a “spiritual guest” comes, and the work is born in a way similar to pregnancy and birthing. Without even an ordinary rough sketch, her work is painted in the moment when her intuitive self dominates. The artist scatters large pieces of Korean paper or multiple canvases on the floor, and impulsively picks up a brush, broom or rag—whatever is at hand—to give birth to her works in a passionate process of drawing, painting, throwing and pressing down, while borrowing the hands of the “spiritual guest.” Such methods of expression remind us not only of the influence of German Expressionism she must have received from her teachers Hans Thiemann (1910~) and Kai Sudeck (1928~1995) at the National University of Art in Hamburg, but also of the East Asian spirit, due to her brushwork similar to the dry-brush techniques of ink painting, and her bold use of empty margins. Annelie Pohlen (1944~), a renowned German art critic, praised this style, calling it a “bridge connecting Eastern meditation with European Expressionism.”

Ro’s work, the result of such a process, is a poem written with her body, as her performative physical movement is directly transferred to the painting. It is an accumulation of impromptu and primitive actions: walking around on the paper, dunking her hands in red paint to make prints, or kneading clay and leaving her hand marks in the process. Hence, the mysterious allusions that resemble both birds and fish, compressed into semi-abstract figures, and the free use of empty spaces on the picture-plane, are like verses of poetry that stimulate viewers’ imagination. The artist’s “poems painted as pictures,” which she improvises on her canvas with a sense of awe toward nature and life, are nothing other than her own microcosmos.

“True art desires genuine pureness. Setting all complexity and technique aside, when simplicity remains, art comes to life.” Lee Young-ran, “Ro Eunnim, in an endless sense of despair … I embraced the red bird,” Herald Business, January 6, 2011.
Like these words of the artist, her works are simple, innocent and honest. And therefore, they are truthful. In the pictures she paints freely on large Korean hanji paper, without distinction of top or bottom, the natural shapes drawn in simple lines contain the energy of life, and the empty spaces left following the free brushwork are filled with poetic connotations. The lack of Korean studies on artist Ro Eunnim, who has left so many footprints over the past five decades through her works based on topics of nature, can perhaps be attributed to her peculiar history as a “Korean nurse dispatched to Korea,” the fact that she began her career as an artist later in life, and that she has worked mainly in Europe. Only when diverse follow-up studies are conducted, however, will we be able to fill in the blank pages of Korean contemporary art history with the story of this artist, who was not absorbed by contemporary European or Korean mainstream art, but has continuously expanded her original art world.

Park Min-hye (1988∼), MA, Art History, Graduate School, Ewha Womens University, Curator, Gana Art Gallery