Yun Duseo (1668-1715), painter-literate from Joseon - A self-portrait between the art of painting and the art of writing

Video-conference by Ryu Nae-young, doctor of art history, specialist in Yun Duseo.

Yun Tu-sŏ was born in 1668 into a rich literate family of high officials, the Yun of the city of Haenam, under the bureaucratic monarchy of Chosŏn (1392-1897) where the art of Chinese ideographic writing was practiced. , official writing mainly used to take state exams to become a civil servant.

Yun Tu-sŏ received a classical Confucian but also liberal education. He began to practice the art of writing at the age of 4. A little later, as a teenager, he also discovered painting, an art still considered not very noble by the majority of scholars of his time, but which he would value. He passed the first exams (Kwagŏ) at the age of twenty-six but did not pass the final exam allowing him to occupy an official position within the administration. The wealth of the family will allow him to keep his independence.

Despite the creation of hangŭl (hangeul), literally writing right sounds, by King Sejong the Great, in 1443, to transcribe Korean, the use of sinograms will remain the only official writing until the nineteenth century. Hangŭl was, however, practiced by women and the poorly educated population who did not have access to Chinese studies. Yun Tu-sŏ's grandfather, Yun Sŏn-to (1587-1671), a renowned poet, who had written a collection of poems in Hangŭl, Songs of the four seasons of the fisherman, recommended to the women of his family to learn this writing.

Songs of the four seasons of the fisherman written in Hangŭl. 1641. Yun Sŏn-to. © Ryu Nae-young.

Self-portrait written in Hangŭl by Yun Tu-sŏ. © Ryu Nae-young.

Yun Tu-sŏ practiced Hangŭl, as evidenced by correspondence exchanged with the manager of Haenam lands.
He also wrote a poem Autoportrait in Hangŭl, showing his confidence in this writing to express his feelings.

Collection of essential treatises for seeing the cosmos through the telescope, Qing astrology treatise compiled by Yun Tu-sŏ. © Ryu Nae-young.

Confucius and his disciples. Album of the twelve great Confucianist masters (1706). Yun Tu-sŏ. © Ryu Nae-young.

Yun Tu-sŏ, having received an encyclopedic education, follows the family tradition and writes many works such Drawings for the manufacture of the Korean zither, Book of essential treatises for seeing the cosmos through the telescope, Arithmology collected by Yang Hui but also treatises on painting.
Prevented from becoming a civil servant, he devoted his life to the art of painting and opened the way for his descendants. His eldest son Yun Tŏk-hui (1685-1766) and his grandson, Yun Yong (1708-1740) will pursue a career as a painter. His great-grandson, Chŏng Yak-yong (1762-1836) will carry out the first experiments with the “camera obscura” in Korea.

Grasshopper on a leaf. Ink on paper. Yun Tu-sŏ. © Ryu Nae-young.

Women harvesting herbs. Ink on paper. Yun Tu-sŏ. © Ryu Nae-young.

Children's games with pebbles. Ink on paper. Yun Tŏk-hui. © Ryu Nae-young.

Formulated under the Song and dogmatized under the Ming, the neo-Confucian aesthetic of the literati requires showing the essence of things and not forms.
Yun Tu-sŏ, going beyond current practices and dominant aesthetics, especially as regards painting on the motif (following the precepts of sirak, "practical studies") and the representation of human figures (by upgrading the hyeong-sa, "Imitation of form"), was very successful and received orders from large families such as The Album of the Twelve Great Confucian Masters (1706) requested by the Lee family of Yeoju. He learned of Western art through engravings transmitted by China, but his activity as a painter did not prevent him from producing many calligraphies.

Before painting his famous self-portrait, Yun Tu-sŏ made the posthumous portrait of his friend Sim Deukgyeong (1673-1710). It represents him in three quarters, seated and wrapped in an everyday dress, white and ample, treated with light shadows. Although it diverges from the portraits of the time which represented the subject in official dress, it is accompanied by a text in the tradition of literate aesthetics.

Portrait of Sim Deukgyeong. 1710. Ink and colors on silk. Yun Tu-sŏ.

Self-portrait. Ink and colors on paper. Yun Tu-sŏ.

Self-portrait (detail). Yun Tu-sŏ.

At the time, in Korea, it was very rare for painters to make their self-portrait, only ten were made throughout the Korean monarchy. The only self-portrait painted by Yun Tu-sŏ at the end of his life is an exceptional and famous image. This self-portrait, perfectly frontal, focuses on the face which occupies the entire space of the sheet. We only see part of the black headgear, the body and the decoration being invisible because they are out of frame. With this self-portrait of impressive realism, Yun Tu-sŏ demonstrates, at an advanced age, a complete mastery of the "handling of the brush" and the "ink game" - acquired through the constant practice of art of writing - and the treatment of shadows, pictorial translation of brush and ink techniques.

The shadows "shy" but "effective" express with subtlety a tormented self but confident in its brush and in its ink. Unlike all the other portraits made in Chosŏn's society, with the models' heads attached to the neck and shoulders, this head without ears or body, "suspended in the air", looks us in the face. The face is naked with no recognizable sign of social status. The beard, mustache and sideburns are minutely traced, line by line, as if the painter had wanted to count the "moving" hairs with his brush. Each hair is drawn in a curve and not in a straight line. Their length varies freely without ever exceeding the size of the rectangle. Neatly combed, the beard and wavy sideburns unfold unconstrained in this space. The features of these hairs evoke the "brush technique" that the Korean painter described in his "Self-criticism"With that of the" rules of ink ", the two means used to reach the tao of painting. The eyebrows and mustache carefully traced respecting the natural direction of the hair and the great mastery of the brush to draw the eyelashes and vibrissae show the painter's intention to reach the peak of his technique. The extreme delicacy of these features sharpens our gaze by requiring our full attention to discern them. The eye contour is at the same time firm and fragile. The pupils are stylized reduced to a circle slightly tinted in black. The "focus points" are firmly pointed in the center by a smaller circle in dark black. All this care and attention seems to contradict the opinion of Xie He (Chinese writer, critic and art historian of the 6nd s.) for whom thoroughness and the search for detail undermine the truth of the portrait.

Self-portrait (detail). Yun Tu-sŏ.

Self-portrait seen under ultraviolet light revealing the clothes. Yun Tu-sŏ.

Self-portrait. Yun Tu-sŏ.

The painter seems to have used a technique which consisted of painting both sides of the paper and a recent analysis shows that for the "preparatory drawing", Yun Tu-sŏ had indicated a garment.
For the first time in the history of the art of portraits of the monarchy, a naked face exhibits its most intimate self on a fragile paper support and makes us forget the absence of a body.

Yun Tu-sŏ, free spirit, discovered a pictorial practice matured by the quest for the “cosmological self” through the brushstroke. “I am looking for the tao of painting,” he wrote. Most of his successors seem to follow in the footsteps of their eminent elder, one of whose pen names is "humble scholar with filial piety"



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