Reproductions of Koguryŏ funerary art. Context and evolution, typology, diffusion

Conference by Nae Young Ryu, Doctor of Art History.

In the ancient Korean kingdom of Koguryŏ (37 BC-668 AD), lavish funerary paintings were made from the 4rd the 7rd century, testifying to a developed civilization. They are found today in China, in the area of ​​Jí'ān, and in North Korea, in that of P'yŏngyang. Since the fall of the kingdom in the 7rd century and until very recently, these funerary murals located inside the burial mounds have been invisible. It was not until modern times that the tombs were excavated and reproductions began to be made.

The conference aims to briefly retrace the history, already more than a century old, of the very numerous reproductions of Koguryŏ funerary paintings, mainly Japanese, North Korean and South Korean, which have been declined on multiple supports, either in the form of photographs in black and white on glass plates, life-size or reduced painted copies, or manually and digitally restored synthetic images.

Located in the north of the peninsula, the kingdom of Koguryŏ is the most extensive of the period of the three kingdoms with Paekche and Silla. This kingdom had several capitals and the castles were built of earth or stone. This is the case of Kungnæsŏng, of Hwando currently in the province of Jilin in China, as well as Nangnang, located near P'yŏngyang, in North Korea. Many tombs under tumulus have been discovered near Ji'Ān in China as well as in the P'yŏngyang region. The area of ​​Ji'Ān includes a dozen sets of tombs which are the oldest, corresponding to the first capitals. Among these thousands of tombs, only three are decorated with paintings. For more than a millennium, the region will be integrated into different states and the kingdom will fall into oblivion until 1876 when a Qing dynasty official discovered the Kwanggaet'o stele, erected in 414, in honor of the King Kwanggaet'o in the area of ​​Ji'Ān. The official is the first to make a stamping of the inscription which occupies the four sides of the stele.

The Kingdom of Koguryŏ. © Ryu Nae-young.

Stele of Kwanggaet'o. 1907. Photograph Edouard Chavannes.

Stamping of the four sides of the Kwanggaet'o stele.

The first to have taken photographs and published them was the French sinologist Édouard Chavannes (1865-1918), following his trip to China in 1907. A stamping was brought back to France and is in the Asian Society. He will also take photos of the so-called tomb "scattered lotuses».

During the period of occupation of Korea by Japan (1912-1945), archaeological excavations will be undertaken by scientific teams. These researches will be, from 1916 until 1930, under the direct control of the colonial government and they will work as well in the area of ​​Ji Ān as in that of P'yŏngyang.

In 1911 and 1912, the three tumuli of Kangsŏ were first excavated in the P'yŏngyang area. Unlike the tombs of the Ji Ān area which are made of stone, in the shape of a truncated pyramid, these have a stone structure covered with earth. The team is made up of an architect whose role is to survey and draw, a photographer and two artists responsible for making painted copies of the wall decorations. The refined and impressive decoration of these three tombs explains the preference of the Japanese. The result will be several dozen black and white photos on glass plates and a series of painted copies. The paintings represent in particular the four animals of the cardinal points. These tombs are particularly noted for the depictions of an azure dragon and a black tortoise in the large tomb and a white tiger and a red phoenix in the middle tomb. The frescoes are particularly colorful and show the aristocratic life of Koguryŏ in detail, with dancing, wrestling and hunting.

Example of the survey work combined with a black and white photograph and color indications. 1915. ©Northeast Asian History Foundation, Seoul. ©National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Recorded on several layers of the Azure Dragon from the great tomb of Kangsŏ. 1913-14. ©National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Black and white photographs on glass plates show the state of good conservation of these paintings. Large tracings testify to the survey work done by the artists who will produce a painted copy to scale (3 mx 2 m). Unlike the paintings of these tombs executed on stone, those applied on a layer of lime have not been well preserved, as is the case in the tomb "of the deities of the four cardinal points" of Maesan-ri. Photographs on glass plates show the state of degradation of this painted decoration. Painted copies also reproduce this state. The painted copies make it possible to restore not only the colors but also the volume by unfolding it as can be seen with a black and white photograph and the painted reproduction of the eastern niche of the tomb "of niches and portraits" of Namp' y.

Photograph on glass plate of the eastern niche of the tomb “of niches and portraits”. Namp’o. 1914. ©National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Painted copy of the eastern niche of the tomb “of niches and portraits”. Namp’o. The artist has reproduced all the paintings in the niche unrolled. 1914. ©National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

In 1915, the works were published in "The Korean Antiquities Plate Album" in two volumes, by the General Government of Korea. Both publications will be rewarded with the prize of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles Lettres. The first volume, which deals with the area of ​​Ji Ān, reproduces only a few paintings but presents photographs of the tombs and architectural surveys. The second volume, devoted to the area of ​​P'yŏngyang, presents many reproductions of the murals, in photographs or painted. The double pages show the same painting photographed and reproduced in color by the artist. In addition to these reproductions, the book presents numerous sketches or colored drawings which allow a better understanding of the scenes represented.

In 1913, the copies painted to scale were exhibited on the occasion of the graduation ceremony, which was attended by the Emperor.

Between 1930 and 1942, the reproductions of the tombs of Koguryŏ developed in an astonishing way. Better shooting conditions and more sophisticated equipment make it possible to obtain quality and more legible photographs. The compositions are also more skilful and, in some cases, the same image is taken in half for more details. The discovery of new tombs allows a better understanding of Koguryŏ funerary art. Nae-ri Tomb No. 1, in the P'yŏngyang area, presents a rich decoration of arabesques of honeysuckle, lotus flowers, landscapes. The painted copies follow one another but, made from photographs, they are more faithful to the colors but offer less detail than those made from layers.

Hunting scene from the tomb "from the dance scene". Photograph on glass plate. 1935-36. © National Cultural Heritage Research Institute, Taejon.

Hunting scene from the tomb "from the dance scene". Retail. Color photograph. 1937. © National Cultural Heritage Research Institute, Taejon.

Black and white photographs will continue to be used for reproduction despite the appearance of color photographs. A good example is the hunting scene from the “Dancing Scene” tomb, discovered in 1935 in the Ji Ān area: the black and white glass plate photo depicts the entire west wall of the tomb while the color photograph shows only a detail.

In 1937, a new color photography process used in Japan was tested in Korea. For this, we use very large glass plates that will be used for the reproduction on paper or on silk in real size. A catalog with reproductions was published in 1937 for the annual graduation exhibition. It includes both black and white photographs and painted copies. The tombs of Koguryŏ also began to have a tourist function and a series of six color postcards was published in 1936.

After the Second World War and the division of the country, North Korea undertook studies and works related to the tombs of Koguryŏ. In 1949, new important tombs were discovered and studied, in particular, south of the capital, in the area of ​​Anak.

Portrait of the master of tomb No. 3 of Anak. Painted copy. 1970-80. © National Cultural Heritage Research Institute, Taejon.

Portrait of the wife of the master of tomb No. 3 of Anak. Painted copy. 1970-80. © National Cultural Heritage Research Institute, Taejon.

From 1952, painted copies of tomb No. 3, the most spectacular, will be made over several years by North Korean artists but also by artists from South Korea. In 1957, this tomb will be the subject of consolidation and scientific research. The tomb is then entirely photographed, including the capitals around the burial chamber which are decorated with painted heads of shamanic inspiration. Scenes of daily life are numerous there and representations of the master of the tomb and his wife, each seated under a canopy, have become famous. In 1957, North Korea accepts the visit of a French delegation and Chris Marker will publish a work Korean in 1959 with black and white photos. He will also make color photos of the murals.

From 1959 until today, many copies will be made by North Korean artists. New tombs were discovered in 1973 and artists were part of the scientific teams. However, more often than not, painters do not travel and work from photographs. Artists make scaled copies on large sheets of paper. These painted copies are used to represent the country abroad and they could be given to friendly countries as diplomatic gifts. North Korean paintings are more idealized than those produced by the Japanese which are darker and more realistic.

Black tortoise and intertwined serpent from the Great Tomb of Kangsŏ. Photograph on glass plate. 1914. ©National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Black tortoise and intertwined serpent from the Great Tomb of Kangsŏ. Painted copy. 1970-80 © National Cultural Heritage Research Institute, Taejon.

Several works will be published on the wall paintings of Koguryŏ with color reproductions such as Murals of Koguryo Tumulus published in japan in 1985 or The Illustrated Book of Ruins and Relics of Korea published in P'yŏngyang in 1990. They also include sketches drawn in ink for a better understanding of the scenes. Other publications will be published in Korean, Chinese and English, often with rich iconography.

Cover and double page of «Murals of Koguryo Tumulus»1985. © Ryu Nae-young. Cover and double page of “The Illustrated Book of Ruins and Relics of Korea”. 1990. © Ryu Nae-young.



Enter a text and press Enter to search