Brush with greatness

A Smart Museum talk explores the deft precision and symbolic significance of Korean art.

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On a July Saturday, visitors to the Smart Museum walked up and down three open gallery spaces lined with painting and calligraphy. Engrossed in ethereal images—mountains enveloped in mist, bamboo stalks bending in the wind—exhibit goers came to attention when Michael Christiano, the Smart’s director of education and interpretation, introduced a talk by art-history doctoral candidate Eleanor Hyun.

Hyun’s lecture on calligraphy and brush-and-ink painting from Korea’s Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) was part of the festivities for the Smart’s summer exhibition From the Land of the Morning Calm. Showcasing works from the museum’s permanent collection of Korean art, the exhibit spanned the sixth century to the present and featured a variety of media, including ceramics and bronzeware. The Joseon-period calligraphies and paintings, says Smart senior curator Richard A. Born, AM’75, show strong Chinese influence and were created by artists from two social classes: upper-class amateur scholars who painted for relaxation and intellectual advancement, and professional court painters who worked for the state as well as private clients.

Hyun, a scholar of 18th-century Korean and Chinese art, began by talking about format. “What we have here,” she said, standing beside a horizontal calligraphy panel by 18th-century amateur scholar Yi Gwang-Sa, “is a hanging scroll.” Gesturing around the room, she pointed out other formats: an album filled with 20 calligraphy leaves, single leaves mounted on the wall, a folding screen. Lightweight, compact, and often compressible, these pieces could be easily stored and transported. They were meant to be rotated frequently, said Hyun, and artists often included “seasonal, temporal” elements in their calligraphy and images. 

Another characteristic of Joseon-period art, Hyun continued, is the intersection of painting, poetry, and calligraphy. Calligraphy was frequently of poems, and painting and calligraphy often complemented one another within a single piece. Although the Korean alphabet was developed in 1443, Hyun told the audience, Chinese was considered the learned language, and Joseon-era calligraphists used Chinese characters.

While Western artists frequently depicted the human figure, in East Asia calligraphy was considered the highest art form, Hyun said. But calligraphy did incorporate the body: the brush was thought of as an extension of the arm, and the precise strokes were likened to martial arts. Characters were often described in corporal terms, such as “meaty” or “skinny.” Referring to Yi’s calligraphy of a poem by renowned Joseon-dynasty writer Sin Heum, Hyun pointed out the vigorous, semicursive characters: “If anybody here has ever touched ink and brush, you know how easy it is to make a stray mark, a drop here or a drop there.” To achieve the sort of balance and rhythm displayed in Yi’s work required intense concentration and mastery of the discipline.

Like calligraphers, said Hyun, Korean landscape artists focused on deliberate brushstrokes. In the exhibit’s second gallery space, Hyun gathered the crowd around a piece by 19th-century artist Heo Ryeon, depicting famous Chinese recluse Lin Bu sitting in a small house, looking out at a winter landscape. The artist, said Hyun, used short strokes for the bare tree branches and rock texture. These strokes, along with many unpainted patches, evoke the season’s coolness, sparseness, and dryness.

Hyun and her audience then moved to the third gallery, a space covered in narrow horizontal hanging scrolls with close-up images of natural elements: bamboo, stones, orchids, plum blossoms. Hyun said that painting such images required calligraphic-like strokes, and many artists were strong in both forms. She also noted that the paintings’ individual elements carried symbolic meaning related to neo-Confucian values and virtues. For example, the plum blossom, which flowers in winter, represented the ability to “remain vivacious amid a very difficult environment.” Bamboo, which swings amid bad weather without breaking, symbolized a flexible yet sturdy temperament.

Pointing out a painting of a carp and a crab by an unknown artist, Hyun explained that, in Chinese lore, the carp jumps out of the water and becomes a dragon—like a young scholar who succeeds in becoming a court official—while the scurrying crab is able to avoid corruption and scandal, as all government officials must. And the work’s calligraphic inscription moves beyond the typical metaphor of martial arts, equating application of the brush with military strategy: “Laying down the brush you have to be equally exacting as trying to create military strategies,  sort of encampments. Where you put your brush is like where you camp your soldiers.”

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