Unconscious beauty crafted by Korea’s unknown artists

by Yoko Haruhara

The founder of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum (Nihon Mingeikan), Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), was a collector and philosopher who had been attracted to Korean crafts since his youth. Recognizing the beauty of folk craft, he strove for its recognition both in Japan and abroad.

The museum has drawn from its founder’s own collection of Korean folk art for the current exhibition, “Yi Dynasty Korean Craft,” which ends this year’s season and is the last display before the Mingeikan closes from Dec. 17 to April 8 for renovation.

Particularly notable among the 300 pieces on display — which include ceramics, furniture, stone objects and metalwork made during the Yi Dynasty (1392-1910) — are Yanagi’s Korean paintings. These represent the category of art for which Yanagi devised the Japanese term “minga (folk painting).” Minga is one part of the larger field of mingei, folk art, from which the Mingeikan derives its name. The coinage was part of Yanagi’s attempt, in the 1950s, to claim a place for folk art in the canon of true artistic genres.

As folk art, the Korean minga paintings in this collection are the work of unknown artists, individuals who took small commissions in return for creating large quantities of artwork for private homes. Since the paintings were unsigned, they were considered as functional art to be used for decoration in commoners’ homes and for display on festive occasions such as birthdays, weddings and New Year celebrations. Typically mounted on multi-paneled screens or hanging scrolls, Korean minga paintings were also glued directly on entrance-gate doors.

The earliest extant minga paintings were made in the 16th century, and most of the Korean folk artwork that survives today was created in the latter half of the Yi Dynasty. The exhibit includes a rare piece of minga art, an 18th-century religious painting representing a “mountain spirit,” portraying a bearded man wearing the costume of a court official of the time. The tiger wrapped around his body identifies him as a mountain spirit who is a deity of happiness and fecundity, called sanshin in Korean.

Such pictures, originally displayed in a sanshin-gak (mountain-spirit shrine) built within the compound of a Buddhist temple, testify to the assimilation of Buddhism with native Korean shamanism during the Yi Dynasty. The image of the sanshin, hung at the shrine altar, always depicted him as a benevolent, bearded old man accompanied by a tamed tiger. Such paintings were periodically changed and the old ones burned. As a result, there are few works extant.

The Korean crafts collected by Yanagi were simple in design and reflected the unconscious beauty created by unknown craftsmen. The pieces displayed here reflect the life of Yi Dynasty people and the intimacy of their culture. Make the most of this exquisite insight into the beauty and continuing interest of minga, before the Mingeikan closes its doors for renovation that should make it even more appealing than before.