Conference Report: Joseon Dynasty Court Painting

LKL reports from the one-day seminar on Joseon Dynasty Court Painting held at SOAS on 29 March 2010.

Last year, SOAS in conjunction with the Academy of Korean Studies and the British Museum presented a one-day workshop on folk art. As a follow-up event, this year the workshop looked at work from the other end of the social scale: paintings from the royal court.

This is a subject where there aren’t that many experts in the UK, so four scholars were flown over from Seoul for the occasion, and despite having arrived at Heathrow only the day before the workshop they displayed little signs of tiredness.

Park Jeong-hye started by giving an overview of the range of court paintings:

  • Formal portraits of the king for use in royal rites
  • Pictorial maps
  • Pictures of court rites, such as those documented in the Uigwe
  • Documentary paintings of court ceremonies
  • Didactic paintings showing scenes from the lives of Confucian sages
  • Works for decorating the palaces (screens, murals etc) and
  • Paintings by members of the royal family

Dr Park’s own favoured topic was that of documentary paintings, which were often commissioned by courtiers as a record of their participation in important state events, almost as a sign of their standing in court circles. Such paintings incorporated a list of names of all the officials who had attended the event.

The types of event which would be documented in such paintings would be ceremonial events such as court banquets, processions, selection of court officials or the rites for the King’s initiation into the Court of Elders. Often, the throne is mysteriously empty in these paintings. This is because officials were not permitted to have paintings of the King or the royal family – so where documentary paintings were commissioned by officials for their own use the placing of the king would be signified by an empty throne or the presence of the familiar five-peak screen.

Sun, Moon and Five Peaks
Sun, Moon and Five Peaks

Traditionally placed behind the thrones of Joseon rulers, the Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks screen was the most crucial signifying element of the king as the nexus between the earthly and heavenly realms. As he sat on the throne, the king became the pivot of a balanced universe. The earliest written evidence for the use of a Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks screen in the Joseon palace dates from the mid-seventeenth century. It could have been used earlier, as the Joseon court tried to distinguish itself from that of the Goryeo court. (Source: Korean National Heritage Online)

King Taejo
King Taejo - Hanging Scroll, colour on silk: an 1827 copy in the Gyeonggi Hall in Jeonju City

Yun Chin-yong focused on portraits of the King himself. Unfortunately, only four such portraits survive to our day. Only one version of such portraits would ever be in existence – for use in ancestral rites – and if one became damaged it would be copied as exactly as possible and the original would be destroyed. A lot of these portraits were also destroyed during the Japanese invasions of Korea, 1592-98, and during the Korean war. The surviving portraits are of the first and last Joseon dynasty kings: Taejo (1392-1398) and Gojong (1863-1907), with Yeongjo (1724-76) and Cheoljong (1849-63) in between.

Painting the King's portrait
Painting the King's portrait - scene from a Korean TV drama

The style of painting seemed to change little over the years, though the portrait of Gojong shows more use of three-dimensional techniques, and may have been painted from a photograph. Both Taejo and Gojong are painted staring straight at the viewer, thus establishing royal authority, while Yeongjo and Cheoljong are shown in slight profile. It was suggested that Yeongjo, who had to make the tough decision of putting his own son Prince Sado to death, might have elected to have himself depicted in this way to make him seem less authoritarian.

Hwang Jung-yon chose to talk about internal palace decoration, in particular the different folding screens in use in the royal palaces. Screens placed behind the royal throne were usually the Five Peak screen (see above) or occasionally depicted dragons. Screens placed behind the ancestral tablet for the purposes of the royal rites usually depicted peonies:

Eight-fold Peony screen
Eight-fold Peony screen

Screens decorating the queen’s or crown prince’s quarters would often contain the 10 longevity symbols: rocks, water, clouds, sun, pine trees, turtles, deer, cranes, bamboo, and fungus. Finally, screens found in the king’s private quarters would depict auspicious themes or scenes from the lives of the sages.

The 1920 reconstruction and redecoration of the Daejojeon in the Changdeok Palace
The 1920 reconstruction and redecoration of the Daejojeon in the Changdeok Palace

In the last formal lecture of the day, Kang Min-gi described the last grand project which connected Joseon dynasty royalty with Joseon artists: the reconstruction of the Changdeokgung following its unexplained destruction by fire in 1917. The redecoration was paid for by the royal family, and conducted exclusively by Korean artists. The murals were painted in the more modern colour painting technique rather than the traditional ink painting method, and represented an important milestone in Korean modern art.

Kumgang mountains by Kim Gyujin, in the Chongsuk-jung Pavilion, 1920, colour on silk, 195 x 880 cm
Kumgang mountains by Kim Gyujin, in the Chongsuk-jung Pavilion, 1920, colour on silk, 195 x 880 cm

After the lectures, we were again privileged to be taken behind the scenes at the British Museum to see some works not currently on display, explained by the Museum’s curators and by the visiting scholars. It was a fascinating end to an informative day, for which we are grateful to the organisers and the sponsors.

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