Summer Trees is an ink and paper piece made in 1983 by the artist Song Su-Nam. Summer Trees is two feet wide by one foot and five eighths inches tall. Song Su nam was a South Korean artist and a professor at the Hongik University. The Hongik University is located in Central Seoul, South Korea. He was born in South Korea in 1938. Song Su-Nam was a renowned artist, famous for his use of ink in his paintings To make this piece, Song Su-Nam applied ink washes to wet paper.
The use of ink washes on paper to make a painting is a very traditional form of Korean art. Song Su-Nam expertly applied the ink at different times, when the paper was dry or wet. To make lighter ink washes, he applied the ink to a very wet piece of paper. To create dark ink washes, Song applied the ink to a dry piece of paper. From this, Song was able to create different tones, colors, and effects.
His paintings and the specific materials he used were in an attempt to reclaim traditional Korean values.
In Summer Trees, Song used long parallel lines and vertical lines to create abstract trees. He further expanded on the use of abstraction by leaving his second work in the series untitled. In Summer Trees, he applied thick ink washes to the paper to purposefully make the edges of the trees to bleed together. This blended aspect created a sense of strength and unity. Using ink to paint is very difficult, and it took years of practice and great skill.
Song Su-Nam painted other similar works in this collection, all of them abstract and using the traditional Korean ink washes.
In Korean culture, depictions of the outdoors symbolically represent loyalty and strength. Song Su-Nam was able to represent this in his work by using trees. In Summer Trees, the strong parallel lines resemble strong tree trunks, which evoke the traditional Chinese symbolism of strength. “Summer Trees may also reference a traditional theme: a group of pine trees can symbolize a gathering of friends of upright character” (Khan Academy). “The forms overlap and stop just short of the bottom edge of the paper, suggesting a sense of shallow space—though one that would be difficult to enter” (Khan Academy). The failure of the trees to extend fully to the bottom of the paper may indicate that the strength and unity shown might not be deeply rooted.
Song was a leader in the Oriental Ink Movement, also known as Sumukhwa. The Oriental Ink movement “…shared the general feeling that it was necessary to ‘recover’ a national identity and began to concentrate on subtle tonal variations of ink wash…” (British Museum). Ink washes are a very traditional and important artistic tool in Korean history. As a result of this, using ink in most of his works was very important to him to show his Korean identity. “Sumukwha provided Song and his circle with a way to express Korean identity” (Khan Academy). The artist, also called a literatus, was known as an important scholar. The literati were very respected people in Korean culture. Ink wash paintings, also known as literati paintings, were considered a type of very noble and respected form of art. The timeless and simplicity of ink wash paintings resemble Western abstraction (Khan Academy).
At the time Summer Trees was made, tensions were high between Korean and Western artistic styles. Song wanted to use American styles in his paintings, while still expressing his Korean roots. Summer Trees was meant to show “A balance between both East and West as well as a balance between the past and present” (Southwest Art History).
Song’s use of abstract shapes and lines shows he took inspiration from American works, such as The Stripe collection. Song Su-Nam combined elements of both Western and Korean art in Summer Trees. He used abstract American shapes, such as the trees, and traditional Korean materials, such as ink washes. His use of both traditional materials and abstract shapes and lines also suggest a more modern work of art.
Summer Trees was greatly inspired by Morris Louis’ painting collection, Stripe. Morris Louis made this collection between 1912 to 1962. The Stripe collection was painted using acrylic paint on canvas. Song’s passion for abstract paintings led him to loosely base his painting on Morris Louis’ collection. The Stripe collection influenced Song to use a more Western style but, staying true to his Korean identity, he made a point to use traditional Korean materials (ink washes). Both Summer Trees and the Stripe collection are abstract works. Summer Trees and The Stripe collection both depict long vertical and parallel lines. Summer Trees also greatly resembles Charles Monet’s The Four Trees. The Four Trees was painted in 1891, by Charles Monet, using oil on canvas. Both Summer Trees and The Four Trees include strong vertical lines, relatively muted colors, and depict abstract trees.
Summer Trees is a piece that was able to combine two different cultures. Song Su-Nam combined Western and Korean styles, while highlighting his Korean background. Song Su-Nam also blended modern and traditional elements into the same piece. Summer Trees symbolizes strength, loyalty, and friendship. With only a few paint strokes, Song Su-Nam was able to represent a variety of emotions, styles, and cultures.