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A glimpse of Korea past

2011/12/17 | 591 views |  | Permalink | Source

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New Light on Art

One holding a pipe and one flirtatiously glancing at a man following her, two gisaeng enjoy a day out on their horses. Gisaeng were Korean female entertainers in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), and the men surveying them appear to be yangban (aristocrats), based on their dress. Nevertheless, they look thrilled to have the girls in their company. A pink azalea tucked behind one girl's ear hints that it is a warm spring day.

This is a scene depicted in Shin Yunbok's painting Yeonsodapcheong (Outing of the Youth), which is included in the 30-leaf album Hyewon Pungsokdo, National Treasure No 135. Vivid colors and minutely-described details _ like the long pipes or the white layer of cloth the gisaeng covered their breasts with under their short jeogori (jacket) _ present a realistic view of fashion and lifestyles during the period.

Shin's painting was on exhibition to the public during a two-week autumn show held at Kansong Art Museum. The exhibit introduced 100 portrait and genre paintings by 52 artists from the Joseon Dynasty, including Yeonsodapcheong and 15 other remarkable paintings by Shin.

The National Museum of Korea and the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art also recently hosted exhibits highlighting artwork from the late Joseon Dynasty, a special period in Korea's artistic history.

The National Museum of Korea focused on portraiture for their monthlong exhibit, which featured over 200 portraits from Korea, Japan and China. A large part of the show was dedicated to portraits from the Joseon Dynasty, including well-known works such as Self-Portrait of Yun Du-seo, National Treasure No 240, an extremely detailed work of the Joseon painter's own countenance.

Leeum's show, The Court Painters of Joseon Dynasty kicked off on Oct 13 and will run until Jan 29. It showcases 110 paintings by hwawon, or court painters of the Joseon Dynasty.

The aim of the show is to shed new light on hwawon, who were regarded as less creative at the time compared to other artists who did not work in the court. Leeum museum curator Cho Ji-hyun, however, says that hwawon actually played an active role in setting new artistic trends of the time. They produced a large number of private portraits and landscape paintings by receiving commissions from other patrons, as well as paintings of royal processions, ornamental paintings for the palace and illustrations for royal documents.

All three exhibits marked a hit. Kansong's attracted about 4,000 visitors during the week and 10,000 on weekends, while Leeum attracted roughly 700 to 1,500 per day. "We are glad that the three exhibitions took place in a similar period. One could make a general survey of Joseon Dynasty paintings by visiting all three shows. It is starting a sort of a Joseon Dynasty art boom", says Park Min-sun, a public relations official at Leeum museum.

Focus on Realism

The recent interest in paintings from the Joseon Dynasty is not at all surprising and even seems a bit belated, when one considers how crucial the time was in Korea's art history. It was during the latter part of the era, a period spanning some 200 years across the 18th and 19th centuries, that art flourished on the Korean Peninsula. Taking a big step toward modernity, society was undergoing major changes at the time _ the class system started to waver and new ideologies, like the Realist School of Confucianism, emerged.

Notably, artists and scholars finally started to shake off the Chinese influence led by Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucianism, which had long dominated the early Joseon Dynasty. In its place, the nation established its own Neo-Confucianism, led by scholar Yi I.

The birth of a native ideology heightened Koreans' self-esteem and led to a newfound love for traditional culture. New techniques were developed and trends started in various cultural fields, including art, in order to highlight traditions and depict customs. Painting reached its peak and became based on a newborn aesthetic point of view.

The most significant characteristic of late Joseon Dynasty paintings is its emphasis on realism. Artists elaborately detailed everything from people's faces and clothes to events and landscapes. Jingyeong (realistic) landscape paintings and genre paintings, which feature scenes from everyday life, became immensely popular.

In fact, many believe that the development of Jingyeong landscapes, an art style pioneered by Jeong Seon (also known as Gyeomjae), was the start of a new era. Traveling around Seoul, Mount Geumgangsan and today's Gyeongsang-do provinces, Jeong strove to develop a new technique of painting.

By modifying the time's widely used Chinese Southern School style, he created a style of painting that was fit to portray Korea's landscapes. Jeong also invented a unique way of painting that involved holding two brushes in one hand. The artist consumed so many tools during the process that the heap of used brushes he threw out is known to have been larger than a tomb.

Support from Kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo, who were generous patrons of the arts, played a big role in the development of painting as well. A high demand for aesthetic paintings existed in court at the time, and the mostwanted variety was realistic landscapes.

Paintings from the late Joseon Dynasty showed a great difference from those in its neighboring countries _ it started to differentiate itself from the strong, bold aspects of continental Chinese art and also from the brilliant colors of Japanese art. Rather, it was independent and unique enough to have even influenced other cultures. The era's paintings are known to have played a considerable role in the development of the Japanese Southern School style.


(left) Kim Hong-do's Plowing a Rice Field depicts farmers at work (right) A work by Shin Yun-bok shows a woman with her head covered

Growth of Genre Paintings

During the early years of the Joseon Dynasty, art depicting daily life and people wearing casual attire were considered relatively vulgar. But in the latter half of the period, this idea was abandoned. Genre paintings, or art that illustrates the everyday life of the artist's time, became greatly popular in the late Joseon Dynasty. The paintings are not only highly valuable as art, but are also important historical records that can inform the following generations about the time's lifestyle.

Some of the best painters of the time were Yun Du-seo, Kim Hong-do, Shin Yun-bok, Kim Deuk-sin and Jo Yeongseok. Yun was an important figure in terms of genre painting, as he was one of the first artists who ever attempted the style. He lived and worked in the early 18th century, and six of his original paintings are intact, including Women Picking Edible Plants and Carving Woodenware.

As well as depicting labor at the time, the painting featuring women gathering plants at the foot of a mountain also informs viewers what kind of hanbok (traditional clothes) people wore when working. The women's jeogori is significantly longer compared to those depicted in late 18th century paintings.

Kim Hong-do (also known as Danwon) is another painter who perfected genre painting in the late 18th century. He was a highly versatile artist, but is best known for his genre pieces, such as Pungsokdocheop (Korean Genre Paintings), Treasure No 527.

The work is an album he made in his 30s and contains 25 paintings of various events he witnessed in the country. It features people working, playing sports, eating, drinking, dancing and more. Every figure has its own story. Like Yun, Kim also left the background bare, allowing his main subjects to stand out.

In the painting Lunch, for example, a dog stares at a group of people enjoying their midday snack, hoping for a share. Threshing Rice shows the unsatisfied frowns of young men striking sheaves of rice to the ground in contrast with the laid back posture of an old man, possibly the landowner, in the background.

While Kim Hong-do focused on painting rural life, Shin Yun-bok (whose penname was Hyewon) depicted scenes of urban life. Shin was the first artist to boldly depict the gisaeng lifestyle and the relationship between men and women. The best known works are included in Hyewon Pungsokdo. In the album, Shin vividly portrays the fashion and flirtatious attitudes of gisaeng, as well as the gallant and ridiculous actions of men trying to win their favor.

Analyzing Shin's paintings, one could even assume that although women were restricted by the patriarchy, they still led rather active and autonomous lives.

(left) Self-portrait of Yun Du-seo integrates new art styles (right) Playing Cats is a work of folk art by Jang Seung-eop

Peering Into Portraits

Following the Goryeo style of the early Joseon Dynasty and the Chinese styles in the middle of the era, Joseon's own style was established in the latter part of the period. One consistent aspect of portraiture, however, was that the artist who was given permission to paint the king was considered the best in the land. For this task, even painters from outside the court were considered for the job.

Unfortunately, there are no original extant copies of any of the kings' portraits. This is because artists regularly burned each original after copying it, because it was forbidden to pass down a king's portrait once it had faded. The names of the artists who copied the portraits were kept secret.

The peculiarity of late Joseon Dynasty portraits is, once again, realism. Artists did not try to beautify the subjects at all, but instead put in extra efforts not to leave out a single hair of a beard or any sun spots. They believed that, by doing so, the painting could truly mirror the subject's inner side.

It was not only the king and high officials that commissioned portraits in the late Joseon Dynasty. General yangban and even commoners started to request portraits. And because artists could paint according to their own rules for this class of people, the artistry of portrait painting quickly developed.

Various forms were introduced in the period such as self portraits, best represented by Yun Du-seo's famed piece. Jeong Seon's Miindo, a fulllength portrait of a gisaeng, can also be regarded as a type of portrait.

Famous Folk Paintings

Among the different kinds of folk paintings, the ones that are best known from the late Joseon Dynasty are those featuring animals, birds, flowers and bugs.

It was a genre most artists enjoyed painting in order to earn some extra money; even court painters created this style of minhwa in their pastime, usually on commission from other patrons. Several artists started to specialize in the area, or more specifically in painting certain animals. Byeon Sang-byeok, for example, focused on cats and was often called the "cat artist", and Kim Du-ryang was especially good with dogs.

Believing that each subject featured in folk paintings represented something positive, elites of the society at the time exchanged folk paintings as New Year's gifts. For example, dogs symbolized happiness, tigers meant courage and magpies represented good news.

Article adapted from Korea Magazine

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