Somethings You Didn’t See in Pictures: Introduction to Korean Art (Part 2)

You must have heard of a lot of stories about Mona Lisa. Her missing eyebrows, mysterious smile and the unsymmetrical horizon of the background…. Those additional stories of the picture make Mona Lisa more interesting. Here, I will disclose some interesting episodes hidden under seemingly quiet Korean artworks for you. Along with a long history of Korea, Korean art inevitably hatches many amazing stories.

<Medici Family>

Medici, the bourgeois family in Italy, was the most powerful patron of artists at the time around the 16th century. Medici’s support meant the opportunity to move up the social ladder to the artists at the time. A century earlier in Joseon (조선) of Korea, there was the dilettante who stacks up to Medici – the prince Anpyeong (안평대군), the third son of the King Sejong the Great (세종대왕). The prince Anpyeong had an eye for paintings as a patron but also he himself was also a good artist. He was one of the best calligraphers at the early Joseon dynasty and knew how to play the Geomungo (The six-stringed Korean zither; 거문고) professionally. He supported many artists whom he thought to have a talent, but considering his own artistic talents, you would be able to imagine how picky he must have been. The artist who fascinated this fussy prince with a single picture was Angyeon (안견). It took only one picture named Mongyudowondo (몽유도원도) for Angyeon to gain his fame and fortune at a young age of 18. Monyudowondo, which means ‘the ideal world in a dream’, is the drawing of Angyeon’s dream. The picture suggests the ideal world where the scent of flowers wafts along the smooth breeze, the peaceful river flows between mountains and the nicely wooded hills give the sense of freedom. Under the love of the prince, Angyeon had given full play to his painting ability and even obtained a high government position. He was inevitably the envy of all the artists in Joseon.


However, his good days did not last forever. After the death of the king Sejong, the next king unleashed the reign of terror in order to gain power. The prince Anpyeong then was accused of being reactionary. As a result, all of Anpyeong’s followers and beneficiaries, especially the ones whose names were written on Mongyudowondo, were pushed into a corner. Angyeon, undoubtedly was on the purge list. However, while all of the associates of the Prince Anpyeong were executed, Angyeon could maintain his life. How did he do it? Angyeon was far-sighted. He knew the Prince Anpyeong was hated by the new king and thus broke off relations with the prince by stealing his ink-stone. This story seems to tell us that art is long while friendship is short.

Not every artwork however has a sad memory like Mongyudowondo. Here is one picture carrying fun fairy tales inside: A toad and a good man (두꺼비와 선인). When you look at the picture, you would sense a shade of humor from the facial expression and the gesture of the man. If you take a close look at the picture, then you will notice that the man is holding something weird in his hand. After that, check the number of legs of the toad! Strangely enough, the toad only has three legs. This toad was giving the man a tour of the world. However, the toad had a habit of jumping into the water when it saw any pond. The man had to think of a solution to keep the toad beside him in order to finish his world tour. The solution he figured out was to dip the string attached with a sparkling coin at its end, into the pond. The toad came out of the water right away to catch the coin. From then, the man bounded up the string at his finger. Let’s look at the picture again. Isn’t the picture more interesting knowing the background story?

<A Toad and a Good Man (두꺼비와 선인)>

Korean artists also enjoyed drawing metaphoric pictures with the cup of wittiness. A cockscomb flower (계관화), drawn by Jang Seung-Op (장승업), at first look would seem like just a picture of a rooster and a cockscomb flower. However, those who saw the picture carefully enough to find the flower the rooster is looking at, they would know that the picture is not an ordinary one. Inside the bush, there is a hint of a cockscomb flower. The shape of the flower looks just like a cockscomb. That is the key point of this artwork. In Korean language, a cockscomb (닭의 벼슬) and one’s career (벼슬) are homonyms. The picture is giving us a profound message, “Have your own career” with this picture.

<A Cockscomb Flower (계관화)>

Interesting stories hidden under Korean pictures make Korean art more amusing. I hope that these stories intrigued your interests towards Korean art. Korean artists knew how to use a brush and a piece of paper to create their own world. ‘Mongyudowondo’ shows the ideal world Angyeon had dreamed of, ‘A Toad and a Good Man’ tells us the witty fairy tale, and ‘A cockscomb flower’ lectures a viewer to devote him/herself to his/her study and career. Seemingly boring and dull ink-and-wash paintings do have their own world and meanings. Why don’t you visit Korean art gallery on this weekend?


Article by Ahran from Korea, a Junior in Business Administration

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