When we think of pre-modern Korean aesthetics, we think of the restrained tones of Koryo celadon, of the austere white of Choson porcelain, the subdued tones of Chong Son’s landscape paintings. But, as Charlotte Horlyck reminded us in her introduction to the informative day of decorative arts and folk customs at SOAS, that is only half the story.
L to R: Michael Pettid, Chŏng Pyŏng-mo and Kim Soon-young
Shamans and Spirits
Michael Pettid kicked the day off at breakneck speed, probably attempting to pack too much material into too short a time. For those who could keep up with him, there was a wealth of fascinating fact and folklore.Tracing their lines back to the myth of a god coupling with a she-bear, early shaman kings combined political power with a spiritual role of keeping the human and spirit world in balance. The downside for them was if the rains failed, so could their reign. Over time the mystic business was ring-fenced and outsourced to the specialists – either hereditary shamans (세습 무당 – generally women who married into shaman families, learning the rites from their mothers and mother-in-laws) or “destined” shamans (강신 무당 – girls who, as a result of mysterious sicknesses or repeated strange dreams, were thought to be possessed). The hereditary shamans were more skilled at performing the more elaborate rites, while the destined ones were thought to have stronger spiritual powers.
Shamans were drawn from the lower classes, and suffered periods of suppression by the establishment. We heard of an anti-shaman provincial governor, who expelled all shamans from Gyeonggi-do on pain of death, only to become a convert to the cause when a shaman enabled him to converse with a long-dead friend. Moving more into the realms of folklore, and the subject of spirits, we heard the sad story of Arang, who has her own shrine in Milyang. Along the way we meet the shoe-stealing spirit who creeps into peoples’ houses on the night of Seollal. If it’s your shoes that are stolen, you will have bad luck for the year.  We heard of the various types of ghost which haunt this world, seeking fulfilment, satisfaction or revenge before they can properly rest: the spirits of men who met untimely ends; the spirits of babies who died young; and, most dreadful of all, spirits of young women who died before they could get married (원귀).
We heard of the other different spirits which cause mischief in a house, including the highly specialised pestle goblin (절굿공이 귀신). And if there are any shamans out there who know of a charm to propitiate the back-door-unlocking dokkaebi and the cooker-turning-on goblin, I have a job for you.
At the end of a breathless 50 minutes, we might not have been able to conduct a purification rite, but at least the next time we mysteriously run out of loo paper, we know to blame the privy ghost (변소 각씨).
Screens and ceremonials
Chaekkori (책거리, roughly translated as “bookish stuff”) started appearing in Korea in the late 18th century , and they reflect a significant Chinese influence. They are free-standing screens decorated with images of books and other scholars’ implementas. Not only is there a western-style linear perspective in the composition, a realism which the West introduced into China, but also the artists make use of shading and highlighting techniques not previously seen in the literati style.
The linear perspective is particularly evident in the chaekkori which show books and other objects arranged on bookshelves: the shelves themselves and the partitions in the bookcase display an almost childlike use of perspective. Also, the objects displayed on the shelves indicate that the Choson literati, whom we are told liked the restrained, pure white of Korean porcelain, in fact were not averse to a riotous display of colour by having the more garish Chinese pots depicted in their chaekkori screens. The impressive screen in the New York Met collection even has a western carriage-clock on the shelf.
As a variation on the book-case theme, many chaekkori screens depicted books and scholarly implements in more free-form compositions, often but not necessarily including a writing table. As a further development, auspicious objects would be included in the painting symbolising fertility, longevity and the like. This highlights the role these screens played at important times in peoples’ lives – ceremonial occasions such as a baby’s first birthday or a wedding. They might also be commissioned to celebrate a scholar’s passing the civil service exam.
Picasso, Escher, Emin
The freedom of composition in these screens – particularly those not used in the royal court – enabled the playful effects to be produced: whether by design or by inexpert application of the rules of perspective, Escher or Picasso-like results were sometimes apparent, with the decorative effect taking priority over strict spatial logic. Another chaekkori seemed to suggest the scholar having some illicit fun offscreen, with what looks like an Emin-style unmade bed in the foreground.
The chaekkori used in the royal palaces are distinguished by their greater height – as would befit the setting. The chaekkori in the British Museum collection, which was remounted recently on a larger frame, is much more humble origins, but less likely to dwarf a baby celebrating his first birthday. At times of celebration, the ceremonials would be held in front of the screen, while for a short period after death the body would rest behind the screen. Thus as well as providing decoration and a colourful and auspicious backdrop for significant moments in life, a screen also acted as a divider between this world and the next.
It’s a wrap
Kim Soon-young gave us an extremely useful overview of the art of bojagi (보자기) and chogakpo (조각보). For someone like me who uses the terms interchangeably this was extremely beneficial.
To summarise, bojagi is the overall term for wrapping cloths of all kinds. Four decorative techniques could be identified – printed and painted designs (generally for bojagi used in the court), and embroidered and patchwork designs. The patchwork designs are the ones known as chogakpo. Bojagi can be lined or unlined or even contain padding to provide added protection for the article being wrapped. In terms of materials used, silk bojagi tended to be restricted to court use because of the cost of the material, while hemp and ramie was used for more humble chogapko, and the embroidered bojagi used cotton. Dr Kim then elaborated on the various styles of patchwork:
- multi-coloured work with regular shapes (squares, triangles or even circles). Within this category the colours could either be a regular pattern (usually repeating diagonal stripes) or random. These pieces tend to be of silk.
- irregular shapes with generally few colours (generally made of hemp or ramie which hold the dyes less well than silk)
- irregular shapes with a variety of colours (right).
The most simple works contain the basic five colours – red, yellow, blue, black and white – while for the more complex creations five secondary colours are included to broaden the palette: pink, green, pale blue, purple and brown.
The patchwork designs arise from the need to use all the offcuts of cloth used to make other garments. While the designs are partly driven by the shape of the offcuts available, the framework of the designs might also be influenced by the grid patterns in wooden window frames and ballustrades.
Dr Kim briefly looked at Supo (수보), embroidered bojagi. Designs often involve trees with colourful leaves and maybe auspicious birds as well. She noted the dual perspective sometimes involved: a side-on view of the tree and its branches, with a bird’s eye view looking down on the leaves, leading to an interestingly naive composition.
The genial mood of the day was rather soured by a bizarre assault on Dr Kim by Professor Park Young-sook, who led us through an endurance test of a slide show at the KCC last year. As the assembled company shifted in their seats in embarrassment, Professor Park berated Dr Kim for lack of academic rigour in mentioning Mondrian and Klee in the same breath as talking about chogakpo.
She would rather have extended the talk by comparing and contrasting Tibetan patchwork techniques. To her credit, Dr Kim did not flinch, thanking the learned professor for her suggestion as to future research, while the rest of the room was left puzzled as to why mentioning a perfectly natural visual parallel should have brought forth such a tirade. Fortunately the cloud soon lifted, and a more positive debate followed, concerning whether the creators of these charming pieces were the idle rich or the thrifty poor.
Postcards from Busan
Later, we were ushered into a back room in the British Museum to see close-up some of their Korean exhibits, tutored by Chong Pyong-mo. We turned the pages on a book of reproductions of Kim Hong-do’s famous genre paintings. Professor Chong observed that the copy may be earlier than the late 19th Century date suggested in Jane Portal’s book. We got up close to the BM’s Chaekkori. Both of these items will be familiar to regular visitors to the Korea Gallery at the BM. The unexpected treat was a boxed set of pencil-drawn postcards by Kisan (the pen name of Kim Joon-geun – 김준근). Professor Chong explained that Kim Hong-do is the better-known genre painter inside Korea, while Kisan is better known outside of Korea. Kisan knew how to make a few Won: he produced his paintings and drawings for the export market. His postcard sets were designed as souvenirs for foreign missionaries and merchants who lived in the foreign enclaves of Busan, Incheon and Wonsan. The particular set in the BM collection was drawn in the late 19th Century.
Thanks to Charlotte Horlyck for organising this fascinating (and free) day, and to the Academy of Korean Studies for providing the funding.
- Scholarly Status Symbols of Old Korea, a New York Times review of a Chaekkori exhibition at the Met last year – “Beauty and Learning: Korean Painted Screens”
- The story of Arang, as retold by Busan Jeff
- Jane Portal’s BM book: Korea, Art and Archaeology
- The solution is to hide your shoes, and hang a sieve outside your front door. Apparently as well as stealing shoes, this particular spirit is a compulsive counter, and will be distracted by the desire to count all the holes in the sieve, and thus will never get beyond the front door to satisfy his lust for your latest LK Bennetts.[back]
- the earliest surviving one is preserved in the Gyeonggi Provincial Museum[back]