Christ’s life, from a Korean perspective
The images are based on iconography formed through the Middle Ages, while reflecting the culture and appearances of people in the times that the artists lived.
So, why not paint Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and the Apostles in hanbok (Korean traditional clothing) with Korean appearances in Korean settings? That’s what Kim Ki-chang (1914-2001), one of the most important artists in Korean modern art history, realized. Kim, better known by his pen name, Unbo, made 30 paintings that depict the life of Christ from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in the traditional East Asian style, in 1952, during the 1950-53 Korean War.
Now, the 30 paintings are part of the collection of Seoul Museum in Buam-dong, central Seoul. The art museum began last week to exhibit them under the title “Jesus and the Deaf Sheep” to celebrate Christmas and the 100th birthday of Unbo, which falls next year.
But, why “the Deaf Sheep”?
“Unbo experienced the tragedy of going deaf and partially mute in the aftermath of a deadly fever when he was 7 years old,” Yi Joo-heon, the museum director, explained. “His devoted mother introduced him to writing and, later, painting. He became a pupil of the famous artist Kim Eun-ho (1892-1979) at the age of 16. To Unbo, the world was filled with silence. The only sound was the voices from inside. These led him deeply into art.”
Unbo’s “The Life of Christ” paintings were inspired from his physical handicap and the tragedy of the Korean War. Still, most of the paintings have a peaceful mood.
“Unbo’s wife, Uhyang [the pen name of Park Rae-hyun], who was an important artist herself, later said that Unbo looked so peaceful when he was painting ‘The Life of Christ,’” Yi said.
He quoted Unbo as saying, “I was praying for the quick end of the Korean War and peace both to Korean people and to my painful mind when I made brush strokes.”
So Unbo portrayed Jesus as a seonbi, or a Joseon Period (1392-1910) gentleman scholar, wearing a gat (hat) and dopo (coat), instead of a toga in the European paintings. In his paintings, angels have the appearances of seonnyeo, or Taoist immortals. Still, in general compositions, Unbo was loyal to the tradition of European biblical paintings.
“We can see Unbo consulted many Western religious paintings,” Yi said, pointing to “The Baptism of Christ” which reminds viewers of the famous painting by Andrea del Verrocchio and his then-pupil, Leonardo da Vinci.
In most of Unbo’s “The Life of Christ,” Korean settings and brush strokes in ink in East Asian styles create harmony with the traditional iconography in European biblical paintings.
The most attractive one is “The Flight into Egypt,” which depicts the infant Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph, fleeing to Egypt after learning that Herod the Great intends to kill all the infants in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.
The painting follows the European traditional iconography of Mary and the infant Jesus riding on a donkey, with Joseph walking and leading the donkey. But an empty space on the left side, the small moon in the space and the blowing ssugaechima (Joseon veil) of Mary give it the classical grace and beauty unique to East Asian style painting - especially 18th-century Korean paintings, including those by Hyewon, whom Unbo admired.
The exhibition also includes another 30 paintings by Unbo to look back on his oeuvre, which started from paintings in classical East Asian style but later embraced abstract expressionism from Western modern art and combined the different forms.
Among such works is “The Bird that Swallowed the Sun” (1968) with bold and powerful strokes and strong hues of red and orange. The painting shows the tradition of Korean red phoenix paintings that goes back to the murals of the Goguryeo Period (B.C. 37-A.D. 668) tombs. And, at the same time, it reflects Unbo’s impression from the abstract expressionism paintings he encountered in New York.
*The exhibition runs through Jan. 19. Admission is 9,000 won ($8.50) for adults and covers admission to Seokpajeong, a hanok (traditional Korean house) behind the museum that was once the summer residence of King Gojong’s father.
Hours are from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. Take bus No. 1020, 1711, 7016, 7018, 7022 or 7212 to the Jahamun Tunnel stop.
For more information, call (02) 395-0100 or visit www.seoulmuseum.org.
By MOON SO-YOUNG [email@example.com]