Vincent Brandt: Drawing from the East, Painting in the West
Editor's Note: This month, a retrospective show of work by Vincent Brandt is on display at River Gallery School (32 Main St., Brattleboro) and coincides with the release of his memoir, An Affair with Korea. The artist/author will be at the school during Gallery Walk afternoon and evening to talk about his work and sign copies of the book. - JW-P
In 1952, the South Korean fishing village of Pusan was swelling with refugees from the War. Vin Brandt was there professionally as a diplomat with the American Foreign Service and personally as a student of social anthropology. He had served during WWII in the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division and was now enjoying a less rigorous post as a cultural liaison on the beautiful South Korean coast.
One morning at breakfast, he was met by his senior official, Vincent Bruno, who had with him a refugee from Seoul's cultural elite. "Vincent," said Bruno, "this is Pae-Ryum. He is Korea's best Chinese-style brush painter. He and his family are starving, and you will take lessons from him." That was the beginning.
In traditional brush painting, the plum blossom is an esteemed symbolic subject because the plum tree blooms in winter. Vincent happened to have two such trees growing in his backyard in Pusan. He recalls sitting and painting with Pae-Ryum as snow fell gently around them. Vin worked through many of the classical subjects, and his love for the medium grew. "Making a decisive black mark on the paper, particularly of a bamboo leaf with one stroke, that's what seduced me."
It was also in Pusan that Vin met his wife, Hi-Kyung, a beautiful and determined five-time refugee who had fled Seoul. She liked Vin immediately when she saw him get out of an Embassy limousine and leave his colleagues, taking off his tie and jacket to walk into the village. "Vin never liked all of the formalities." (They were married in Tokyo in 1958 after Hi-Kyung finished her degree in America, and they are together still.)
When Seoul was reclaimed by the South in 1953, the capital and the American Embassy moved there as well. By this time Vincents Brandt and Bruno were best friends.
"All right, Vin. Enough of this brush painting; now you've got to learn to draw." Bruno was an artist himself and brought Vin along to life-drawing classes where they worked alongside modern Korean painters. New friendships grew. And Vin loved the burnt black of the vine charcoal as he loved the liquid black of the ink. It was a highly creative period, which he attributes to the relentless encouragement of his compatriot. "I owe that man a lot. He opened up the whole world to me."
Tokyo was the next stop for Vincent, who was assigned a post at the American Embassy. There he joined Churchill Kai (Churchill Society), a band of social elite "hotshots" interested in art. Vin was now able to draw in grand studios with hired professional artist's models.
He soon made a special arrangement with an art instructor nicknamed Kasutory-San (after a brand of cheap Korean liquor), a graduate of the prestigious Fine Art Academy. Vin paid for the model and taught Kasutory-San to sail in exchange for studio space and art lessons. "Kasutory-San was seduced by sailing the way I was by drawing," so much so that he quit his teaching job in Japan to follow Vin and Hi-Kyung to Holland, where Vin bought a boat. The three of them sailed through the canals of France and across the Atlantic on a nine-month journey to Newport, R.I., where Vin's mother lived.
Vin's love of Asian culture and history led him to resume his graduate work at Harvard University in East Asian Studies and Social Anthropology. It was in Cambridge that he met Anne McGee, who taught drawing at the Cambridge Art Association. Vin remembers her as "a brilliant art teacher, an inspiration. She taught me so much about drawing." He also took advantage of the numerous open life-drawing sessions that the city offered and developed his skills further.
After teaching at different Universities in the Far East and in the States, Vin and Hi-Kyung moved to Putney in 1972. Vin was delighted to find a dedicated group of figurative artists who met weekly to draw from a model. This group, which has included David Rohn, Jim Dine, and many others, has been meeting for more than 25 years. Vincent's studio has stacks of 18x24-inch newsprint pads with many hundreds of drawings of the men and women who have been on the other side of the easel.
Despite his many years of drawing in charcoal and ink, Vincent had no experience with oil painting until he met Ric Campman, co-founder of River Gallery School (RGS). Vin recalls, "I was walking down Main Street in Brattleboro and was accosted by a man reaching out of a doorway. It was like being pulled into a girlie joint on North Beach in San Francisco. He grabbed me by the arm and took me up a flight of stairs to an art studio. He put some oil paints in front of me, handed me some brushes, and said, 'Paint!' So I did. You know, I just wanted to paint things the way they looked, to be a realist painter. Gradually, with Lydia's encouragement [Lydia Thomson was a student of Ric's and is the current director of RGS], I began to look for more depth, more meaning than just reproducing the image. I wanted to express what I was feeling. I credit Lydia with opening my eyes to deeper levels of looking and painting."
When asked about the allure of artmaking that has persisted for more than 60 years, Vin says, "It is that jolt of pleasure, that euphoric feeling I get that goes back to that first bamboo leaf -- to make a mark that is truly satisfying."
Copyright 2014, Gallery Walk, Brattleboro, Vermont