Lost works resurface at folk art show
It’s not the images ― of tigers, Confucian scholars and the royal court from two centuries ago ― that stirs these emotions. Rather, it is the heartbreaking realization that these national treasures were sold for a pittance at a desperate time in Korean history.
The show is the first large-scale exhibit of Korean folk paintings, or minhwa, of a distinctive style done mostly during the 19th century, in the waning years of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
Most of the 120 old, rare and must-see minhwa are by Koreans. But only 10 paintings (including the masterpiece “Ten Longevity Symbols,” a royal court painting) are owned by the Seoul History Museum. The rest are on loan from various collections in Japan (the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, Kurashiki Museum of Folkcrafts, Serizawa Keisuke Art Museum, Koryo Museum of Art, Tenri University Sankokan Museum and holdings of private collectors).
The show commemorates the 40th anniversary of Korean-Japanese amity, and was organized under the joint auspices of the Seoul Museum of History and the Japan Folk Crafts Museum.
“We’ve seen all kinds of minhwa in the past, but we wanted to show works [from Japan] that are far superior than those in Korea,” said Kim Yang-kyun, curator of the exhibit.
To highlight the friendship between the two countries, the museum also held a seminar on Muneyoshi Yanagi, a Japanese art critic who was an avid collector of Korean folk crafts. Mr. Yanagi, who died in 1961 at age 72, founded the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in 1936. He had developed a profound appreciation for Korea’s artistic tradition, wrote extensively on Korean arts and folk crafts and created something of a Korean folk art boom among Japanese collectors.
He was also one of a few Japanese scholars who risked their personal safety to criticize plans by the Japanese government to destroy the Gwanghwamun gate in the 1910s to make way for the colonial authority’s headquarters in downtown Seoul.
His theory on preserving the traditions of nameless folk artists became widely known in the West through the English edition of “The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty,” which he co-authored. The translated edition was published in 1989.
Mr. Yanagi’s personal ambition drove Japanese collectors to purchase Korean art for many decades, particularly during the rough post-colonial and post-civil war period when Koreans were busy rebuilding basic infrastructure, and preserving heritage was not high on their agenda.
After national liberation and the Korea War, the country was a hotbed of opportunists who sought unlimited power and fortune. Similar to the American wild west, society was a loosely guarded playground of rampant speculation and corruption in everything from elections and real estate to Korean fine arts.
It was common in those days for old mansions and temples to voluntarily strip themselves of their own heritage in exchange for a little cash or tile-roofed buildings ― all in the name of modernization. Countless museum-quality artifacts, which are priceless in today’s market, were sold for a pittance to private collectors abroad.
Korea’s antique boom only started in the mid-1970s and lasted for about a decade until authentic antiques nearly vanished from the market. Paintings marked with the artist’s signature were popular among collectors, but anonymous folk paintings of secular subjects such as folklore, shamanism and fairy tales, were less appreciated.
Mr. Yanagi’s theory stresses the importance of anonymity in art. “Artworks without the artist’s name or signature can liberate the artist to be free in his style, subject matter and creativity,” explained Mr. Kim of the history museum.
During the past year, the selection board members from Korea traveled to Japan to visit and review the enormous number of Korean minhwa in Japan. Five institutions with best works were chosen.
The works in the exhibition are divided into seven themes: flowers and birds (hwajodo), mythical tigers (hojakdo), landscapes (sansuhwa), portraits (gosainmulhwa), rituals (gammoyeojaedo), scholar’s accouterments (chaekgado) and court paintings (gungjung hoehwa).
The central piece is a breathtakingly beautiful painting titled “Tiger and Magpie” from the Kurashiki Museum of Folkcrafts. It is one in a series of paintings that depict Korean tigers, which were believed to ward off evil. Paintings of tigers are the most prized by collectors, and debates over the authenticity of Korean tiger paintings is common in Korea. “Tiger and Magpie” has a high artistic style ―the fur is depicted with realism, while the glaring eyes of the tiger have four pupils drawn as abstract stars. These paintings of tigers humorously capture the fury of the a tiger shooing away annoying birds.
Other highly prized paintings included chaekkeori, or paintings of scholar’s accouterments. These are typically done in a set of two to as many as ten paintings as they exist today. In the old days, they were used as the panels or screens in the study rooms of aristocrats.
Influenced by modernism of the 19th century, chaekkeori paintings are artistically graphic and colorful renditions of a scholar’s shelves, filled with books, vases, paint brushes and other items.
The two-piece chaekkeori painting from the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, shown here, depicts items in the manner of cubism.
The exhibition displays some of the rarest types of paintings from Korea and Japan. A series of minhwa detailing ancestral rites, or jesa, had long been shunned by Koreans for superstitious reasons, but are highly appraised works of art today.
Vivid and opaque primary colors - crimson red, forest green and lapis blue, as found in most Korean folk paintings, might have cracked or flaked off a little on browned paper, but they have remained vibrant for nearly two centuries due to a special mineral-based pigment, known as seokchae.
Connoisseurs of Asian antiques may notice that the collection includes a handful of works that appears to be from China or Japan. This is not the case. The Japanese theory defines Korean folk crafts to include Chinese and Japanese influences, marked by subtly different symbols and styles.
The point of the exhibition boils down to finding such fine Koreanness in those enduring, nameless art works.
by Ines Cho
The exhibition is running until the end of this month. The Seoul History Museum is located at 2-1 Sinmunno 2-ga in downtown Seoul. The museum is open daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays; from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sundays. From the Gwanghwamun subway station on line 5, exit 7, walk towards Seodaemun. For more information, call (02) 724-0114 or visit the Web site, www.museum.seoul.kr.