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Returned paintings shed light on artistic golden age

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Kim Jin-kyu's "Mukmaedo" [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]
Kim Jin-kyu’s “Mukmaedo” [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

Four important paintings from Korea’s late Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) were discovered in the United States and will soon return to their motherland. One is an important painting never before released to the public — painter Kim Jin-kyu’s (1658-1716) “Mukmaedo,” which is a part of the “Seoknonghwawon,” an album of paintings compiled by Kim Kwang-guk (1727-1797), one of the era’s major art collectors.

The Gwangju National Museum of Korea announced recently that it received four important paintings as a donation from the U.S., including the “Mukmaedo.” The news instantly made Korean art historians’ hearts flutter with the hope that the returned paintings will help fill in a gap in Korea’s art history.

The donation was made by Gail Ellis Huh of Fairfax County. Virginia.

Her late Korean husband, Huh Kyung-mo, inherited the paintings from his father, Huh Min-soo (1897-1972). When her husband passed away, she wanted to dispose of some of his belongings and thought some of the paintings should return to their motherland if they were of importance. She asked her Korean friends for help last May.

Officials from the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation’s U.S. office visited Huh’s house to appraise the paintings she owned and were shocked to find Kim Jin-kyu’s “Mukmaedo” hanging at the end of a hallway.

Upon hearing from the foundation about the historical significance of the paintings and the importance of returning them to Korea, Huh was happy to donate them to the Gwangju National Museum under her father-in-law’s name, the foundation said.

The museum is the national museum closest to the father-in-law’s hometown of Jindo.

Why is this painting so important?

During the era of King Yeongjo and Jeongjo, an era often referred to as the Joseon Renaissance, Kim Kwang-guk befriended leading painters such as Kim Hong-do, Sim Sa-jeong and Jeong Seon, interacting with them and collecting their works.

Kim did not stop at merely collecting their works, but added criticism and comments to each painting, along with other renowned literati of the time such as Yi Gwang-sa, Park Ji-won and Kang Se-hwang.

Kim compiled his vast collection of paintings into an album, “Seoknonghwawon,” between 1784 to 1796. However, the album was later destroyed and scattered, and knowledge of its composition was lost.

In 2013, however, a handwritten note that included a list of paintings in the “Seoknonghwawon,” as well as the names of the painters and the criticism and comments, were discovered in an auction for old books. This pleasantly shocked the country’s art historians, who finally learned that the “Seoknonghwawon” had 267 paintings by 101 Korean painters and 28 Chinese painters.

The list included Kim Kyu-jin’s “Mukmaedo,” but nobody until now knew it existed. In the handwritten note, Kim wrote about “Mukmaedo” that “it’s a precious painting so that it should be treasured.”

A donation ceremony held on March 28, at the U.S. office of the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]
A donation ceremony held on March 28, at the U.S. office of the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

Turns out, it had been hanging on the wall of Huh’s house all along.

A donation ceremony was held at the U.S. office of the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation on March 28.

Huh said she was happy to see the precious works of art she had inherited from her father-in-law return to their hometown, where they can be better enjoyed.

Another important painting returning to Korea is Joseon painter Shin Myeong-yeon’s (1808-1886) “Portrait of Su Shi in a Bamboo Hat and Wood Shoes.”

Shin Myeong-yeon’s (1808-1886) “Portrait of Su Shi in a Bamboo Hat and Wood Shoes" [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]
Shin Myeong-yeon’s (1808-1886) “Portrait of Su Shi in a Bamboo Hat and Wood Shoes” [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

The painting depicts the story of the Song Dynasty scholar, statesman and artist Su Shi (1036-1101) when he was on the island of Hainan during his second period of exile.

Caught in a rainstorm, he is wearing a farmer’s bamboo hat and clogs before continuing on his way, while the villagers laugh at his outlandish appearance.

According to the Gwangju National Museum of Korea, the painting is an important work in the study of 19th-century Joseon painting and a rare style of painting by Shin, who was better known for painting colorful flowers like “A Peony from the Paintings of Landscapes and Flowers.”

Huh Gail Ellis Huh’s father-in-law Huh Min-soo was a banker and a descendant of renowned Joseon painter Heo Ryeon (1808-1892).

Heo Ryeon’s “Songdo Daeryeon"  [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]
Heo Ryeon’s “Songdo Daeryeon” [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]
Heo Ryeon's eight-panel folding screen depicting hills and waters. [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]
Heo Ryeon’s eight-panel folding screen depicting hills and waters. [GWANGJU NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA]

The other two paintings returning to Korea are Heo Ryeon’s “Songdo Daeryeon,” which depicts a pine tree, and an eight-panel folding screen that depicts hills and waters.

The Gwangju National Museum of Korea said it plans to hold an exhibit on the returned paintings sometime in September.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [yim.seunghye@joongang.co.kr]

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