Little women

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Little women

Dolls are not just for little girls. Collector's edition Barbie and Madame Alexander dolls wearing haute couture outfits costing hundreds of dollars are definitely not playthings. They are idealized beauties, and are meant to sit pretty on shelves, housed in glass display boxes.

While dolls have found their ways to museums in the West, Korea does not have a strong doll-making tradition to speak of, a fact not missed by Hyun Keum-won, 43, a sculptor-turned-doll maker. Ms. Hyun lived in France from 1983 to 1992, graduating from Paris's National School of Decorative Arts in 1986 with a master's degree in sculpture, and specialized in terracotta sculptures before realizing her childhood dream of making dolls.

"I realized that there were no properly made traditional Korean dolls," Ms. Hyun explained. "In Paris, I had seen exquisitely made dolls. I thought, 'Why not make dolls based on Miindo?'" Miindo are portraits of Joseon period beauty by Shin Yun-bok, a late-Joseon period master born in 1758 who specialized in depicting gisaeng, or courtesans.

Once she decided to change artistic course, Ms. Hyun set about the task in earnest. It took nearly two years for her to crystallize her concept before she was able to open a doll boutique last month in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. She studied the clothing of the pre-19th century Joseon period, including ornaments, dress codes and wigs. At the time, commoners could only were red skirts on their wedding day and gold leaf prints on the traditional hanbok attire could only be used by wives of high government officials.

Joseon period women were extravagant, according to Ms. Hyun. "A wig, the kind that is worn by my dolls, could cost as much as a small house," she said. "Hair for wigs was in short supply because, following the strict Confucian tradition, Koreans did not cut their hair. Wig makers had to turn to poor women who would allow them to cut their hair for money; it became a serious social problem and eventually King Youngjo had the wigs outlawed."

But it is the wig that has captured the doll maker's heart. She named her shop "Heukun," or "black cloud," inspired by the heavily braided black wigs worn by her creations.

Each doll is made painstakingly by hand at Ms. Hyun's small workshop set up in her apartment in Seocho-dong, also south of Seoul. The head and the hands are made by pouring a mixture of earth into a mold and baking them at a temperature of 1,200 degrees centigrade inside an electric kiln for about 10 hours. After cooling off, they are painted with powdered seashell to give them a pale white color, the color of ideal beauty found in pre-19th century paintings.

A frame fashioned out of thin wire gives the doll its form. The trunk of the doll is made with pure cotton filling to make it rigid while the limbs are filled with a mixture of polyester and cotton. "The mix allows the limbs to be bent into shape easily," Ms. Hyun said. "It also prevents unsightly bumps." The head and the hands are then glued onto the bodice.

The dolls are no glamour queens with long legs and voluptuous bodies -- after experimenting with different heights, Ms. Hyun settled on figures that are 28 centimeters tall minus the wigs. The dolls are proportioned so that the ratio of the entire length of the body to the length of the head is six-to-one. The most ideal proportion for the human body is said to be eight-to-one. "Barbie-like proportions in which a tiny head sits on a body that is 11 times the head are just unrealistic and even grotesque," she said.

With Shin Yun-bok's Joseon-era beauties as her muse, Ms. Hyun has created her dolls to reflect traditional Korean notions of ideal beauty characterized by the white-jade-like complexions, egg-shaped faces, small noses and tiny red cherry lips. Although at a glance the dolls appear to have identical faces, a closer inspection reveals varied expressions, a hallmark of handmade dolls. Even the wigs made of synthetic hair material are styled slightly differently.

The doll's period costumes, designed by Ms. Hyun to closely follow Shin Yun-bok's original genre paintings to the minutest detail, are made by hand by Ms. Hyun's older sister, Hyun Gyu-won, 48. The skirts are full and the jackets are cropped very short, barely covering the breasts. All in all, it takes about two days to outfit a single doll and have it dressed up with the requisite ornaments.

At Ms. Hyun's shop, each creation is housed in a glass cabinet with a name card. One, seated with her head lowered, is Nanjuk, or Orchid Bamboo. She plays the gayageum, a 12-string zither, plucking at the strings with her right hand while her left fingers press on a string. Another is Ihwa, or Pear Flower. She strikes an elegant pose with a long scarf flowing from her raised hand, her dance eternally suspended in time. "The names are typical gisaeng names taken from old poems," Ms. Hyun said.

In a careful attention to detail, the gisaeng dolls wear their skirts with the opening to the right. "While all other women wore their skirts with the opening to the left, a gisaeng was marked by her skirt opening to the right which made her hold up the end of her skirt with the right hand," Ms. Hyun said.

Not all the figures are dressed in finery like gossamer silk hanboks and standing gracefully. There are dolls without tops, wearing only skirts that are lifted to reveal porcelain-white legs -- these are renditions of Shin Yun-bok's painting of gisaeng bathing in the stream.

So far, Ms. Hyun has developed 30 different figurines. "I plan to limit production to about 20 for each model," she said.

Actually, there are already a number of doll makers in Korea who specialize in handmade traditional Korean dolls. What sets Ms. Hyun's creations apart is that they take their cue from the pre-19th century Joseon period paintings. "In creating these dolls, I envisioned an alternative to the cheap mass-produced dolls that are the mainstays of gift shops in Insa-dong," she said, adding that handicrafts can be masterpieces in their own right.

Describing herself as an obsessive person, Ms. Hyun is single-mindedly focused on her dolls, which carry price tags of from 320,000 won ($275) to 380,000 won each. She doesn't think she will ever go back to sculpture. "I have a book coming out next year on dolls, and further down the road I see myself heading a museum dedicated to dolls," she said.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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