Utopian art from a gilded age

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Utopian art from a gilded age

The 19th century was an age of materialism. In her travelogue “Korea and Her Neighbors,” the British writer Isabella Bishop went on in lengthy detail about the love for luxury goods and imported female adornments that Korean aristocrats began to develop in the late Joseon Dynasty. Bishop’s list of items coveted by Korea’s elite included fur coats, American oil lamps, French jeweled watches, velvet mats, German mirrors and even diamonds from Africa.
Ironically, it was in the midst of this materialism that some of Korea’s most metaphysical poems and paintings were born.
Notions of transcendence and the sublime were paramount in 19th-century Korean art. Like European romanticism, these works encouraged audiences to look at the world with a sentimental eye.
Sipjangsaeng, a form of painting incorporating 10 symbols suggesting longevity, is a folk art genre that emerged during the 19th century. The paintings depict utopian notions of landscape, more imaginary than real, consisting of animals and plants that were considered precious at the time, and elements that were believed to shape the natural world. They are metaphors for eternal happiness ― shamanist Gardens of Eden.
Literally, sipjangsaeng refers to 10 signs ― normally the sun, mountains, water, rocks, clouds, pine trees, sedum, turtles, cranes and deer. But some palatial works include additional characters, such as chrysanthemum, lotus and grapes.
In a sipjangsaeng painting at Changdeok palace, for example, there are 12 elements, including bamboo and peach. Japan and China have similar paintings conveying a wish for longevity, but with only three or four signs.
“Until the Crane From the Folding Screen Flies Here,” an exhibit that will be at the Royal Museum in Deoksu Palace until late February, is a collection of sipjangsaeng art on folding screens, porcelain pieces and murals. Traditionally, these pieces were commissioned by emperors who then presented them as gifts to elders within the royal family, wishing them long, happy lives.
Later, less valuable examples of sipjansaeng were exchanged among ordinary people at the New Year, as a way of expressing good wishes.
Sipjangsaeng is critical to understanding the sentimental roots of Korean art today, in that each sign makes specific reference to important folk tales or classic images.
Its composition exudes a surrealist sense of space. Colors are often raw, filled with eye-catching ocher and dramatic contrasts of warm and cool palettes.
The pine trees are overwhelmingly large, often dominating the image. The mountains are far out of proportion. Almost every animal is aggresively posed, making them look like they are on the hunt.
Even the eyes of turtles, in some royal porcelain vases, flash beams, as if eager to compete with the other animals in the picture. Throughout the image, the collective exaggeration exudes a sense of order through chaos. It’s no wonder that sipjangsaeng art is now used to promote drugs that are supposed to boost male sex drive.
Unfortunately, like much of the other great art produced in Korea, sipjangsaeng has developed a popular reputation not unlike that of the Mona Lisa in Western art.
These days, except for a few original pieces that have survived through the hands of antique dealers, sipjangsaeng is mostly represented in calendar images in medical clinics. Another example of how the meaning of art gets lost in the world of mass production.

by Park Soo-mee

The exhibit runs through Feb. 22 at the Royal Museum in Deoksu Palace. Call (02) 771-9954.
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