Portrait of the Misjudged Artist

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Portrait of the Misjudged Artist

Madness or emotional sufferings among artists are often interpreted as a symbol of their innocence and inability to adjust to reality. An artist's struggles are often romanticized and redefined by critics as part of a "natural" process experienced by a genius. This is especially true if the artists come from marginalized sectors of society and if their works are rejected from the mainstream art world while they are alive. The African-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is a typical example of this.

Though quite a leap culturally and artistically from Basquiat, Chae Yong-shin (1850-1941), a painter from the last generation of the Choson dynasty, is another example. His paintings were once denounced for being "degradingly real." In the late 19th century, the advent of photography made Chae's hyper-realistic paintings seemingly redundant. It was much later, near the end of his life, that his works were redefined by art historians as being some of Korea's most important representational historical documents.

Aside from working as a court painter under King Kojong for two years, Chae was virtually a classless portrait painter, which was then considered one of the lowliest forms of art - indeed, not an art, but a craft. On top of that, he suffered political repercussions later in life for doing portraits of Korean patriots. However, it is these misfortunes and dramatic profiles of his life that led art historians call him a "genius painter" 60 years after his death.

"Seokji; Chae Yong-shin," currently on display at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Deoksu Palace in central Seoul, is an exhibition organized to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Chae's death. The exhibition is the artist's second retrospective show. The first show after his death was held in 1943 upon the recommendation of a Japanese supervisor from the colonial government, and focused on portraits of Japanese officials. This show brings together some 60 pieces that include the artist's lesser-known landscape paintings and archived biographical material such as catalogues from the 1943 exhibition and letters he wrote to friends and families.

Chae Yong-shin might be termed an experimental art for his time. Though portrait painters often had to follow a strict formula prescribed by commissioners, Choi adopted an increasingly personal style as his career progressed. He used highly non-traditional materials such as garlic extract, natural paints derived from boiled brass, crushed straw and salted water. All these unusual media were concocted by the artist to create a better sense of volume on a two-dimensional surface. Even when he painted portraits for kings and governors, his works defied court restrictions and showed, at times, a stylized caricature of a person that was not always faithful to reality. In this sense, he resembles the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

To capture small details on the skin, Chae used home-made brushes and drawing tools that were slender enough to depict the tiniest pores on the face. By adopting sketching techniques from the West that impart a sense of volume to a flat surface, Chae broke the conventional approach to painting. This was considered sensational, because most classical paintings in Korea contained no elements to depict a sense of distance or depth in the object.

Even conceptually, Chae's portraits communicate some critical observations of humanity. Especially after meeting Choi Ik-hyeon, the artist's life-long mentor who was also a scholar and a volunteer soldier in the Japanese army, Chae learned about the art of critical thinking that goes beyond simple craftsmanship.

The artist's relationship to Choi also led to political activism. In 1906, when Choi was exiled and killed in Daema-do by the Japanese for advocating Korean nationalists involoved during the Enlightment movement and announcing a riot against the colonial government, Chae began painting series of portraits of Choi and his ideological followers who were a mix of scholars, literary types and politicians. The primary concern of these portraits were to promote a patriotic awarness to the Korean art world. The works, however, later came to serve as a crucial historical documents in tracing the geanealogy of Korean nationalists based in Cholla regions.

Unfortunately many of Chae's paintings were lost or destroyed by fire over time. A lot of the works on display at Deoksu Palace come from personal collections, and some have been severly damaged during the preservation process.

Before photography came along, paintings were the only visual sources available to document history. Chae's portraits are siginificant of the generation in which he lived and the one after. The works attempt to serve as a faithful documentation but they also provide personal interpretations of the historical figures he painted.

The exhibition runs through August 26. For more information, call 02-779-5310 (English service available).

by Park Soo-mee

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