In 2020, Meeno Yoon made a study of Hylas and the Nymphs¹ by the British and Italian painter John William Waterhouse. Although the artist claims the artistic influence² of her native South Korea, her upbringing in a family of great artists gave her early access to Western culture. The choice to study a painting from a European movement is no accident. In the tradition of 19th century artists, it was an apprenticeship through the eye, the transcription of a personal vision of the masterpiece. The encounter, fatal for Hylas, takes place in a nature oscillating between green, ochre and sulphur shades. While drawing water, the Argonaut Hylas³ is tacken by nymphs seduced by his beauty and disappears forever. In the body of water, the naiads and the aquatic plants are one. They merge into an open surface against a threatening background – as Bachelard so aptly put it, “still waters that incite melancholy and death⁴.”
The series Ophelia in the Swimming Pool, paintings and watercolours of the female nude, explore recurring themes with the artist. Here, the body is isolated, floating in the texture of paper fibres: “a kind of very striking halo of emptiness that gives the mind the little vertigo of infinity⁵,” wrote one art critic of Odilon Redon’s bouquets of flowers. What does this solitude arouse? Is it a reverie, a sad meditation, a passion? The ambivalence remains. Ophelia⁶ is the drowned wife of Prince Hamlet in the tragedy. This theme has haunted Western painting in previous centuries. Here, the fragility of the paper⁷ sometimes wrinkled by the watercolour—a technique that overflows predefined forms—accompanies the introspection. The slight imbalance of the composition joins an intimacy imbued with spirituality and a sensuality inspired by the nude drawings of Rodin or Schiele.
In a recent series, Meeno Yoon practices a classic Korean painting technique of mineral pigments and collage on Hanji⁸. The bouquet of peonies is the central motif in compositions that recall an age dominated by the sacred. Drenched in lush surfaces, transparencies and sometimes vivid, dense hues, some bouquets are akin to the Christian iconic tradition. Geometric shapes overflow the frame, delimiting the central figure and introducing a tension that brings them closer to the pictorial research of the artist Francis Bacon, which the artist has questioned at length. The titles borrow from the symbolism of the representation of the sacred and from the stylistic vocabulary of 18th and 19th century Western painting, elements that are conducive to the narrative: red background, broken vase, black flower, octopus roots, evanescent light. They are a positive reflection of the series’ subtitle. Thus, through the figuration of a floral motif, the artist raises identity and social claims related to the female condition.
Meeno Yoon’s works are apparently spontaneous, but they invite the public to take the time to look. They incite meditation in the tradition of 17th century Northern European still lifes, and through this we are able to understand their complexity. The syncretism of a mixture of contributions from different cultures appears in the background, an observation of the history of relations to oneself and to others.
Vincent Gobber, 2022
1. Oil on canvas, 1896, by John William Waterhouse (1849/1917).
2. See his studies of the grape paintings of the Korean painter and poet Sin Saimdang (1504/1551).
3. Character from Greek mythology, favourite of Heracles, son of Theiodamas, king of the Dryopes, and the nymph Menodice.
4. Gaston Bachelard, L’Eau et les rêves: essai sur l’imagination de la matière, 1942
5. Marius-Ary Leblond, “Odilon Redon. Le merveilleux dans la peinture”, 1907
6. Ophelia a character in the tragedy Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, published in 1603.
7. The lightness of the paper is no longer as noticeable in the works presented, which have recently been mounted on paper.
8. Hanji is the traditional Korean paper.
Text translated with DeepL