Tao of Orchid by Sungsook Hong Setton

sungsook orchid(s).jpg

The plum blossom, orchid, chrysanthemum, and bamboo are considered the four noble ('gentlemen') plants. When I studied with Master Chang in the 1980’s I was restricted to learning only one stroke per month of study. The orchid leaf stroke was first and he did not teach me anything else until I nearly perfected that stroke. After that, I learned how to paint the orchid flowers. As difficult as it is to paint orchids, it is even more difficult to paint the orchid’s fragrance.

The essence of the orchid is expressed with the qi of the strokes. According to the celebrated eighteenth-century Korean calligrapher and painter Kim Junghi (pen name: Ch’usa), without excellent calligraphic skills and brush strokes full of vitality, it is almost impossible to depict orchids well.

Although I often practiced orchid strokes I rarely liked my work. I decided to keep this one and called it Tao of Orchid, because it seemed to preserve a good balance in terms of space and also manifested high energy. Externally orchids are delicate and gracious plants. However, in this painting, I strove to capture an internal aspect, which I value in fall orchids and depict just a few blooms on one stalk. The colored flowers contrast with the strong dark leaves.

It is said that Confucius originally drew attention to this delicate plant, exclaiming: “With a fragrance fit for princes, why are you buried among the common weeds?” From olden times the appearance of the wild orchid, which grew deep in the mountains, was compared to the mind of a noble and cultivated scholar bureaucrat, who had transcended the greed and fame-seeking of the secular world. Therefore many exiled Korean literati enjoyed painting the orchid. The orchid is known as a symbol of purity and noble virtue due to its fragrance. This symbolism goes back to the Ch’in dynasty of the 3rd century. Ch’u Yuan, a patriotic poet, regarded the orchid as a mirror of one’s moral life.

The rarity and uniqueness of the orchid is vividly expressed in these two poems which I have translated.





Even though the world is filled with confusion
When I gaze at one orchid
I can forget

all my problems.

- Song Sunam  (Lee, Oryung. The Orchid. p59)





On the dark cliff hundreds of weeds are withering
And yet the orchid bounds with vigor

The noble person dwells in steep, isolated places

He is indeed different from normal people

- Chen Hsie n Chang (Ming dynasty)

As one of the four noble plants, the orchid is often the subject of poems as well as of water-ink paintings. The concept of the “four noble plants” first appeared in the work of Gin Keyu (1558-1639) and specifically his record of four plants. Before this, there were only two categories of subjects, “landscape” and “birds and flowers.” Although individual noble plants were depicted earlier, from the Ming dynasty onward, the “four noble plants” became a new genre in Chinese literati art. These four noble plants became the foundation of brushwork as well as embodying East Asian principles of modeling and aesthetic philosophy.

This pastime of the scholar-bureaucrats reflected their classical and aristocratic taste and was referred to as “ink play.” Water-ink technique, which uses black ink ground on an ink stone with an ink stick, arose in China during the 8th century. Two centuries later, it became a principal art form in China. Over the next three hundred years the discipline of painting the four noble plants spread from China to its neighbors Korea and Japan, where it was influenced by Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism and became equally popular.

In East Asian water-ink painting, the subjects usually have some kind of hidden symbolic meaning. As Pierre Cambon describes: “The ‘four noble plants’ refer to Confucian ideology while also suggesting the rhythm of the seasons and passage of time. Bamboo, always green, bends without breaking and symbolizes loyalty and fidelity. The prune bears flowers before the snows melt and suggests the rebirth of spring. The orchid evokes a world of beauty, and fragile, delicate harmony. Chrysanthemums bloom in the fullness of autumn. But these subjects are also closely linked to calligraphy and brushwork, and handwriting is considered to reflect the author’s cultivation and personality.

According to Francis Mullany, there is no systematic relationship between the four noble plants and the four seasons. On the other hand, due to differences of climate and geography, artists and writers from China and Korea associate specific plants with specific seasons. For instance, in China the bamboo is symbol of summer; whereas in Korea symbolizes winter. Furthermore, in China the orchid is associated with spring whereas in Korea it is associated with summer.  

Plumburst by Sungsook Hong Setton


The plum blossom brings me news of spring, blossoming in March while the snow has not quite melted. For some time the differences between plum and the cherry blossoms were not clear to me. But the two are quite different. The plum blooms earlier than cherry and has fewer flowers on its branches. The plum is known in Japan as ume and, cherry as sakura.

The main reason why the plum is regarded as a symbol of the uprightness of the Confucian gentleman is because it puts down its roots in the frozen ground in spite of the snow, and spreads its fragrance as if it were transcending the difficulties and obstacles of the harsh secular world. That is why it is said that “even if you are poor you can’t exchange the fragrance of plum for money.”

The striking element of the plum tree is the contrast between its delicate flowers and its ancient-looking trunk which reaches out with gnarled branches. In my plumburst painting I tried to combine the old trunk, a few young branches, and the ecstatic blossoms.

Sumi-e works are said to include a “host” and “guests,” the host being the dominant feature in the painting. The composition is thus largely a balancing act between a host and his guests. In this case the thick trunk is the host, while the lighter branch below would be seen as a guest. Within the plum blossoms themselves, the main splash of blue in the center-left is the host, and the surrounding blue splashes are guests.

I used Jackson Pollock’s splash technique to express this fullness, instead of showing the details of the flowers. Although plum blossoms are usually depicted in white or red, I used blue in order to suggest the freshness of the flowers. At the same time I quoted Korean contemporary painter and writer Song Sunam’s poem to enhance the painting.

Plum blossom bursts in the south wind 

Why do I feel so full of joy?

Traditionally, painting, calligraphy and poetry are referred to as the “three perfections.” The union of writing and painting is an ancient and yet still commonly used practice in East Asian art. As early as the ninth century Chinese art historians wrote that “writing and painting have different names but a common body.” I felt that the painting would be incomplete without the presence of the calligraphy. The inclusion of the poem makes the work feel complete. A Sung poet wrote of two eighth-century masters:

The writings of Shao Ling are paintings without forms;

The paintings of Han Kan are poems without words.

The plum blossom was one of main subjects of poetry from very ancient times, but as a subject of water-ink painting it dates to the eleventh-century Northern Song Zen monk Tzongren. The chief monk of Hwakwang temple in Henan province, he enjoyed exchanging poems with Confucian scholars and had a fondness for poetry about the plum blossom. Struck by the shadow of a plum tree on a paper screen door and amazed at its beauty and elegance, he depicted its wonderful appearance with his brush.

My first memory of plum blossoms is still vivid. During my high school days in Korea we could see many plum trees over the hill behind the school building. By coincidence a Korean book I am studying about plum blossoms reveals that the district of my school called ‘Maegok Dong’ was named after the plum tree, as the winding mountain chain there was shaped like a plum. “Mae” means plum in Korean. It is quite a coincidence that my first memory of plum blossoms originates in that place.

When I was researching the connection between the literati class and the four gentlemen, I discovered to my pleasant surprise that Korea’s most famous philosopher Lee Hwang was in love with plum trees, to which he devoted a whole book of poems. I became fascinated with his affection for this tree. Lee respected plum trees so much he addressed them like people.
Here is a poem by Lee that I have translated.



나는지금바람서리에견디는계를맺어서 쓴절개,


In my garden, pine, chrysanthemum and bamboos make a threesome

How can elder brother plum not be one of them?
I will join together with you now, enduring wind and frost

I will accompany you filled with bitter integrity and pure fragrance,
My heart is filled with the fragrance of my noble friends

A meeting of friends who keeps integrity

The pine tree, bamboo, and plum are known as the “three friends in winter” which is a much admired topic in the traditional literati painting genre, especially during the Song dynasty. Their fame springs from the fact that they symbolize a determination to survive under harsh conditions.

The famous Qing dynasty painter Bada Shanren was a descendent of the imperial line of the Ming dynasty. His Falling Flower painting is well known for using the fallen plum flower as a way of expressing his mourning for the defeat of his country. At a glance it might look fairly traditional, but in fact this was a groundbreaking piece of conceptual art that had no parallel during that period in China.

There are many ideas that inform this work. One is based on the symbolism of the blossom, which represents transience, the Buddhist concept of the changeability of human life. Another message is only comprehensible if one knows the historical background. Bada Shanren was heartbroken by the invasion and takeover of Northern China by the “Barbarian” Ching dynasty, which was governed by the Manchus. His whole way of life and what he treasured were endangered. This was another hidden message behind the sadness of Falling Flower.

What I like most about this work is that, while retaining traditional materials and traditional brush strokes, Bada Shanren treated the subject matter in a new way. The flower is floating by itself in the breeze and is no longer attached to a stem as it was typically depicted. Yet one is still able to sense his love for nature.

Interlude by Sungsook Hong Setton

setton sungsook- interlude

One day I must be able to improvise freely on the keyboard of colors: the row of watercolors in my paint box. - Paul Klee

After the “Brush Voice” project, I was still interested in exploring the dialogue between my brush and music, and I began to understand that I am a dancer and musician and that I see my work as visual poetry. The main difference is that I use the strokes of my brush to dance and make music.

As a contemporary artist specializing in East Asian water-ink painting, I have one foot in the past and one in the present. In other words, I would like to draw inspiration from my roots yet not be limited by them. In some ways the New York School of Abstract Expressionism led me to realize that I share a common approach with these artists. Actually, I share more similarities than differences. I was especially intrigued to discover that some of the Abstract Expressionists were perhaps influenced by East Asian calligraphy.

Jeffrey Wechsler writes:

“Within Abstract Expressionism, the works of artists such a Jackson Pollock, Franz Klein, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, and Adolf Gottlieb have been considered both advanced and innovative, even ‘breakthroughs,’ in technical, compositional, and formal terms. This is an ironic situation for many who are familiar with traditional Asian art and recognize various formal and technical properties of traditional Eastern art that appear to be predecessors, or at least parallels, to visual elements of modern painterly modes of art. Qualities that are appreciated as ‘advanced’ in American Expressionism have been applied for centuries in East art: gestural methods; frequent restriction of color range, often only black and white; calligraphic imagery, free linearism, and aggressive or rapid brushwork; highly asymmetrical compositions, often with large areas of empty space; atmospheric or flat fields of color; a spontaneous approach to art which includes the acceptance of accidental effects; and the notion of the act of painting as a self-revelatory event, psychically and somatically charged and implicitly linked to the artist’s emotion.” 

I find the above description an astute statement about East Asian water-ink painting in the context of Abstract Expressionism. I couldn’t say it more succinctly!

This influence has been mutual, especially for someone like me who is familiar with the East Asian water-ink tradition. There is no concrete evidence that Pollock was directly influenced by East Asian art; however, in the following paragraphs I argue that there is definitely a resonance between these two, though we cannot be sure if it is coincidental or the result of an actual exchange of information.

David Clarke has written that Pollock’s “attentiveness and absorption during the creative process” is similar to East Asian attitudes regarding the relationship between artists and their work.  “This identification should be so complete that a sense of separate identity disappears.”  Clarke also pointed out the possible influence of Chinese calligraphy in view of the prominence that Pollock gives to the drawing of lines. He approaches painting in the same way as drawing. Another critic, Elisabeth Langhorne, has suggested that Pollock may have had knowledge of Taoism, based on an analysis of his library holdings.

In terms of the physical environment there clearly exists a similarity between Pollock’s approach and that of most East Asian artists; he painted on the floor instead of an easel. According to Pollock, “I paint on the floor and this isn’t unusual—the Orientals did that.”

Another similarity between Pollock and water-ink masters is the delicate balance between spontaneity and intention that gives birth to their work. Pollock himself reflected upon that: “When I am painting, I am not aware of what I am doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. .... I try to let it come through.” 

Pollock’s action painting pioneered a new frontier by giving spontaneity a central role in artistic creation. Nonetheless, both in the case of East Asia and Pollock, this is not an unconditional spontaneity. In his own words: “I do have a general notion of what I am about and what the result will be.”Another reference to the conditional aspect of his spontaneity is reflected in the following quotation: “With experience it seems to be possible to control the flow of the paint, to a great extent, and I don’t use—I don’t use the accident—‘cause I deny the accident.”  This is quite similar to the philosophy behind the work of East Asian masters, which I might call “guided spontaneity.”

When East Asian artists first put brush to paper, especially in the expressive manner of the Southern school, they know essentially what they intend to do. In other words, they have a mental picture of the landscape that they want to depict, but in the process of creation they let the brush take the lead.

Pollock expressed a philosophy very similar to that of a water-ink artist when he talked about the importance of controlling the flow of paint as it passes from brush to canvas. It is well known that East Asian calligraphers and brush painters spend a great deal of time learning how to control of the brush. Author E. Landau describes this as follows:

“It is evident from these pictures that under the spell of his creativity, Pollock’s body motion, often heavy and awkward in a more conscious state, took on the fluency and agility of a well-trained actor or athlete. No longer fighting with his medium, he seems to become one with it, absorbed and ‘transfixed’ by actions over which he admitted to having only varying degrees of emotional and motor control.” 

H. W. Hanson describes this in a similar way:

“Pollock does not simply ‘let go’ and leave the rest to chance. He is himself the ultimate source of energy for these forces, and he ‘rides’ them as a cowboy might ride a wild horse, in a frenzy of psychophysical action.” 

Pollock described his technique as follows:  

“It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the paintings
come out well.” 

Another similarity emerges if we analyze Pollock’s work from the perspective of performance art. Once the artist is painting he is no longer concerned with overcoming technical problems. The outcome depends on how good the quality of the actual performance is. Each work is the result of a unique performance, and so no work can be the same. Harold Rosenberg expresses this quite skillfully when he says that “the characterization of action painting is that what was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” 

I agree with the way Rosenberg describes Pollock’s creative process, as I find myself experiencing the same thing. That is why I believe preparation is so important. I do not focus on the result but the whole experience as active, and eventful in itself.

Pollock’s interest in wanting to express his inner energy seems to reflect the East Asian concept of cultivating qi, especially in calligraphy and the water-ink tradition. I feel we are speaking the same language when I read the following conversation.

“William Wright: Mr. Pollock, the classical artists had a world to express and they did so by representing the objects in that world. Why doesn’t the modern artist do the same thing?

JP: The modern artist is living in a mechanical age and we have a mechanical means of representing objects in nature such as the camera and photograph. The modern artist, it seems to me, is working and expressing an inner world—in other words—expressing the energy, the motion, and other inner forces...yes, the modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.” 

Pollock’s reference to energy, emotion and inner forces is strongly reminiscent of discussions about body movement and qi among water-ink masters. While those in the East Asian tradition often compare painting to capturing the qi of an object, Pollock likens his painting to the expression of his “inner world.”

This passage touches on another topic which seems to be quite critical to both East Asian art as well as to Pollock’s work, that is, one’s relationship to nature. Pollock described himself as being a part of nature rather than being an observer of it. Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner described his thoughts on this: “I brought Hoffman to meet Pollock for the first time and Hoffman said, after looking at his work, ‘you do not work from nature.' Pollock’s answer was, ‘I am nature.’” 1This is quite close to the perspective of Taoism, whose followers seek to become closer to the mystical Tao through cultivating a close relationship with nature. This relationship with nature is achieved in a number of ways, including artistic expression.

Both Pollock and the water-ink masters regarded themselves as part of nature rather than simply as an observer or painter of nature. However, I should emphasize that significant differences exist between Pollock and his East Asian counterparts. For example, Pollock had a tendency to fill the canvas as opposed to the preservation of empty space as in East Asian art. In my example of “Interlude,” one can see the importance I gave to the empty space as being equal to the gesture. This is different from Pollock’s work, as shown below in Pollock’s Number 34.

Nevertheless, the similarities are quite striking, especially those involving spontaneity, intuition, and the cultivation of inner energy. We both have a concept of and emphasize spontaneity, intuition, and inner energy, but we differ on the use of space within the art itself. Pollock fills the painting with his natural energy of color and line and I use empty space in addition to line and color as representational of my energy. This idea is strongly rooted in traditional East Asian cosmology. I find that my own research of Abstract Expressionism is fascinating because in the end, we are all human beings and in spite of our cultural roots it brings us all to the same ideas. There is a similarity that supersedes all differences of race and culture and draws us all to purity and truth.