The small subtlety of calligraphy

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The small subtlety of calligraphy

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Popular pieces of calligraphy are usually written on large tablets and the “Panjeon,” a tablet in Bongeun Temple, which it is said Kim Jeong-hui (1786-1856) wrote three days before his death, is no exception, being over 2-meters (6.6-foot) wide. But the size of the letters used doesn’t necessarily define its artistic value. Many scholars view smaller pieces with small characters as more definitive of the sophistication of the calligrapher. Letters, poems, essays and epitaphs can depict the writer’s character and his life, they say.
Gwacheon Cultural Center is hosting a special exhibition on the calligraphy of the scholar Chusa (Kim Jeong-hui’s penname) from tomorrow through Nov. 20 at the Gwacheon Citizen’s Hall. The exhibition will feature 124 of his works, including letters, poems, essays and paintings, 81 of which are being shown for the first time.
One of the most renowned figures in the Joseon Dynasty, Chusa developed his own style of calligraphy, one which now bears his name, and is also remembered for his epigraphy and painting. He was also interested in Buddhism, which was shunned in this period, when neo-Confucianists controlled the government.
Born to a family of well-known calligraphers, Chusa visited and spent time in Yeongyeong in China during the Qing Dynasty with his father Kim Noh-gyeong. There he met Ruan Yuan, a Chinese politician and calligrapher, and Weng Fang-kang, one of the most renowned scholars of the dynasty who was a master of epigraphy and epitaphs. Both scholars recognized Chusa’s talent.
Korean researchers assume that Chusa created his calligraphy style in his 30s after coming back from China. The Chusa style shows the harmony of thick strokes counterposed with thin lines and free-form dots.
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Though he lived a comfortable life on his return, trouble loomed in his later years. When he was 54 years old, Chusa was sent into exile on Jeju Island after the influential Kim family from the Andong area claimed he took part in the writing of an unflattering memorial to King Sunjo. The memorial was presented by Yoon Sang-do, a court official, and stated that Hyomyeong, the crown prince, lacked virtue and Park Jong-hun, a court official, misused government funds. Yoon was imprisoned, Chusa exiled.
Exile to Jeju Island was considered a penalty second in harshness only to the death penalty at that time. After living there for just over 8 years, Chusa was released, but three years later he was again sent into exile, this time to Bukcheong, because of a political dispute over the relocation of the tomb of King Heonjong. Released a year later, he lived in Gwacheon near his father’s house and tomb until his death in 1856.
The exhibition focuses on pieces that Chusa composed on Jeju Island, and in Bukcheong and Gwacheon. Most of the items are letters sent to friends, family and students. One, to his friend, Gwon Don-in, a minister, noted that there is no difference in how a letter is written because of its size.
“Although I have used up 10 inkwells and more than 1,000 brushes over 70 years, I haven’t learned different writing styles for letters of different sizes and don’t know if there is a separate way to write small letters,” he wrote.
In letters to Monk Choui from Jeju Island, we can read of the strong friendship and dependence between the two when Chusa pushes his friend to send tea, a personal favorite of the great scholar.
Also in letters to his wife, he talks about his love for her, his duty as the eldest grandson of his family, and the joys and sorrows of his life on Jeju Island, giving an idea of the customs, language and social life of the period.
“The value of Chusa’s letters is in the contents. We have weighed too much on his artistic world for the last 150 years, not his life as a human. The exhibition will help people to understand Chusa more,” said Lee Dong-kook, the curator of the Calligraphy Hall at Seoul Arts Center.
Aliongside the exhibition, there will be an academic seminar tomorrow from 1 p.m. at Gwacheon Citizen’s Hall. Lee Jong-chan, honorary professor of Dongguk University, will give a keynote speech, based on his historical research, on Chusa’s views on culture.


by Park Sung-ha
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