Matthew Jackson continues his series of articles about the artistic treasures from Korea’s past
The essence of Korea, if you had to sum it up, is ‘hidden virtue’. An innate modesty, or something more profound, means that the good things about Korea tend to hide from me at first glance. While this may make matters difficult for the Korean tourist board, it does lead to a more satisfying outcome for the persistent explorer.
This Korean trait of hidden virtue was expressed in the microscopic detail of the Sarira Casket, and is also visible, or rather invisible, in the case of the Koryo Buddhist painting entitled ‘15,000 Buddhas’. The painting depicts the Vairochana Buddha sitting alone. If one examines the title of the painting closely, it becomes clear that it consists of rows of faces, each representing a Buddha. Inspecting the rest of the painting at close quarters, one sees that the entire painting consists of Buddha faces, each 5 mm in diameter.
This level of detail was the result of religious dedication, and the intention of imparting a spiritual experience to the viewer, rather than simply emotion. The tiny faces are intended to represent the moment in which the Buddha attains enlightenment, and exudes radiance throughout the universe. Thus, enlightenment, expressed in the form of tiny Buddhas, is shown appearing from every pore of the Buddha’s body, transforming the entire world.
From a technical perspective, an important feature unique to the Buddhist paintings of Koryo was the technique of painting on the reverse of the canvas as well as the front. The Water Moon Kuanum (see below) is an example of this. The colours were thus filtered through the canvas before they reached the viewer, and presented a more subtle and subdued effect, contrasting with the striking primary colours painted on the front. In the case of this painting, the majority of the paint is on the back of the canvass, and the front is mainly used for outlines and finer details. Colours which required mixing, such as the colour of skin, were achieved by painting different colours on the front and back – e.g. gold and flake-white – to produce the mixed effect.
The third and perhaps most practically important feature of the Koryo Buddhist painting is the way that the paints themselves were prepared. Generally, naturally occurring minerals such as lead, mercury, copper and gold were used. Because of this, even after 700 years, the paintings have not deteriorated in quality or begun to peel.
In key with the spirit of Korea, none of the above points are obvious at first glance, and all are truly extraordinary when they are discovered. A documentary on the paintings is being shown from this Saturday at the Korean Cultural Centre until late December – and is a good place to start if you are not acquainted with this unique art form.