These Days, with new language and all kinds of shortened words being born, you can’t possibly communicate between the generations if you don’t know these words, and the word ‘tradition’ sounds beyond old.
The word ‘tradition’ is like ‘grandmother’ to me. I remember not understanding my grandmother’s words to bring ‘Jjokdae’ (Gukja for a ladle) and having a panic attack surrounded by all the old tools in the dark kitchen. My grandmother who scolded me for not being smart has gone now but words like ‘Korean emotions’, ‘traditions’ still sound primitive and strange as my grandmother who would throw out all those swear words that were barely understandable. Nonetheless, I cried the hardest of all when she passed away and I don’t know why.
It is very embarrassing to say as a painter who has been working quite hard for decades, but it is not until recently that I have come to think our paintings are really wonderful. I used to think that our art and music were somewhat inferior compared to those of the West. I thought our paintings were just too simple while painters like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, etc. created a beautiful illusion with art techniques like perspective that lead us to think it is real. Also, our music, with a small gong or a bamboo flute, seemed too poor while listening to Bach’s mass full of beautiful deep, rich chords. Seeing the brother next door, who swept all kinds of trophies, not to mention an honor student award, writing and sweating out calligraphy with a brush in his hand even made me, just one of the sisters among five siblings, feel hostile towards him. I did not have a chance to learn calligraphy, but I didn’t even bother to learn it either.
강희안(1471-1464), 고사관수도(물을 바라보는 선비), 종이에 수묵, 국립박물관 소장
Gang Hui-an(1471-1464), Gosagwansudo(scholar gazing at the running river), ink on paper, owned by National Museum of Korea
Ongojisin(溫故知新), it is an expression from the Analects by Confucius and means “reviewing the old and learning the new from it.” It is a common expression that comes to mind when we think about tradition, which might be the most appropriate to point out, old, but friendly art forms such as folk paintings. Minhwa is Korean folk art produced for the purpose of everyday use that follows the practices of an ethnic group or an individual. As defined by artists such as Ho-yeon Kim, Ufan Lee, Minhwa is ethnic painting that expresses our esthetical sense and emotion, and is also a friendly picture drawn by commoners and ordinary people. Therefore, even though the artists are mostly unknown, it truly shows that the desire and wish of humans for beauty are intuitive regardless of gender, age, class and/or status. Ongojisin expresses the circumstance of great interest in modern folk paintings and calligraphy these days.
작가미상, 안하이갑도(똑똑한 원숭이가 게를 잡는 장면을 묘사하여 장원급제를 기원하는 그림), 수묵에 채색, 조선후기로 추정, 고려대박물관 소장
Unknown, Anhaigabdo (A picture wishing for passing the state examination as depicting a smart monkey catching crabs), ink and colors on paper, late Joseon period, Korea University Museum
In terms of the basic instinct for beauty, there is no difference in culture between East and West. A distinctive feature of Dutch paintings, which shows similarities to Korean folk painting, is the small amount of religious painting compared to the number of various paintings of everyday life. ‘The Lace Maker’ done by a Dutch painter, Johaness Vermeer tells us about the ordinary life of the middle class at that time, much like the common people’s culture that was in full flourish in the latter period of the Joseon Dynasty, such as the traditional Korean mask dance, the Pansori epic chant, and folk songs, etc. The traditional Korean genre painting is about the ordinary Korean person’s life. They visualized their faith and wishes in the painting. The painting of the ten traditional symbols of longevity, which features the sun, mountains, water, rocks, pine trees, clouds, the bulaocao, the tortoise, the crane, and deer, is a great example of the genre painting reflecting their wishes.
Johaness Vermeer, The Lacemaker, Oil on canvas, 24.5,21cm, 1669-1670, Louvre, Paris
Paintings done during our school days tend to be categorized. The typical family portrait that children make with crayons, landscape paintings done in middle school, and drawings of old plaster figures, have some expected forms guiding us and certain techniques to achieve. After graduating we realize that the art guidelines that we relied on during our school years don’t free us from a narrow viewpoint. In the turmoil of lots of art forms, such as grotesque looking abstract paintings done by an art student, some masterpieces auctioned off at high prices, picture frames that look like interior goods, gigantic, funny looking installation pieces that seem to defile the appearance of the street, and old bowls exhibited in the cultural history museum that date back thousands of years, we get lost and say that we don’t know much about art.
Paintings of peonies that were considered as a symbol of hope and those of the ten traditional symbols of longevity show us that people in the Joseon Dynasty truly enjoyed the process of making a painting and expressing their mind freely. As much as we suffer from boring art education, we should be able to enjoy the delight of creation like them. With its unique simplicity and familiarity, Minhwa seems to tell us that tradition is not something old-fashioned or unfamiliar. It is proof that Korean tradition is not inferior to any other tradition. It is hopeful that, with the charm of its subject, composition, and colors, modern Minhwa has attracted more people, regardless if they had a proper art education or not
The artist, Kyungmin Baek makes modern Minhwa paintings that have lots of colors, including the five traditional colors that represent Korea. Using everyday objects that draw the sympathy of people today, she makes the traditional Minhwa more interesting.
Her painting of a Chinese character, 壽, which means longevity, is decoratively made on a red lacquer paper. Undoubtedly, longevity, a strong attachment to life is an important issue for both people in the old days and people today. Tradition is not something old-fashioned, because it is handed down naturally and instinctively. I, for example, have some habits I inherited from my grandmother and I have a strong resemblance to her. We will be able to rethink the definition of tradition while learning about Minhwa from Kyungmin Baek at the Wine and Paint Night of Realti. Through her artworks, she will show us that Minhwa has the Korean-styled beauty more than anything.
Written by Yoonkyung Kim