Some people consider artistic ability and creative intellect to be the exclusive domain of the elite. But, several musicians, sculptors and painters have risen from poverty and achieved fame and wealth owing to their natural abilities and supportive patrons. Of course, some of these artists have struggled with alcoholism, love affairs or extremely temperamental behaviour. Oh-won Jang Seung-up, the trailblazing Korean painter of nature, landscapes and portraits of the nobility was one of them.

Oh-won was sought after, especially by the ruling class, despite his humble beginnings. The aptly titled Painted Fire, a 117-minute film portrays the turbulent life of the artist who lived from 1843 to 1897 during the reign of the Joseon dynasty.

It was one of the films screened on landscape paintings at the ongoing centenary retrospective of the works of the renowned painter from Karnataka, Rumale Chennabasaviah, at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in Bangalore.

Moody genius

Seung-up, who adopted the pen name of Oh-won later, was a poor boy who was rescued by Kim Byung-moon from being beaten on the streets. A compassionate man, Kim became his mentor. Once he found out about Oh-won's drawing talents, Kim introduced him to distinguished artists and art teachers of that era, from one of whom he also learned to play the flute.Endowed with a sharp memory, Oh-won initially copied from the art work of Chinese masters that he saw secretly. But due to Kim's constant urging “to express from his soul”, he developed his own style. Using natural hues and charcoal and drawing inspiration from his surroundings, he created brilliant paintings for a few women who adored him and also for a vagabond who was following him around. However, ridden with angst and dissatisfaction, he would destroy his paintings at times.

Aesthetic and emotive

Im Kwon-taek, a prolific filmmaker from South Korea, has brought out the essence of the life, times and work of the legendary Oh-won in his celluloid drama, Chi-hwa-seon (Painted Fire). With English subtitles, this biopic has outstanding performances from its lead Choi Min-sik and the supporting cast, most of whom are well-known actors in South Korea. The film's lovely use of colour and breathtaking cinematography is worth mentioning. The production, which released in 2002, won Im Kwon-taek the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival.

“Artists of yesteryear in most parts of the world pursued art for the love of it. We believe that it is important to make and show such biopics,” a member of the NGMA staff said.