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Exhibition visit: Minhwa – The Beauty of Korean Folk Paintings

Chaekgado folk paintings

This has got to be one of the KCC’s most pleasurable exhibitions ever: a collection of twenty folk paintings in different genres by artists from the Korean Minhwa Centre of Daegu’s Keimyung University.

It’s also one of the most informative exhibitions I’ve seen in a while, as the information on the walls and in the accompanying leaflet explains the different genres and some of the symbolism to give you a crash course in minhwa.

Although as it says in the notice of the exhibition “by definition, Minhwa is the artwork of the common people” that does not necessarily mean that it was enjoyed and executed only by commoners. As Eleanor Hyun explained in her talk to the Oriental Ceramics Society in February this year, paintings such as the chaekgado (bookshelves and scholar’s accoutrements) were enjoyed by the literati and even the royal family, and there are official records of the commissioning of such paintings from court artists. Similarly paintings like the one of Lady Hyegyong’s 60th birthday celebrations below are included in official Joseon dynasty records of important occasions.

Genre paintings at the KCC

Having said that, the style is of course very different from the more austere and refined literati ink paintings and can be enjoyed for their vibrant colours and without needing an understanding of ancient Chinese Daoist mythologies.

The collection of paintings by the Daegu minhwa artists respect traditional styles but introduce a few surprising twists. One of the chaekgado paintings include some comic oversized spectacles (for those scholars who are reading too hard) while another has some mah jong tiles spilling off one of the tables (hardly suitable for a young Confucian scholar, but certainly exhibiting a whimsical playfulness). All of them experiment with perspective, giving a lively wonkiness to the compositions.

Paeksu-paekbokdo and Ilwolbusangdo

The tiger paintings are beautifully comic, while the paintings of flowers, butterflies and weirdly-shaped rocks are full of colour and energy. The paintings of scenes from everyday life and from historic occasions have charm an incredible attention to detail. And my own favourite is the painting of the sun and moon caught by some trees in some psychedelic clouds.

This is an exhibition that can be enjoyed again and again as you immerse yourself in the rich detail of these works. You have until 18 May 2019 to enjoy it to the full.

I always think it’s a shame that the information contained in the exhibition leaflets never finds its way online, so here, with acknowledgements to the exhibition organisers, is the text accompanying this show. Do go along and appreciate the skills of the artists.

Section 1. Bookshelves and Stationery

Paintings of Scholars’ Bookshelves: Chaekgado

Chaekgado are paintings of a scholar’s tools, stationery and bookshelves that are impressively composed to convey the path to knowledge and virtue. This painting genre appeared in the 18th century. Heavily laden with imagery, each item has its own meaning, often symbols of prosperity and enlightenment. It was not unusual for these paintings to be hung in children’s rooms to encourage them to seek academic achievement.

Section 2. Scenery

Genre Paintings

Genre paintings are a style of painting that depict scenes from everyday life. In Korea, these paintings would commonly be painted in the form of a folding screen or a picture book that could be shared and enjoyed. Inspired by Korea’s leading genre painter, Hongdo Kim (1745-1806?), contemporary artists have continued to reinterpret his works and copy them in their own ways. In Album of Genre Paintings – An Event in the Snow we see a typical depiction of Hongdo Kim’s paintings with a man wearing a thick cotton coat beside a snow-covered wall talking to women in the street. In Vagabond Clowns’ Performance a woman with a hat is collecting money from the audience while women and men are dancing. Paintings of Lifetime features a series of paintings that depict memorable moments in a person’s life such as a birthday party, a marriage, or a 60th birthday.

Royal Feast in Hwaseong Fortress celebrating Lady Hyegyeong’s 60th Birthday: Hwaseongneunghaengdo

This panel is a partial piece of a much larger painting composed of eight folding screens that recorded a Joseon Dynasty royal ceremony. King Jeongjo, 22nd ruler of the Joseon Dynasty had this scene painted depicting his mother’s (Lady Hyegyeong) 60th birthday celebrations that were held in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province.

Painting of Gyeonghuigung: Seogwoldo

This painting is a part of the historical drawing Seogwoldoan which includes the initial sketches of the Western Palace (Gyeonghuigung). Following damage to the original complex the palace was reduced in size but this drawing is an important document for understanding the extent of restoration.

Section 3. Animals

Paintings of Fish: Eohaedo

Eohaedo, Korea’s folk paintings of fish are symbols of marriage and fertility. These would be hung on the walls of a woman’s chamber, or a bride’s room as a way of blessing the young couple with many children. Not only do these charming fish paintings represent love but they would also drive out evil spirits. It was believed that they could warn against unlawfulness and misjudgement as fish sleep with their eyes open.

Paintings of a Dragon and a Tiger: Yonghodo

As divine animals, dragons and tigers have long been seen as symbols of power in Korea. In the East, there was a belief that a dragon in water and a tiger on a mountain protected people from misfortune. Therefore, since time immemorial these two animals have been worshipped as both noble and mysterious beings, not unlike an Emperor. As tigers were seen as threatening they were often drawn in folk paintings with humorous, sometimes friendly facial expressions to help one overcome their fear of them.

Paintings of a Tiger and a Magpie: Jakhodo

In Jakhodo the paintings of a tiger and a magpie represent a spirit of optimism, this style is often expressed through an unconventional layout that combines both wit and humour.

As part of the New Year festivities our Korean ancestors would hang pictures of comical tigers on their front doors or walls, using the tiger’s strength to drive away evil spirits. The magpie, symbolising good news and close friendship is there to direct and guide the tiger on its quest.

Section 4. Flowers

Paintings of Flowers and Birds: Hwajodo

Paintings of Flowers and Birds, referred to as Hwajodo in Korean is a style of painting that is adored for its rich sense of harmony and balance. Scenes in these paintings generally depict a pair of birds, often with their young chicks. This is an allegory for domestic happiness and the bonds of affection between family members, as such this style of painting would commonly be given as a wedding gift. The specific choice of flowers and birds offers additional meaning, namely in Ilwolhwajodo (2) the peacock signifies advancement and the peach tree denotes longevity.

Paintings of Flowers and Butterflies: Hwajeopdo

In Korean Hwajeopdo refers to paintings of flowers and butterflies, each depicting the exciting natural world. Traditionally such imagery would represent wealth and prosperity on one level but also the love between a husband and wife on another. It was therefore not uncommon for such paintings to be seen decorating the bedrooms of newlywed couples.

Section 5. Iconology

Paintings of the Sun and the Moon over Trees: Ilwolbusangdo

These paintings were initially created for the royal court, but thereafter were reinterpreted and created as folk paintings in the late Joseon Dynasty. The sun and the moon sitting above the trees represents the protection afforded the people by the King and the Queen. The structure of the picture is divided into upper and lower parts, with the upper representing the ideal world, and the lower part reflecting the real world where humans reside.

Ilwolbusangdo, by Han Jinhee
Ilwolbusangdo, by Han Jinhee

Paintings of Characters: Munchado / Paeksu-paekbokdo

Paintings of characters (Munchado / Paeksu-paekbokdo) are a style of paintings that have been inspired by Chinese characters to express a specific meaning or desire. Up until the 18th century these were exclusively popular with the noble classes before spreading more widely in the 19th century.

Paeksu-paekbokdo, by Yoon Misun
Paeksu-paekbokdo, by Yoon Misun

Paeksu-paekbokdo is a repeated pattern that consists of numerous different seal-script forms of the Chinese characters “Su (壽)” and “Bok (福)”, each signifying longevity and prosperity.

Trees and Fruits

Minhwa trees by Kwon Jungsoon

  • The bamboo which stays green in winter and bends but does not break, illustrates integrity and longevity.
  • The persimmon means joy and unchanging truth, and the wish for a good spouse.
  • The bottle gourd portrays mystery, fortune telling, lifespan, medical science, friends, and brotherly love.
  • The pine tree symbolizes longevity. The peach connotes marriages, spring, immortality and longevity.
  • The pomegranate portrays plentiful offspring and is full of auspicious meanings.
  • The pear conveys purity, justice, longevity and good governance.
  • The chestnut symbolizes parents and filial piety because it nourishes the new sprout until it is rooted.
  • The jujube is a symbol of plentiful offspring as its seed is strong and the tree produces much fruit.

Flowers of the Months and Seasons

Minhwa blossoms and flowers by Jang Jonghee

  • The plum blossom represents January, Winter and the dignity of the learned man.
  • The peach blossom is February as well as young and beautiful women.
  • The peony blossom represents March, Spring, wealth, and honour.
  • The cherry blossom symbolizes April, and prosperity of the family.
  • The magnolia represents May.
  • The pomegranate flower portrays June and its fruit gives the promise of plentiful offspring.
  • The lotus stands for July, Summer, and creation, and is also a symbol of purity.
  • The pear flower symbolizes August, wisdom and good governance.
  • The mallow signifies September and also career promotion, since its flowers blossom one by one.
  • The chrysanthemum manifests October, Autumn, joy and a comfortable life.
  • The cape jasmine represents November and prudence.
  • The poppy depicts December and the sensual beauty of women.

Spiritual Animals

Minhwa dragon by Woo Sukja

  • The dragon is a representation of the emperor and the yang and yin, and was used for decorating palaces and official rewards. The Dragon also illustrates agricultural society.
  • The turtle guards the north, as it is the symbol of longevity, power and endurance.
  • The lion symbolises power and vitality, which is why it also represents the second rank of military officials.
  • The leopard is the mark of the third rank in the military, as it represents bravery.
  • The elephant is a symbol of power, prudence and wisdom.
  • The giraffe exhibits mercy, fairness and auspiciousness, it also symbolises the first rank in the military.

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