A Joseon painter’s modern eroticism

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A Joseon painter’s modern eroticism

There is something irresistibly refined about “Secret Meeting,” the well-known painting by the artist Shin Yun-bok. It depicts a scene of passionate love, and of voyeurism, but without making nudity an explicit part of the painting.
If one of contemporary erotica’s central lessons is that to conceal is more important than to show, then “Secret Meeting” is a predecessor of that tradition. But it was painted more than two centuries ago, and with far more subtlety and elegance than one sees today.
The painting, by one of the most prominent artists of the Joseon Dynasty, depicts a secret meeting of two lovers in the moonlight. The man is fully dressed in a military uniform, standing at the corner of a wall, his right hand cuddling a female servant. Erotic connotations are everywhere: in the way the aroused woman narcissitically twists her body to touch her own chest with her right hand; in the way the man holds onto his dagger with his other hand; in the absurdity of this private act being boldly staged in the open, in front of someone else’s house. These elements create an erotic tension similar to that used in modern erotic suspense films.
But the most interesting aspect of the painting is the spectator ― another woman, hiding around the corner and enviously watching the scene. Her hairstyle and her manner of dress reveal that the woman belongs to the aristocratic class. But she has removed her veil, a symbol of her aristocratic status.
The painting offers no explanation of why this woman ended up on the street at night without a servant, but her position suggests an important message that none of the period’s other established scholars or artists tackled: a message having to do with the repressed sexuality of aristocratic women during the Joseon Dynasty, and with feminine virtue under the Confucian influence.
Shin ― also known by his pen name, Hyewon ―depicted frank scenes of aristocratic life with an erotic twist. He was one of the avant-garde genre painters of the period, yet because of his progressive ideas and his provocative ways of telling stories in his paintings ―both of which were often in conflict with the Confucian value system ―he spent most his career outside the mainstream art community.
Hyewon was removed from his position as a court painter for producing works that depicted the double lives of Joseon aristocrats, in what was considered to be a vulgar fashion. For the rest of his life, he was dismissed as a low-grade, commercial painter. Information about his life is scarce, but fragmentary historical documents suggest that he lived during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the social climate was marked by aristocratic decadence, corruption and the advent of new belief systems, such as Catholicism. But few other details about his life have survived, and because museums have been unable to definitively authenticate many of the paintings that are believed to be his, most are held in private collections.
Yet to many Koreans, Hyewon remains a powerful symbol of love. His masterpiece “Lovers under Moonlight,” for instance, which also depicts a secret meeting ―one between a young scholar and a widow ― was recently used in a Seoul subway ad for a “love motel” in a university neighborhood. Alongside the picture, the ad used the text from the original painting: “On an autumn night, two lovers meet. Only the two of them know each other’s minds.”
Genre paintings in the late Joseon Dynasty were mainly divided into two groups. One was landscape paintings, rendered in a distinctive style; the other was depictions of people engaged in mundane everyday activities ― farmers working in the fields, students in classrooms, people enjoying public sports or games.
But as these paintings of everyday life became fashionable, the permissible subject matter for genre paintings expanded to include more dauntless and realistic topics, such as the erotic lives of the aristocracy. Hyewon may have been one of the first painters to experiment with that subject, boldly painting scenes of aristocrats and scholars enjoying private moments with gisaeng, as in a painting of an aristocrat on an outing with a group of semi-nude women bathing in a stream.
But Hyewon took the subject even further than that, by way of his lively sense of humor and his ability to create tension with a dramatic situation. While erotic paintings from Japanese and Chinese history created their erotic moods by depicting couples engaged in sexual intercourse, Hyewon evoked drama through situations, background details and the complexities of the relationships between the characters.

Voyeurism was a theme he often returned to. As the Japanese author Minato Kawamura observes in his book “Gisaeng,” Hyewon’s use of voyeurism offers a fresh reminder that the essence of an erotic painting is not only in the subject, but in the audience’s gaze.
For example, Hyewon’s painting “A Scene from a Gisaeng Room” shows a man with uncombed hair just about to embark on a love affair with a young gisaeng. On the other side of the painting, however, a female intruder steps into the house, drawing attention away from the couple. But rather than spoiling the erotic mood, the intruder adds to it, creating an odd tension over what will happen next.
Indeed, much of Hyewon’s work is grounded in what might be called a cinematic sensibility, the telling of a story through a picture. In the brilliant “Everlasting Spring,” he depicts a young female servant who has come to deliver a bottle of wine; she is pausing outside a couple’s room, not knowing whether to step in or wait outside.
The picture is made intensely romantic and elegant simply by the way the couple’s shoes are neatly placed outside their bedroom, and the image of the petite servant, seen from behind, standing still. Though the couple making love is unseen, viewers can almost sense the atmosphere.
The narratives are even stronger in Hyewon’s picture album, which, with its depictions of similar faces in myriad situations, reads more like a storybook than like isolated works of art. A young woman described simply as “a mistress” appears in various situations with different men ―hidden in a young Confucian scholar’s room in one picture, hurriedly coming out of an old aristocrat’s room in the next.
In his book “People of Joseon Walk Out of Hyewon’s Paintings,” the author Gang Myeong-gwan calls the artist one of the first Joseon painters to deal with the sexuality of ordinary women, as opposed to gisaeng. He cites as an example “A Widow,” a painting of an aristocratic widow and her female servant who are amiably watching a pair of dogs mate on a spring day in their front yard. Gang explains that the notion of a widow on a spring day was the artist’s metaphor for repressed female sexuality in the Joseon Dynasty.
Under the influence of Confucianism, women were not allowed to remarry after their husbands died. If a woman did so, her children were barred from obtaining government posts; if she had an affair without getting married, by law she would be put to death. Practically speaking, this tradition left widows the choice between enforced chastity and suicide; indeed, suicide was praised as the act of a faithful wife. Men, of course, were allowed much more freedom, whether their partners were living or dead.
In this context, Gang points to the irony of the situation depicted in “A Widow.” As the widow, dressed in a white robe ―indicating that her husband had died fairly recently ― fondly enjoys watching the dogs mate, her servant is pinching her thigh, a painful reminder of her husband’s death. The scene is depicted with subtle humor, with the animals as a metaphor for the widow’s sexual activity, but the painting also carries a poignant message about the idealistic notions of feminine chastity that were imposed on the women of the time.
Other paintings by Hyewon depict couples engaged in sexual relationships in more explicit terms. They capture scenes of gisaeng flirting with aristocrats, or images that hint at a discreet relationship between a monk and a married woman. Some of the images are extremely revealing, even by modern standards. Many of them broke the social taboos of the time.
Indeed, an anonymous poem that many scholars say was based on Hyewon’s “Secret Meeting” tellingly reflects how provocative his paintings would have been among the people of his time:
“When I hold my mistress’s hands, she smiles in pleasure.
“When I embrace her tightly, she says, ‘I am out of breath.’”

by Park Soo-mee
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