[FOUNTAIN]Love for Art Has No Borders

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[FOUNTAIN]Love for Art Has No Borders

In the 1920s, a significant number of Koreans moved to Gando (the Korean name for northeastern Manchuria). The immigrants took the train from Seoul to Wonsan in northern Korea. According to the author Takumi Asakawa, among the small family heirlooms and sentimental objects the families managed to carry with them were small, portable tables, shiny with wear. It is in Mr. Asakawa's 1929 book that these small tables - soban - are first mentioned in any record of folk art history.

Some may wonder why these people were taking up precious space with everyday items when they had sold their houses and left their homeland behind.

At that time, soban were not considered artistic, and yet Mr. Asakawa held them in high esteem and devoted a book, "Soban in Choson," to them. Muneyoshi Yanagi, a Japanese connoisseur of Korean art in the colonial period and a friend of Mr. Asakawa, wrote an epilogue for the book. Mr. Yanagi defined the beauty of Korean arts as simplicity and naturalness.

Even today, it is difficult to find a Korean art historian more perceptive than Mr. Yanagi. In his epilogue, he wrote: "Of the arts in Choson, the most notable are those of wood, not clay. It is rare to find folk arts and crafts which attract the human heart like this woodwork." Mr. Yanagi's explicit admiration for Choson artistry in the book should not be distorted as the hypocricy of a colonialist.

Mr. Yanagi's aesthetic point of view has a precedent, and that is William Morris, the 19th century British craftsman, designer, writer and typographer.

Mr. Morris, who hated mass produced objects, influenced Mr. Yanagi greatly. Today, the art and crafts movement that began with Mr. Morris emphasizes minimalism - a stripping away of excessive decoration. This concept has became popular again as disillusionment with the conveyor-belt nature of modern arts and crafts grows.

If Mr. Morris were still alive, there is an exhibition in Seoul that he would have wanted to see. On the second floor of Suwunhoigwan building, in Gyeongun-dong, Jongno-gu, he could see a collection of soban from the Choson dynasty. Mr. Morris might have said that the 300 soban on display are the model of minimal craft art.

Soban sparkle with uncluttered, appealing simplicity. They have the beauty of being worn from use. The exhibition continues until the end of the month; I suggest readers take their children during the vacation.

Perhaps one day these and other beauties of Korean folk arts and crafts will be appreciated in such world forums as Sotheby's.

The writer is an editor of JoongAng Ilbo publications.

by Cho Woo-suk

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