A Japanese scholar’s view of Korea’s Joseon folk art

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A Japanese scholar’s view of Korea’s Joseon folk art

An old photograph of Yanagi Muneyoshi shows a man in a white suit standing in front of a stone tower in Haeinsa Temple in 1916.
It was taken on the first trip to Korea by Mr. Muneyoshi (1889-1961), a Japanese scholar of Korean art. The same year, he also traveled to China, but Korea remained closer to his heart.
From that first visit, he continued writing about Korean art throughout his life. He was one of the first art historians, collectors and theorists in Japan to openly support Korean art during the colonial regime.
Ninety years after that first journey, his name still brings mixed emotions to the heart of many Koreans. An exhibition at the Ilmin Museum, “Cultural Memory: the Joseon and Japan of Yanagi Muneyoshi,” documents Korean art from the perspective of a man whom people saw as both a friend and an enemy to Korea.
Mr. Muneyoshi is one of the first vocal critics of the Japanese regime in Korea. He was a determined protester against the Japanese government’s decision to destroy the Gwanghwamun Gate to create a site for the headquarters of the governor general’s office in 1922 after Japan’s takeover. When the independence movement broke out in Korea in 1919, he contributed an article to the Yomiuri Shimbun titled “Considering the People of Joseon,” which justified the independence of Korea.
Nevertheless he is one of most misunderstood scholars in modern Korean history.
Many criticisms of Mr. Muneyoshi focus on what is described as his colonial outlook on Korean art and that he viewed Joseon art as showing “a beauty of tragedy.”
Sentiments about him among local critics have been mixed but despite his critics, he is often dubbed “a man who loved Joseon more than the people of Joseon.” His contribution to the research of Korean artifacts was officially acknowledged by the Korean government in 1984, when he was named an honorary cultural conservator.
The show in Seoul features the late scholar’s broad collections of Korean and Japanese art and crafts, particularly ceramics. Mr. Muneyoshi was a founder of the folk craft movement in Japan and set up Japan’s Folkcraft Museum (Mingeikan) in Tokyo. A well-known anecdote tells of a famous antique dealer in Kyoto scorning the late critic for collecting folkcraft, saying he couldn’t afford more valuable art. Mr. Muneyoshi retorted, “Even if people had money, they probably couldn’t buy art like folkcraft,” to explain that the value of an art collection goes beyond being a commodity.
The show includes a diary kept by Domimoto Gengichi, a Japanese ceramicist who wrote about his impressions of Seoul after his visit to Cheonggyecheon during the 1920s, and porcelain items that triggered the late scholar’s interest in Korea. A documentary shows his wife’s recital at a fundraising concert the couple organized to build a museum of Korean art within Gyeongbok Palace during the colonial regime, where the Japanese colonial headquarters was then located. myfeast@joongang.co.kr
“Cultural Memory: The Joseon and Japan of Yanagi Muneyoshi” runs through January 28 at the Ilmin Museum.
To get to the museum, go to Gwanghwamun subway station, line No. 5, exit 5 .
For more information call (02) 2020-2055.

by Park Soo-mee
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