Jung-Myung Lee’s Painter of the Wind is set in Hanyang, as Seoul, the capital of the Joseon Dynasty in the late 18th century, was then known. The protagonists are fictionalized versions of Kim Hong-do and Shin Yun-bok, both real-life figures who are considered some of, if not the, finest painters of the Joseon Dynasty.
Kim Hong-do, the elder of the pair, is an artist with a bold interpretation of the classic style of painting of Dohwaseo, the Royal Academy of Painting, where he languishes as a mere instructor after his genius and personality threatened the doyens of the academy.
Shin Yun-bok, the other protagonist, is one of Hong-do’s students and one of the scions of a storied family that has seen three successive generations of painters who had the exceptional honor of painting the King’s royal portrait. Yun-bok, though, far surpasses the talent of his forebears and is quickly seen by Hong-do as a singular talent and the only painter in Korea, perhaps the world, who could not only rival his own ability but indeed far surpass it.
Hong-do paints with bold strokes and rich, vivid portrayals of scenes and characters, but Yun-bok paints with bright, although forbidden, colors that have never been seen in Korean paintings due to an aversion to strong colors stemming from a strict interpretation of Neo-Confucian social values and which both amaze and scandalize the art establishment:
Dohwaseo taught that the ideal painting could only be painted with extreme self-control as colors caused every possible sin and avarice. But if colors unmasked lewdness, indecency, and lust laid deep in one’s heart, they could also evoke joy and pleasure laid hidden in the heart. If colors in a painting could cause the beholder to commit a lewd act, they could also inspire kindness.
The two painters catch the eye of the new King of Joseon, who not only commissions them to paint his kingdom and his subjects but tasks them with finding the murderer of a famous painter who had mentored Hong-do and painted the only portrait ever made of the King’s late disgraced father, as the King felt these two painters could find the painting in the vast archives of the Royal Painting Academy and through studying its style, solve the cold case. Hong-do and Yun-bok’s art and royal task put them at odds with powerful men in the kingdom and threaten to reveal their long-held, and potentially ruinous personal secrets.
The writer takes liberty with the historical narrative and portrays Shin Yun-bok, generally believed to be a man in real life, as a woman in disguise:
It was a brilliant contradiction. A woman’s body obscured by men’s attire. This woman refused to be a woman in order to become a painter. Hong-do felt his eyes sting with tears as he thought of her oppressed body, he became immensely sad as he thought of her spirit, and he was filled with indignation as he thought of the world around her.
Shin Yun-bok developed this conjecture as a child after seeing one of Shin’s paintings on a cigarette case, and he continues to consider it as possible to this day.
Beautiful, richly detailed, and steeped in period-authentic philosophy and culture, the novel is a moving story of friendship and artistic prowess. The story centers on two genius painters, both of whom would be the finest of their day if not for the other. They are not only fated to live in the same era, but to be constantly pitted against each other despite their deep friendship, their shared history, and their life-altering secrets.
Painter of the Wind is a story of rivals that develop great respect and mutual admiration and together fight for their art and their freedom. This translation features thirty-four paintings by the real-life Kim Hong-do and Shin Yun-Bok which have been woven beautifully into the narrative. While this story no doubt differs in substantial ways from the biographies of the real-life painters whose masterpieces are displayed, the story nevertheless highlights how they revolutionized Korean painting and left an indelible mark on the arts of the Joseon Dynasty.
“There isn’t a painter who doesn’t love their paintings, but only a few would truly love the subjects of their paintings. Some paint to satiate their greed for power, wealth, or fame, and not the subjects of their paintings. But this painting is a portrait of myself that I have kept hidden all my life but have never given up on. I have loved this woman all my life, and I will continue to love the woman that I am.”
This translation features contemporary English vernacular like “humblebrag” and uses modern internet-esque stylistic choices such as periods after single words for emphasis which may turn some readers off. Still, the beauty of the flowing narrative brings this celebrated Korean novel to life in English.