PAPER TIGERS, FIVE CENTURIES OF PAINTING IN KOREA
Wednesday 4 November 2015: exhibition tour-conference Paper tigers, five centuries of painting in Korea at the MNAA Guimet by Sylvie Ahmadian, lecturer, attached to the Cernuschi Museum and the Guimet Museum.
Korea is one of the most misunderstood among the countries of the Far East. Located at the eastern end of Asia, it is also at the crossroads of several civilizations: China, Mongolia and Japan.
The exhibition is devoted mainly to the Chosŏn period (1392-1910), preceded by the Koryŏ dynasty (918-1392) during which the administration is based on the Chinese model and Buddhism remains the state religion. However, from the beginning of the Chosŏn dynasty, Buddhism is repressed in favor of Neo-Confucianism, which becomes the official doctrine and the basis of the educational system. Korean art, heavily influenced by China, will, during this period, begin to emancipate itself and create typical Korean works.
All the works in the exhibition come from the collections of the Guimet Museum, whose funds come mainly from the mission that Charles Varat made in Korea in 1888, works brought together by Victor Collin de Plancy, diplomat present at the court of Seoul at the end of 19e century and a donation of decorative paintings by artist Lee Ufan in 2002. Many other purchases and donations have made the Korean collection of MNAA-Guimet one of the largest outside Korea.
A number of screens are decorated with landscapes that, according to Chinese terminology used in Korea, are called "Mountain and water" Sansudo and constitute one of the major genres of Korean painting. From the 18e s, develops the representation of real and known natural sites of Korea, as illustrated by the work entitled "the eight views of West Korea". Another 8-leaf folding screen (18e s.) evokes the famous Diamond Mountains, Kumgangsan, so called because of the flickering rocky peaks in the rising sun. Located in the eastern part of Korea, symbolic region in the Korean imaginary, they are considered sacred since time immemorial. These Diamond Mountains, still today a place of pilgrimage, form an extremely picturesque landscape whose beauty has been celebrated by many Korean painters and poets. The screen at 8 leaves (19e s.) entitled Governor's visit to Pyongyang, offers a panoramic view of the city located at the edge of the Taedong river and represented, according to a cavalier perspective, in its natural site. The city of P'yongyang, resembling a large administrative town (which has since become the capital of the DPRK), was then protected by walls and accessible by rare fortified gates, characteristic of the “hermit kingdom”. The main monuments, highlighted by their color scheme, are covered with tiles, while the residential houses are topped with thatched roofs. The painting is animated by numerous characters and a procession of boats which illustrate the arrival of the governor, welcomed by the notables of the city on the bank of the river. This screen testifies to the interest of the Koreans for cartography and plans at the 19e s.
In the painting Foreign emissaries at the palace gate (18e s.), appear at the door of the Beijing Palace, many foreign delegations came to present their diplomatic gifts to the emperor (including Europeans caricatures bringing clocks). The central position of the two Koreans in the composition, recognizable by their costume and high hat (gat) of horsehair and black lacquered silk, the length-processed format and the paper support, suggest that it would be a Korean work rather than a Chinese one as it was long believed.
If the first maps of Asia, made in Korea, date from the 15th s., you have to wait for the 18e s. for the first maps of the world, influenced by Western cartography, to appear. The eight-panel screen Globe, dated 1860, reproduces the world map that the Jesuit brother Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) executed in Beijing in 1674. In Korea, the Kyujanggak archives preserve the wooden matrix, engraved recto-verso, panels of the screen of the Guimet museum which owns the best preserved copy of world map mounted in screen.
The Buddhist section presents two paintings of the Koryŏ dynasty in which Buddhism has benefited from the status of state religion and the patronage of the ruling class. In Amitabha standing (13e-14e s.), the Buddha wearing the red monastic robe, welcomes the souls of the dead in his Pure Land of the West, figured standing on two blooming lotuses that suggest the lotus pond. Unlike the Chinese iconography of Sukhavati where Amitabha sits in a large assembly, in Korea, he stands alone against a bare background. The very rounded face and the small mouth surmounted by a mustache testify to a Mongol influence. In Avalokitesvara at the moon (13-14th s.), whose poetic theme is derived from the Chinese tradition of the Tang period, the boddhisattva, represented in a position of royal relaxation, stands out against the lunar star of monumental size. The little figure inclined, in the lower left corner of the painting, associates with this iconography that of the rebirth of the souls of the dead.
The "Sutra of perfect awakeningDated 1446-47, painted in gold ink on a rectangular-sized indigo paper, was commissioned for the repose of the late son of the famous King Sejong. The text is accompanied by an image of the Buddha revealing the sutra to a Bodhisattva assembly. It is thought that this sutra was contained in the gilded wood statue of Bodhisattva (15e s.), on the front of the sutra, as suggested by the account of Charles Varat's expedition (1892).
Korea has shown a syncretism between different religious currents and popular beliefs. Thus, Korean Buddhism has hosted secondary deities such as Sansin, the god of the mountain, originally from shamanism and has its flag in all Buddhist monasteries. A painting on silk (end 18e s.-start 19e s.) the figure seated under a pine tree, accompanied by a tiger - his faithful companion - and holding a mushroom of immortality.
During the Chôson period, shamanism, whose roots in Korea seem to date back to the Three Kingdoms era (1er before J.-C-7e s. after JC), remains deeply rooted in Korean society. He incorporates into his pantheon very eclectic spirits, figures from different Buddhist traditions, Taoist, literate, even historical characters. Shamanic paintings are characterized by bright colors and a simplified design so that the image is the most visual and the most synthetic possible to be effective. During ceremonies (kut), women shamans (mudang), accompanied by musicians, entered into a trance and thus in contact with the supernatural world. According to popular belief, diseases are caused by evil spirits, the most formidable for Koreans is that of smallpox, represented in a painting on paper 19e s, entitled Young woman with a fan. Under the guise of a woman of high society, accompanied by her two assistants, she is supposed to bring remedies to the disease. Apart from popular shamanic practices, the court favored traditional Chinese medicine, although the women of the court protected shamanism until the end of the Chôson period.
A painting on brightly colored paper Sansin, the god of the mountain (18-19e s.), accompanied by his tiger and carrying a pilgrim's staff, a gourd and mushrooms of longevity, from the Taoist tradition. The figure of Sansin refers to Korean traditions and founding myths since it was born from Tang'un, mythical founder who, at his death, would be transformed into god of the mountain. It also bears witness to the syncretism proper to the Korean tradition.
In reaction against Buddhism, vigorously condemned at the beginning of the Chôson dynasty, the government elevates Confucianism to the rank of state doctrine. Throughout the dynasty, Confucianism will remain the official ideology and will be at the base of the education system, permeating all layers of Korean society. By establishing rules of life, duties and rights, Confucianism aspires to organize and structure society so that harmony between men reigns on earth. The painting Master Kong and his two servants (19e s.) recalls that the Chinese sage, wearing here the red suit of the Korean officials, remains the spiritual and moral reference of the kingdom during the last dynasty.
Confucianism advocates learning and knowledge in order to improve oneself. This Confucian notion is illustrated in the paintings called Chaek'kori in Korea which display, arranged on these shelves, objects of letters and books, true symbols of knowledge, intended to enlighten the human mind. However, even if at the end of the Chôson period, the motifs lost their primary meaning in favor of decorative elements, the genre endured through works of fine quality such as Chaek'kori in the Chinese way of Song Sok (beginning of 19e s.). This type of screen could be intended for the children's room as the work of the master of the house. In a style influenced by Western perspective, a screen to illusionist type books (18e-19e s.), with six leaves, represents shelves strewn with books and literary objects which give the illusion of a real library. The book screens come in a variety of styles, depending on the author and the period, the most recent reproducing the motifs in a more schematic and systematic way. A pair of rolls titled Female interior (18e s.) evokes the'Anbang, the space reserved for women in the traditional Korean house, as opposed to Sarangbang, space for men. Indeed, in Korea, Confucianism has gradually imposed a strict separation of men and women. In these paintings, with a poetic atmosphere, there reigns a charming disorder (a dress carelessly thrown on a bench, slippers, musical instrument, fan, pipes, books, fruits and flowers) that brighten the sobriety of Korean interiors. The women of the Korean nobility lived confined inside their home, the exits were limited and were done only in closed palanquin.
Un Double safe (19e s.) in black lacquer with inlaid decoration of mother-of-pearl representing flowers, butterflies and birds, belonged to theAnbang. The two mobile chests, provided with handles, could be superposed or dissociated according to the needs. Patterns are also often auspicious themes (crane and turtle for longevity, bat for happiness, carp leaping symbol of auspicious, etc.). Another double chest has a decoration painted on the back of small squares of beef horn then glued on the piece of furniture. This technique (Hwagaknong) and this taste of polychrome decoration, bright colors, are characteristic of the end of the time Chôson. In return, the masculine furniture is of a great sobriety, in agreement with the Confucian morality which prohibits any display of the luxury, only play on the purity of the lines and the contrast of the rough woods.
The literate civil servants, belonging to the class of aristocrats (yangban) practice the brush arts (painting, poetry and calligraphy) in the Chinese mind. A vertical scroll entitled bamboo in the rain (1622), work on silk of Yi Chong (1541-1626), poet and calligrapher of royal blood, expresses a perfect mastery of the ink and the brush. Bamboos, symbols par excellence of the literate character and belonging to the four noble plants according to the Confucians, are painted in ink graduations that suggest the depth. The Guimet Museum has the privilege of having an eight-leaf screen Genre scenes, through the seasons, painted on silk by Kim Hong-do (1745-1814) known for having popularized so-called “Korean” genre scenes. It is one of the oldest recorded works of this famous painter, favorite of King Chongjo (1776-1800). It gives a very vivid vision of the Chôson society, through scenes that fit into a natural setting evoking the seasons, and characters - aristocrats or common people - portrayed in a naturalistic way, not without humor and with remarkable acuity. The ten-panel screen by Yi Han-ch'ol (1808-?), Court painter and member of the Arts Bureau, unfolds on the theme of "flowers and birds" painted in silver on a blue silk background indigo. Despite the traditional theme, the work attempts to renew the tradition by incorporating certain Western influences in the use of chiaroscuro and the search for volume.
This same artist was also an excellent portraitist, considered the most famous of the late Chôson dynasty. Portrait occupies a central place in Korea where ancestor worship is predominant. On a neutral background, in a strict frontality, the character, usually dressed in his official dress, is figured realistically. The face and the costume emphasize its spiritual values but also its status. So, the remarkable Portrait of Cho Man-yongby Yi Han-ch'ol, dated 1845, brilliantly expresses the rigor and righteousness of the character, figured at the height of his glory and at the end of his life, in a striking psychological approach to the truth. Like his screen on a blue silk background, his modeling studies reflect a Western influence.
The paintings with calligraphic patterns (munjado) mounted in screens with eight panels, synthesize by means of a Chinese character, the eight Confucian virtues. Although the Korean alphabet Hangeul, was created by King Sejong in 1443, the Chinese remains, throughout the Chôson dynasty, the written language of the Korean literary elite. It was not until the mid-twentieth century. for the Hangeul become the official language.
These screens, in various styles, decline the eight characters which, arranged in a strict and permanent order, summarize the Confucian morality brought to the daily gaze. They express, for example, filial piety, fraternity, loyalty or integrity. If the characters are stylized during 19e s, they often remain associated with naturalistic reasons such as fish for filial piety, in connection with a Chinese legend.
The theme "flowers and birds" aroused a particular craze during the Chôson era but Korean artists also introduced motifs such as rabbits looting the elixir of immortality to reinforce the magical aspect of Nature, expressed in all its diversity. These decorative paintings are covered with many auspicious symbols (cranes, turtles, mushrooms, pines for longevity, peonies for prosperity, phoenix for rebirth, etc.). These images can sometimes be reproduced in a stereotypical manner. Peonies are the unique theme of some eight or ten panel screens used for weddings or four panel screens for the privacy of the bridal chamber. Chromatism, dominated by red, brought a joyful, erotic and stimulating touch. Some of these "popular paintings" called nimhwa, Such as Rocks and butterfly (19e s), offer a contrasting decor, both naturalistic and geometric.
Among the animal themes, the tiger occupies a prominent place in Korean painting: royal animal, protector and symbol of the kingdom, he is also the companion of Sansin and many shamanic entities derived from Taoism. In an iconography peculiar to Korea, the tiger is figured at the foot of a pine tree on which is perched a bird (sparrow or magpie), messenger of the gods. The tiger is, in fact, ceased to transmit to men the heavenly decisions. But in popular traditions, the tiger can evoke the arrogance of the yangban, landowner and bird, the little people reluctant to be impressed. A screen, eight panels (beginning 19e s.) on paper, illustrates Hunting scenes Suryaopdo who at 19th century, are similar to entertainment treated with a touch of humor. The aquatic world is also a favorite subject in which fish symbolize harmony and prosperity. As for carp, it evokes male offspring, courage and social success.
Popular painting Minhwa is illustrated by a six-panel screen on paper (19e s.), the ten symbols of longevity Sipjangsaengdo, populated with terrestrial, celestial, animal and plant symbols. Very colorful, this type of screen could be used during New Year celebrations, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary or silver wedding.
A set of album sheets illustrate Scenes of Korean life, written on paper by Kim Chun-gun (Kisan), a real encyclopedia of Korean life at 19th century. The MNAA-Guimet has the richest set of works by Kisan (170 paintings).
A large screen with eight panels on silk (18e s.) figure the retirement of General Guo Ziyi, a Chinese general of the Tang era who, on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday, is organizing a reception in his splendid home. If the subject is little treated in China, it has had a greater fortune in Korea. The scene, in a panoramic vision, evokes an idealized China, but whose details are borrowed from Korean life: the female apartments in the right panels are separated from those reserved for men in the left panels.
This exhibition, like many events in France, is part of the 130e anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and Korea.