In The Investigation (2012, English version 2014), JM Lee gave readers an historical novel combined with a course in poetry appreciation. Somehow, it didn’t work for us. In Painter of the Wind, Lee gives his readers an historical novel combined with a course in art appreciation and it works a lot better.
The novel was published in Korea in 2007 and became an instant bestseller, giving rise to both a TV drama of the same name and the feature film Portrait of a Beauty the following year (the film follows the book less closely). Its English translation, by Hannah Pang and Stella Kim, was released earlier this year by Singapore’s Harriet Press and is well worth the wait.
The novel’s central characters are two of the best-known genre painters of the Joseon dynasty: Kim Hong-do and Shin Yun-bok, both of whom were members of the Dohwaseo – the state painting academy responsible for painting official records such as the Uigwe and royal portraits. In the novel, Shin is Kim’s talented pupil.
JM Lee conjures a wholly believable world in which talented artists feel repressed by the straightjacket of convention and tradition within the Dohwaseo in terms of permitted subject matter, techniques, colours and styles, much as in the 19th century the French impressionists broke from the strictures of the Academic style. In Lee’s novel, the wise king Jeongjo recognises the talents of Kim and Shin, commissioning them to create paintings of daily life which enabled him to gain insights into the lives of his subjects unfiltered by his officials.
Jeongjo has a more important task for them: to find a secret posthumous portrait of his father, Crown Prince Sado, that he had commissioned from a leading Dohwaseo painter ten years previously. The painter of that portrait had died a mysterious death and the portrait was never discovered; another painter who suspected foul play was murdered. Kim, the teacher, and Shin, his precociously talented pupil, need to use both traditional detective skills and their specialist knowledge as artists to piece together a coherent picture of something that happened ten years previously. In the process, the two painters form a bond that goes beyond a normal teacher-pupil relationship, and it becomes apparent that Shin has a very complicated backstory.
While Shin’s backstory has been imagined by the author, in the best traditions of Korean TV dramas, it certainly gives an added dimension to the detective story. Other characters in the story include Shin’s father and brother, both ambitious to further the family’s august painting lineage through Yun-bok; the conservative leaders of the Dohwaseo; a talented gayageum-playing gisaeng; and, possibly the most interesting character, a super-rich social climber who bought his way to influence and power and who is now consolidating his arriviste credentials by showing off his genuine talents as a connoisseur of the finest paintings.
For those interested in Joseon dynasty genre painting the additional pleasure in this novel is the frequent discussion, as an integral part of the story, of some of Kim and Shin’s most famous paintings which Lee has them paint as part of the narrative. These paintings, many of them Treasures or National Treasures, are reproduced in the pages of the book, and the discussion is sure to give you a deeper understanding of the paintings which are are likely to have come across as part of your general Korean education. For those with an even deeper art-historical thirst, there’s a very technical few pages (pp288-293) which go as far as explaining, using original Chinese characters, why, for example, a cat in a painting can be read as symbolising a septuagenarian. And it is precisely this level of art-historical knowledge that unlocks some of the mysteries that the pair are investigating.
Lee’s storytelling is impeccable, though I would have welcomed a more in-depth exploration of the motivations that drove the person responsible for the mayhem 10 years ago. A handful of infelicities in the English in the earlier pages of the translation soon evaporate (or maybe the momentum of the story means that you cease noticing them). All in all this is a great holiday read which combines a whodunnit with an introductory education in Joseon dynasty art history and appreciation.
JM Lee: Painter of the Wind, translated by Hannah Pang and Stella Kim
Harriet Press, 2023, 383pp.
Originally published as 바람의 화원, Eunhaengnamu, 2007
Thanks to Harriet Press for the review copy.