Storytelling and art were good friends for thousands of years until they had a fight and split in the late 19th century. Paintings that told stories often followed old academic traditions and were rejected by modernist artists. In some ways, the old traditions could be limiting and did not allow free creativity. Because of this, storytelling, or “narrative” was knocked off it’s pedestal in fine art and though most ideas and movements of the past 50 years in art have come full circle, we still have a tenuous relationship with telling stories in our artwork. Concept has become incredibly important in fine art. I have nothing against concept art, in fact a lot of my own work is very concept driven, but I believe that narrative is not being given its due.
Once regarded as “lowbrow” comics and illustration are gaining respect in high art. Yet, beyond the “art world” images that tell stories are quickly becoming more relevant than even written word. I had the opportunity to go to a lecture held by the art director of the New Yorker Magazine (Françoise Mouly) several years ago and of all the bits of information about what was happening in the world, one main thing that stuck in my mind about her talk was how images can transcend time. Will what you’re saying in an image still be relevant 5 years from now? In 10? In 50? Comics and cartoons seem to have that kind of knack to speak to a wide audience and communicate a message that is easily understood and carries on for a long time to come.
But what about fine art? Can narrative be as compelling and effective outside simply illustrating a story? When handled clumsily, narrative can come off as too gimmicky, or too easy to understand and therefore pedestrian. For that reason, art forms that are heavily reliant on narrative such as comics are not fully embraced in art schools. Yet, when handled with care, amazing things happen.
Egene Koo is a painter and illustrator who is a native of South Korea. She is currently living and working in Seoul, South Korea. Her work deals with the past meeting the present, mainly with the telling and retelling of stories, specifically children’s fairytales.
Egene Koo. “Island of Witches who make Stories”, Oil on Canvas, 116.7X80cm each, 2011
Koo’s most recent series of paintings titled “ Neverending Childhood” have been derived from the fairytale “The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf” by Hans Christian Anderson. Objects from the story, such as shoes, bread, and animals are woven together into odd yet amusing combinations. Her compositions never go outside of the picture plane. All of them are set up with equal amounts of negative space in all four corners of the painting. The backgrounds often have nothing but light washes of a neutral color, so this draws the viewer’s attention to the objects in the painting without any confusion.
Egene Koo. “Spoiled Goddess”, Oil on Canvas, 145.5X97cm, 2011
This compositional setup allows the viewer to easily enter and exit the picture plane, while leading the eye in a circle throughout. Although Koo paints very realistically, there’s an illustrative quality in her work, which ties back into her subject matter. There are no hints of the artist’s hand in any of her paintings; the textures are very smooth and satin-like. Koo’s style of painting the figure is very western given her formal training at Camberwell College of Arts in the United Kingdom and Korea National University of Arts in Seoul. Her artistic influences from the Western art world include Van Eyck and Van der Weyden; other influences come from traditional Asian painting.
Egene Koo. “Island of Flightless Birds5”, Oil on Canvas, 116.7X91cm , 2011
Beyond Koo’s technical mastery, her paintings are compelling because of her use of narrative. So what is the secret then? Is it the fact she's a "good" painter? Well, yes and no. Being able to properly handle a medium is important, but it isn't everything. The second "thing" that is allowing Koo's usage of fairytales to be acceptable and interesting is that she has not revealed everything all at once. She uses symbols from the tales, combining them in a way that pleases her, then it is up to the viewer to decipher the images. We can recognize the hare, the ribbon, even the shoes as reminiscent of folklore, yet the entire thing isn't given away in one glance. The key thing to keep in mind is complexity.