Exhibition delves into ways flowers can inspire

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Exhibition delves into ways flowers can inspire


From left: “Cushion Mat Embroidered with Flower and Bird Motif” by Han Sang-su; “High Hat with Red Lacquered Crown Flower” by Park Chang-yeong; “Samsara Plum Blossom” by Hwang Su-ru [NATIONAL INTANGIBLE HERITAGE CENTER]

As far as historians can tell, flowers have always inspired Korean artists.

They have been found painted in tomb murals, sewn onto the wardrobes of royalty and carved into the roof tiles of important buildings from long ago.

Many unique examples are on display as part of a special exhibition at the National Intangible Heritage Center in Jeonju, North Jeolla, which explores how Korean artisans both old and new have viewed flowers.

The exhibition’s nearly 100 pieces include both ancient relics and more recent artwork created by people designated as so-called Important Intangible Cultural Property.

The designation is part of the Korean government’s attempts to recognize and preserve those who possess Korea’s traditional skills. As part of this effort, the National Intangible Heritage Center was opened in October of 2014 to assist designated artisans in their creative pursuits.

For instance, a cushion featuring lotus, peony and apricot flowers is the work of an embroidery master named Han Sang-su. An elegant bridal gown also by him is on display as well.

Lotus flowers are often associated with the virtue of purity because they blossom in mud, and are frequently used in Buddhist art.

But historians say the flowers also symbolized happy marriages in Korean art, as an alternative name for lotus in Korean sounds like the word for harmony. They were also used as symbols of fertility because they have many seeds.

Peony flowers, on the other hand, represented wealth.

For these reasons, the two flowers were often used as patterns for furniture used in women’s quarters and on bridal gowns.

But this is not to say that the men of ancient Korea weren’t also interested in flowers.

Noblemen painted and wrote poems about apricot flowers, orchids and chrysanthemums. They also enjoyed making artificial flowers from beeswax they extracted from hives as a sophisticated hobby.

The fact that bees extract honey from flowers and store it in a hive, which was then used to the make artificial flowers, seemed to resemble the Buddhist idea of “samsara,” or the eternal cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

As a result, these artificial flowers were named “samsara flowers.”

The exhibition features the modern example “Samsara Plum Blossom” by Hwang Su-ru, who specializes in the artificial flowers.

“In a way, life begins and ends with flowers for Korean people,” said Kang Gyeong-hwan, director-general of National Intangible Heritage Center.

He added that flowers were thought to “bring good luck like fertility and longevity; ward off misfortune; and usher the dead towards rebirth according to Buddhist beliefs.”

The exhibition runs until Aug. 31, and it offers various programs for visitors. On the last Wednesday of every month, people can watch artisans work in person. Every Saturday, artisans also will hold art classes for children. For more information, visit www.nihc.go.kr or call 063-280-1471.

BY KIM HYUNG-EUN [hkim@joongang.co.kr]

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