By Chung Ah-young
¡°Self-portrait of Yun Du-seo¡±
Peer into some interesting faces as the National Museum of Korea is currently displaying some 200 portraits by master painters such as Kim Hong-do and 16th-century Dutch artist Peter Paul Rubens.
Titled ¡°The Secret of the Joseon Portraits,¡± the exhibition also features works by Yi Myeong-gi, Kim Hong-do, Park Dong-bo, Kim Hee-gyeom, Yi Han-cheol and Chae Yong-shin, who were representative painters of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
Consisting of four sections — ¡°Heaven & Earth,¡± ¡°Humaneness, Rightness, Propriety and Wisdom,¡± ¡°Individual Expression¡± and ¡°Photography, a New Way to View the World,¡± a wide variety of expressions can be viewed.
The first two sections include portraits produced by the royal court, the major force behind the development of portraiture at the time. Works that reflect the relationship between the king and his subjects under the concept of the ¡°three bonds and five relationships¡± of Confucianism are incorporated.
The ¡°Portrait of King Taejo (1335-1408),¡± which was repainted in 1872 by royal artists such as Jo Jung-muk, Park Gi-jun, Baek Eun-bae and Yu Suk, features the king¡¯s blue robe, reflecting the remnants of Goryeo customs, according to the ¡°Sukjong Sillok (Annals of King Sukjong).¡± The portrait exudes solemn and flamboyant beauty, contrasting the blue robe and the red throne as the typical style of royal portraits popular during the early Joseon period.
Parts 3 and 4 focus on the beauty of form and characteristics that appeared in Joseon portraiture. The sections present the departure from tradition, reflecting more individualistic and unique styles and at the same time showing the declining process of the portraits with the introduction of photographs.
¡°Self-portrait of Yun Du-seo (1688-1715)¡± is regarded as one of the masterpieces in Korean art history, marked by the delicate depiction of the scholar¡¯s outside and the expression of the inner world.
The museum said that the highlights of the event are the two works by Yi Myeong-gi, one of Joseon¡¯s top portrait painters, and Peter Paul Rubens, the Dutch painter. The exhibition juxtaposes the two portraits ¡°Portrait of Seo Jik-su¡± by Yi and ¡°A Man Wearing Hanbok¡± by Rubens to compare their styles. The figure in ¡°A Man Wearing Hanbok¡± is known as Antonio Corea who was taken captive by the Japanese during the Japanese invasion of Joseon in 1592. Another theory argues that he was a high-ranking government officer at the time who worked for a Dutch trade company in Japan in 1606-1621. A small ship drawn beside him supports that he was a visitor from a distant country.
¡°Portrait of Hwang Hyeon¡± was drawn by painter Chae Yong-shin in 1911 after Hwang, an independent fighter, killed himself out of despair when Joseon was forcibly annexed by the Japanese. The portrait was based on Hwang¡¯s photograph taken in 1909. In the painting, Hwang¡¯s expression is solid and confident as a high-spirited literati and a patriot. Chae captures the inner state of the model in his portrait, which photography couldn¡¯t express.
¡°The Secret of the Joseon Portraits¡± is an important exhibition not only because it shows new directions for research into the subject of Joseon portraiture but it is also expected to mark a turning point in the analysis of portraits according to period and the use of historical materials.
To boost visitors¡¯ understanding of the production process and the function of portraits from the Joseon period, the exhibition features the recreation of a ¡°yeongdang,¡± a shrine for the portrait of an eminent person, and a display of the related clothing.
Storytelling services to help visitors better understand the history and culture of the Joseon period and experience the familiar historical figures such as Jeong Mong-ju and Yi Sun-shin are offered as well.
Comparatively, Moon Dong-su, curator of the exhibition, said that the Korean portraits are more humble than the bold Chinese ones and more moderate than the delicate Japanese ones.
¡°The Joseon portraits are the greatest feat in Korean art history, surpassing the Western portraits based on realism by capturing the human souls and personality through candid touches,¡± the curator said.
The exhibition runs through Nov. 6. For more information, visit www.museum.go.kr.