Exhibition defies conventions of Korean painting
In other words, they’d be stunned by the 18th- and 19th-century Korean paintings now on display at the Seoul Calligraphy Art Museum in southern Seoul.
There are the chaekgado, or still-life paintings of bookshelves, that are reminiscent of old European art - particularly trompe l’oeil paintings - due to their use of perspective uncommon in East Asian paintings.
Then, there are the munjado, or letter paintings, which show combinations of images and text so modern-looking that a viewer would be forgiven for thinking they’d been created recently.
Both are part of the exhibition titled “Minhwa and Court Paintings of the Joseon Dynasty: Munja-do and Chaekgeori,” which runs through Aug. 28 at Seoul Calligraphy Art Museum, located in the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul.
Chaekgeori is a broader term that refers to the still lifes painted in the 18th and 19th centuries of books, stationery and other curiosities in splendid color. Chaekgado, or depictions of books and objects arranged on shelves, is one category of chaekgeori.
According to Lee Dong-kook, head of the Seoul Arts Center’s Calligraphy Art Department, chaekgeori paintings show not only a rare case of European influence on Korean art before the 20th century, but also the admiration for learning and knowledge that has long been Korean tradition.
“It is the exquisite fusion of Korean and Western elements,” he said.
Among the most exquisite are big folding screens carrying the chaekgado masterpieces created by court painters Jang Han-jong and Lee Hyeong-rok, who gained fame for their work in the style. The bookshelves depicted in their paintings feature books with luxurious silk covers and stationery, as well as flowers, Korean and Chinese antiques and even Western-style watches.
The possible origins of chaekgeori can be found in encyclopedic collections called the Cabinet of Curiosities in Europe in the Renaissance era, according to “From Europe to Korea - The Marvelous Journey of Collectibles in Painting,” an essay co-written by art historians Joy Kenseth and Sunglim Kim at Dartmouth College for the exhibition. Those collections intermixed natural specimens, works of art, antiquities and ethnographic materials.
“The expansion of such collections reflected the impact of the voyages of discovery and increased trade with distant lands and, above all, the human aspiration for comprehensive knowledge,” the essay reads. “Then, the Western culture of collecting, public display, and cataloguing was introduced to China through the Jesuit missionaries and soon transmitted to Korea through Korean envoys interaction with Jesuits who had ongoing artistic activities in Beijing.”
“They reflect the desire of Korean noblemen for encyclopedic knowledge across the world,” he continued. “As the new-rich class emerged and more people among commoners got education in the 18th and 19th centuries, chaekgeori paintings got popular among them, so minhwa or folk painting versions of chaekgeori appeared.”
The exhibits also include those paintings, which have freer and bolder compositions and more imaginary elements than those by court painters and professional artists for the aristocrats. The folk versions also ignore Western-style perspectives, even using inverse perspectives.
“Those paintings reflect another desire - commoners’ desire to rise to a higher social status through studying and learning,” Lee said. “Munjado, which were popular among commoners of wealth and knowledge, also reflect the same desire.”
BY MOON SO-YOUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Admission is 8,000 won for adults. Go to Nambu Bus Terminal Station, line No. 3, exit 5, and walk for 10 minutes. For details, visit www.sac.or.kr or call (02) 580-1300.