[FOUNTAIN]Art, Icons and Racism

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[FOUNTAIN]Art, Icons and Racism

An old painting is as good as a valuable history book.

I am reminded of a wall painting of a horse-rider found in the Ssangyeong tomb in South Pyongan province in North Korea, which depicts the vigor of a young man. It is typical art of Koguryo, an ancient Korean kingdom located in the north of the Korean Peninsula and parts of what is now China.

I might also recall many of the self-portraits by Rembrandt, a Dutch painter of the 17th century, with a frowning face because of his decayed teeth. During that time many Dutch people suffered from cavities because they indulged in the sweet taste of imported sugar that booming trade brought to them. Rembrandt's paintings of himself prove the fact.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a French painter and printmaker who died on Sept.9, 1901, depicted red light districts in Paris, which he loved very much. In such works as "Elles", "Can Can" and "At the Moulin Rouge", he describes the realities of the red light districts as vividly as a documentary film. No wonder producers of "Moulin Rouge", a Hollywood movie featuring Nicole Kidman, studied these gloomy paintings and prints.

So there are quite a few scholars who consider paintings as a kind of media. There is even a study called "iconography", in which scholars study the imagery or symbolism of a work of art to understand the history and the spirit of the era.

"Genesis", which Michelangelo Buonarroti completed in 1512 on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, once triggered in me thoughts of iconography. Those in heaven were shown as white people, while most of those suffering in hell were of color - Turkish and black people.

But why? Perhaps the painting reflected the realities of the time, when the Ottoman Empire occupied the entire Balkan Peninsula and posed a serious threat to Christianity. Still, it seems likely that Michelangelo revealed unconsciously the xenophobic and racist tendencies of Europeans in those days.

I might then also take the opportunity to mention the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance which ended Saturday by declaring slavery and colonialism "crimes against humanity." After nine days of tumultuous negotiations, during which the United States withdrew from the conference and Western European countries threatened to do so, the final declaration was gutted, and no apologies or reparations were promised. It won't be suggesting much to say, but I'm sad to admit it - racism still seems to be deeply rooted.

The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Chae In-taek

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