|Shin Yun-bok's "Wolhajeongin" or "Lovers under the Moon" portrays an upper-class man and a gisaeng meeting for a secret union late at night. / Korea Times file|
'Koreans' Sense of Art' tracing art in which humor runs through
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Art critic Choi Kwang-jin's new book "Koreans' Sense of Art: Humor" traces Korean artwork, from the ancient to the modern, looking at how Koreans incorporated humor into their art.
In Korean art, humor is reflected indirectly, rather than serving as a punch line. For example, artists often derided discrimination based on social class, gender-based discriminatory practices and negative stereotypes about certain groups of people that served as a conduit for injustice or misconduct.
Choi observed satirical works of art as an extension of humor. Through their works, their creators confronted the inflexibility and repressiveness of society by ridiculing strict class divisions.
Among others, the author mentioned two Joseon-era artists ― Shin Yun-bok and Yun Du-seo ― as two pioneers who dared to ridicule the hypocrites of their times.
Shin's "Wolhajeongin" or "Lovers under the Moon," which was completed in the 18th century, portrays an upper-class man and a gisaeng having a secret union late at night.
"The Chinese characters in the painting hint that they met in the dark of night, probably sometime between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. A curfew was in place at that time and violators would face cruel corporal punishment," Choi wrote. "Seen from their costumes which reflect their social classes and the timing they met, it is clear they were in an inappropriate relationship. The man had to meet his lover at night because he didn't want his affair with the lower-class woman to be discovered by others."
"Chemyeon" dominated the neo-Confucianist Joseon society. It refers to the hypocritical or pretentious atmosphere that shaped the code of conduct of Joseon people, particularly the upper class. Chemyeon culture forced people to pretend to be calm and peaceful, even when chaotic things were happening.
Shin and Yun tried to make fun of the hypocrites and their pretentious society.
"Chemyeon is a dysfunctional aspect of Confucian culture and it pushed those in the upper class to endure plenty of inconveniences at the expense of their personal well-being," the author wrote. "For example, upper-class men were not allowed to remove any of their clothing even during sizzling summer days because they were taught not to show their bare skin. They bathed with their clothes on. There is a popular saying that a yangban ― nobleman ― is not supposed to struggle for his life even if he is drowning (because a yangban is not supposed to panic)."
Shin, better known by his penname Hyewon, lambasted that pretentious culture through his paintings. When chemyeon culture had a tight grip on Joseon society, he boldly depicted the upper-class men's sexual desire and portrayed them in extramarital relationships with the gisaeng.
|Yun Du-seo is another rebellious artist of the late Joseon era and his "Stonemason" features commoners, not yangban. / Korea Times file|
The late Joseon artist Yun broke social norms in a different manner. His painting "Rest," which was produced in the late 18th century, features a commoner resting under a big tree during summertime. "Rest" is different from other paintings of that period due to the depiction of someone from the lower classes, rather than the yangban class.
The man in Yoon's painting wears straw shoes indicative of his class.
His painting "Stonemason," which is believed to be a work of the early 18th century, also features commoners. A shirtless stonemason hits rough pieces of rock in a mountainous area in the painting.
"In the late Joseon era, there had been remarkable progress in agriculture and commerce and this pushed social mobility. Some upper-class people were unable to pay taxes. Facing an increase of delinquent taxpayers, the government came up with a bold decision to emancipate public slaves to secure financial resources and this paved the way for a meltdown of the old social structure," Choi said.
Yun himself was from an upper-class family. He is the descendent of "Seo-in," an opposition political faction that lost power after losing a political struggle. His family background took a toll on the artist.
Although he was brilliant, he was not able to take high-ranking government positions.
Author Choi said Yun's unfortunate life appeared to have an impact on his artwork which features his yearning for a merit-based society.
Humor also appears in some modern Korean artists' works, albeit it was presented in a different manner.
Humor took the form of optimism or wishful thinking in paintings done by Lee Jung-seop (1916-1956), a well-known oil painter who gained fame for his oxen series.
His oil painting "Dowon," which is believed to have been released sometime in the 1950s, features four carefree kids playing at a peach farm. Presented like monkeys in the jungle, one of the four nude figures climbs a peach tree, two pick peaches and the last one rests under a tree.
|"Koreans' Sense of Art: Humor" by Choi Kwang-jin|
Choi said Lee's artwork was inspired by his childhood.
Born to a rich family in the northwestern part of Pyongwon County now in North Korea, Lee had fond memories about his childhood. His wealthy parents had an estate and a farm. Lee's life took a dramatic turn after the outbreak of the Korean War (1950-53).
He and his family escaped from the North and came down to the South. Displaced, his life as a refugee in the South was miserable. The impoverished artist struggled to make a living. Extreme poverty forced him and his family ― his Japanese wife Masako and their two sons ― to live separately. His wife took his two sons to Japan to live with her parents. Living alone in South Korea and having no other means to make money, Lee skipped meals. During this low point, he thought of his happy childhood when he had no need to worry about food. "Dowon" looks comical but reflects the artist's yearning for his past.
In "Humor," author Choi compares some of the Korean pieces to Western artworks. Choi compared Lee's "Dancing Family" to French artist Henri Matisse's "Dance."
Unlike Matisse's work where the five dancers are drawn loosely, Lee's "Dancing Family" depicts four family members dancing hand in hand.
"The four figures perform the ancient Korean dance Ganggangsullae," the author said. "During the patriarchal era, women were not allowed to sing or travel freely. Chuseok was the only day when the repressed women could go outside the home to hang out with other women for fun. They gathered outside and danced together. So the traditional performance was a symbol of freedom for women and their aspirations for an equal society."