Minhwa offer intimate view of Korea’s interior life

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Minhwa offer intimate view of Korea’s interior life

With a deep sigh, many Koreans expressed a collective sense of loss when they visited last year’s exhibition of Korean folk art at the Seoul Museum of History.
The most scrutinized pieces included stunning ― and priceless ― works like the tiger and magpie series.
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But anguish descended on visitors when they realized that the majority of the 120 works belonged to Japanese museums. The exhibition “Happy! Joseon Folk Painting” was a rare opportunity for the Japanese and Korean governments to collaborate, as they commemorated the 40th anniversary of Korean-Japanese friendship last year. For the public, the most important effect was an increased awareness of Korean folk art ― known as minhwa ― that has lasted to this day. This was caused by the quality of the pieces displayed. And the reason the quality was so fine is as simple as it is embarrassing. “Works from Japan are far superior to those in Korea,” said Kim Yang-kyun, the curator of the exhibition.
Those who have a thirst for minhwa can now find relief at a new exhibition “Korean Folk Paintings ― Diversity & Creativity,” at the National Folk Museum of Korea. The exhibition runs until Dec. 25. [For more information, visit the museum Web site, www.nfm.go.kr.] Over 250 works not included in the museum’s previous shows are on display. The collection differs from most previous shows that were curated as an introduction to minhwa. The majority of works shown at the Folk Museum are “the more unusual pieces of minhwa,” said the museum’s curator, Lee Young-ju. “This is a sign that Koreans have begun to show more interest in minhwa.”
Most of the folk art left in Korea is believed to be from the country’s last kingdom, the Joseon dynasty (1394-1910), but experts say the provenance of many works is uncertain. “It is this mysterious aspect that has made minhwa less known in Korea and abroad,” said Hwang Kyu-seong, a registrar at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.
These art works, originally purchased and cherished by commoners, depict the daily lives of Korean people, their moral values, religion and mythical beliefs, often portrayed with a whimsical sense of humor . These folk masterpieces would previously have been used for decorating bedrooms (anbang), studies for men (sarangbang), temples and for special occasions, such as ancestral rites, weddings and birthday banquets.
For generations, minhwa were so deeply ingrained in the lives of Koreans that most disregarded their potential commercial value. The works bear no signature nor written messages, unlike paintings by “real” artists. Along with other valuables from Korea’s past, minhwa were not treasured. Many were discarded or sold for a pittance ― especially during the country’s rush to modernize after the fall of the Joseon dynasty.
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Even in feudal times there were masters who were cherished by the rich and famous. They led the artistic circuit of their era. However, there were also talented but anonymous painters who were able to display their skills through a popular medium, for everyone to enjoy. These were the minhwa artists, and their work is, truly, a treasure of Korea.
These artists for the common man chose a wide range of subjects and employed vivid colors made from mineral-based paints. They developed distinctive artistic styles, so that Korean folk art has now became a subject of fascination. However, for a long time, proper appreciation for the medium came from overseas, where critics and collectors alike prized the fine documentary quality of minhwa and admired the genre’s clear representation of Korean moral values.

Minhwa such as “Farming and Weaving” and “Hunting Scene” shown at the Folk Museum offer a glimpse of Korean life in the early 20th century. Paintings of Chinese characters taught moral lessons from Confucius. Along with hwajodo (flowers and birds) and sansuhwa (scenery), the Cubist-style paintings that depict the accoutrements of worldly scholars, known as chaekgado in Korean, are some of the most prized examples of minhwa.
The extensive Japanese collection sent over to Korea last year included a handful of visually stunning works in the category of hojakdo, paintings inspired by a popular fairy tale featuring a mythical tiger and a magpie.
One can imagine, at the turn of the last century, a few foreigners with keen eyes must have stumbled upon these hojakdo with awe, which would have turned to shock once they realized these gorgeous artworks were being thrown away across the country. After a visit here, Muneyoshi Yanagi, a Japanese art critic who died in 1961 at age 72, quickly became an avid collector of Korean art. As an advocate of the genre, Mr. Yanagi risked his personal safety to criticize the Japanese government when it planned to destroy the Gwanghwamun gate in the 1910s. In 1936 he founded the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo to display Korean art. This ensured Japanese collectors sought to acquire Korean art for decades to come.
There have been various minhwa exhibitions held locally, but it was only last year that Koreans were able to grasp what has been lost because of indifference in the past. The breathtaking work of art from 19th century Korea shown here, “Tiger and Magpie,” belongs to the Kurashiki Museum of Folkcrafts in Japan, for example. Other representative paintings, such as “Paintings of Lotus Blossoms” (19th century) were borrowed from the Keisuke Serizawa Museum in Shizuoka, Japan.

In Korea, it wasn’t until the late 1970s and ’80s that a local boom in antiques hunting alerted critics and collectors to the fact that the country was already deprived of major pieces. And despite efforts made by scholars, the beauty of minhwa remained largely unappreciated by the public, instead becoming cheap souvenirs for tourists. Most so-called minhwa paintings sold in antique shops are reproductions.
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In his book, “The Folk Paintings of Korea” (Yegyeongsaneopsa, 1980), Cho Ja-yong lamented that “the appreciation of minhwa by Koreans came 100 years too late.” Mr. Cho, a prominent architect, who died in 2002 at the age of 68, was one of the leading proponents of minhwa. As a private collector he amassed around 8,000 pieces of minhwa, but, when he died, two museums that housed his collection closed down, and no one seems to know the exact whereabouts of his minhwa. Valuable minhwa paintings are now dispersed in museums and private collections all over the world. In Korea, experts agree Kyonggi University Museum (031-249-8901) has, by far, the largest collection of minhwa.
At the Folk Museum in downtown Seoul, most works have the characteristics of classic minhwa, but what makes the collection interesting to both minhwa enthusiasts and collectors alike is the eccentricity, if not rarity, in the works. They may not be as exuberant in their aesthetics, but they are intriguing. “Now that people appreciate minhwa more, we were able to show more challenging work,” Ms. Lee commented. In some paintings, the classical composition is completely distorted, or in others, the artist displayed unusual techniques, as in “Paintings of Flowers and Birds,” shown here.
One can experience a revelation in front of the most unusual piece, titled “Hopido,” or “Painting of Leopard Skin.” The painting could have been a garment worn by a European society lady, but in the form of a four-piece screen that comes with a small, functioning door, the work is undoubtedly ― and fascinatingly ― Korean minhwa.


by Ines Cho
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