On first encountering Korean folk paintings, the avid collector Soetsu Yanagi (1889-1961) was so intrigued that he wrote, “The beauty of this Korean painting is beyond compare.”
Yanagi coined the term minga — paintings by the people — in the 1930s to refer to the folk art genre. The collector and scholar felt that the works of anonymous artists deserved recognition, and helped launch the mingei movement to draw attention to folk art from East Asia. In celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, which Yanagi helped establish, the museum is holding the exhibit “Soetsu Yanagi and the Folk Paintings of Korea,” showcasing 100 Korean folk paintings from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).
During the Joseon Dynasty, in contrast to the monochromatic paintings on silk done by titled court painters, traveling Buddhist monks and craftsmen sold polychromatic paintings on rough brown paper to commoners. Whereas court paintings emerged from a tradition that revered refinement and formalism, folk paintings had the more functional purpose of celebrating good fortune, health and longevity. They drew their subject matter from shamanism, Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, incorporating landscape and nature imagery as well as portraits of religious figures.
Rules of perspective and composition were ignored, and the works have a lovely abstract quality, combined with freshness and a sense of whimsy. At the time, everyday objects became inundated with the spirit of such craftsmanship, as folk-art motifs were also used to decorate embroidered panels, porcelain and wooden craft work. Even today, they are still a frequent source of inspiration for contemporary artists in Korea.
The earliest extant Korean folk paintings date from the 16th century, while most that survive are from the late Joseon Dynasty, between the 18th and early 20th centuries. The museum’s entrance hall is festively decorated with two 19th-century scrolls showing a mythical tortoise and a unicorn. The iconography, introduced from China, is depicted with a unique flair typical of Korean vernacular art, reflecting the magical nature of these symbols of longevity.
The tortoise spouts smoke from his mouth and is paired with two fish, a symbol of fertility. The unicorn has a regal presence, with a body that combines the characteristics of a deer’s torso, a wolf’s forehead, an ox’s tail and the hooves of a horse. In myths, unicorns tread carefully in order to avoid harming any insects or grass. The blooming peony plant behind him is a symbol of prosperity.
Originally part of an eight-panel set of screens, they would have been displayed during 60th-birthday celebrations, which marked the end of a zodiac cycle and were a great age for anyone to live at that time. The children of the lucky individual would prepare a banquet in honor of their parent’s long life.
Another popular motif was the tiger, known for its role in creation myths and as a guardian spirit of royal tombs. They were so ubiquitous in folklore that fairy tales typically started with “A long time ago, back when the tiger smoked tobacco,” possibly in reference to more leisurely times. A charming 18th-century painting in the main exhibition hall depicts a huge tiger turning around to greet his friend the magpie. These two animals are often paired in Korean paintings, as the magpie is believed to be a bird of joy which bears good tidings, while the tiger uses its power to repel evil spirits.
By the Joseon Dynasty, the tiger and magpie had become talismans used to expel evil spirits. Such a painting would be placed at a residence’s entrance or outer gates on New Year’s Day. The painting was replaced each year to ensure its efficacy for the coming year.
One of the most striking pieces in the exhibit is a chaekorri — a painting of a book shelf — on a pair of 19th-century folding panels, that was meant for display in a boy’s room. The painted shelves are brimming with the paraphernalia of a scholar, including books, a pair of eyeglasses, writing paper, letter scrolls, fans and Chinese porcelain bowls full of grapes and cucumbers. Eyeglasses and Chinese porcelain conveyed an air of luxury, as these were imported items; grapes, similar to other fruits with lots of seeds, represented the wish for a family to have many children; and the cucumber, also representing male fertility, was a phallic symbol that would usually be included in chaekorri.
It was believed such symbols would auger success at national civil service examinations. As the scholar-official was the most highly respected position in Joseon society, families aspired to have their male heirs achieve prominence by developing academic prowess.
Yanagi had great foresight in heralding aesthetic appreciation of these lost arts, and the current exhibition in the museum he founded allows viewers to examine such beautiful works in the context of the rich folk traditions of Korea.