[FOUNTAIN]Showing the spirit behind a portrait

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[FOUNTAIN]Showing the spirit behind a portrait

Although Lee Hwang - the man on the 1,000 won bill - has become one of the most familiar subjects of portraits, the Confucian scholar never allowed anyone to paint his portrait. He said he believed that “if even a strand of hair is not alike, it is a different person.” He held this belief despite the fact that in the Joseon period, when he lived, not only the king and the government officials but also members of noble families liked to have their portraits drawn.
They didn’t expect the portraits to be mirror images. Even when the king’s portrait was done, the image had to be only about 70 percent accurate, with the rest reflecting the internal world of the subject, such as his personality, character, scholarly attainment and achievements.
That was the art of “jeonsinsajo,” or “reflection of spirit,” drawing. The canon of portraiture were laid down in the Chinese Six Dynasties period by the painter Gu Kaizhi: while depicting the subject’s appearance, the painter must also express the spirit and mind underneath the external features in order to draw a living portrait.
The minister of war during the Yeongjo period (1694 to 1776), Kang Se-hwang, was also a painter known for his literary style. He painted a self-portrait in which he vividly depicted his sunken cheeks and deep wrinkles using shadowing techniques seen in western paintings, yet it looked nothing like him. However, when Lim Hui-su, a prodigy painter who had later died at the tender age of 17, added a few strokes on the painting, it suddenly became the spitting image of Kang. The drastic improvement certainly can be attributed to Lim’s artistic genius, but Kang must have been too shy to incorporate his own character in the painting.
One of the portraits that every citizen of Korea must know is the image of Yu Gwan-sun, an independence fighter during the Japanese colonial era. Recently, a well-known painting of Yu was redrawn. Aside from the controversial history of the painter, the portrait looks older and gloomier than what she had looked like in a photograph.
The painting should be redone, but the face of Yu should not be overly beautified. The woman we remember was not a spirited girl who was fond of knitting. The portrait must not leave out the grief and determination from the face of the woman whose only regret was having only one life to lose for her country.
Chae Yong-sin chose to not beautify the portrait of Hwang Hyeon, who killed himself due to the humiliation of losing his country to Japan, in order to emphasize Hwang’s patriotic agony. I hope that the new portrait of Yu reflects her mind and soul well. The thought came across my mind, as it has been 95 years since the humiliating Japanese annexation of Korea.


by Lee Hoon-beom

The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.

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