A Korean marriage of high and low art

by Yoko Haruhara

In Asia, June is traditionally the most popular month for weddings — as is evident from the ceremonies you’ll see happening around you every weekend. It’s timely, then, that the current exhibition at the Mingeikan (Japan Folk Crafts Museum) offers a glimpse of the practices and iconography of Korean wedding ceremonies, as well as a broader look at Korean craft art.

“Soetsu Yanagi and Korean Crafts: The Great Encounter” is culled from the superlative collection of Korean crafts of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), owned by philosopher and scholar Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961), the founder of the Mingeikan. Yanagi wrote, “My encounter with [these] pieces was a critical one [that] determined the course of my whole life.”

The pieces Yanagi was describing span the entire range of Joseon popular culture, including ceramics, folk art paintings, metalwork, as well as carved wooden and stone objects. They are the work of “unknown craftsmen,” hailed by Yanagi for the innate beauty of their unpretentious art.

Particularly moving are the pieces displaying the iconography of traditional Korean marriage customs. Since marriage was a binding contract between families arranged by parents and go-betweens, it was the custom in Korea for the groom to present his new mother-in-law with the gift of a wooden goose. The bird symbolized his vow of faithfulness to his bride, and was an important part of the wedding ceremony (called jeonan-rye in Korean). On show at the Mingeikan is a rare goose made of lacquered paper that dates from the late Joseon dynasty.

The goose features prominently in the decorative art of the period. Among the most elegant pieces in the exhibition are several flower-and-bird paintings portraying serene pond-side scenes. An example hanging just to the right of the entrance hall, dating from the 19th century and believed to originally have been part of a set of folding screens, depicts lotus blossoms in full bloom. Swimming on the pond below the beauteous blossoms are a pair of adult geese along with two goslings. The icon of fidelity is further extended through fecundity, with the presence of offspring. This type of painting was typically displayed in the newlyweds’ bedchamber.

Yanagi’s interest focused on Korean popular art and among the exhibits here are more than 50 folk paintings that reveal intimate details of the everyday lives of Korean people, as well as decorative items used during religious ceremonies and festivals, and displayed in homes.

Itinerant artists traveled from village to village, receiving small commissions to decorate private residences. The result was artwork customized not only to blend with the decor of each home, but also to fit its inhabitants, with the use of gender- and age-appropriate motifs. Women’s chambers were adorned with colorful flower-and-bird paintings; Confucian moral tales were used as the themes for paintings hung in children’s rooms; and simple monochrome landscape paintings would be displayed in the men’s chambers. Talismanic paintings of guardian images were created for the gateway to the home, helping to ward off evil spirits.

Showing here is an eight-panel folding screen of embroidered silk that portrays various good-luck motifs. This would traditionally have been exhibited on auspicious occasions, including weddings, birthdays and New Year celebrations. Beautifully incorporated into the screen are the “Ten Motifs of Happiness,” called sip-jang-saeng in Korean: the deer, the crane, the tortoise, the sun, water, clouds, pine trees, bamboo, rocks, and the mythical yonji mushrooms. These pink, cloud-shaped mushrooms sprout from behind the rocks in each panel. Several of these motifs are also found in Chinese and Japanese iconography, but the sip-jang-saeng grouping is unique to Korea.

Silk embroidery, like that of the eight-panel screen, was an art form practiced and perfected by women within the home. This artistic flourishing was due to the dominant Confucian ideology of the period, which held that women should display filial piety, observe rules of social propriety, and leave important affairs to their husbands. It was considered appropriate for women to spend most of their time in their private quarters at home, and their resulting leisure time was lavished upon embroidery. The art was applied to everything from small decorative items such as spoon and chopstick cases, to large wall hangings, and family techniques were passed down from generation to generation.

Woodwork was another popular art form of the period and a wooden jewelry box in the current exhibition reveals exquisite levels of craftsmanship. The box is inlaid with ox horn, a painstaking technique. Inlay work is referred to as hwagak in Korean, the term deriving from two nouns — hwa, meaning “picture” or “flower,” and gak, meaning “horn.” The horn was first soaked, then flattened to a thin, transparent sheet; it was brightly painted before being glued to the surface of the wood. So painstaking was the process that inlaid items could only be afforded by the upper classes. A bride’s trousseau would contain hwagak items, not only jewelry boxes but also compact mirrors and sewing tools.

Yanagi was drawn to popular art and artifacts for their simplicity and beauty. Through his eyes and the everyday treasures of his collection, the elegant women of Korea’s Joseon Dynasty seem to come to life. The refinement of their furnishings and possessions reminds us that beauty is not solely the preserve of high art.