SAN FRANCISCO — In 1728, King Yeongjo of the Joseon dynasty quashed a rebellion that had threatened to dethrone him. His victory cemented his rule and allowed him to stay in power for an impressive 52 years. During this time, he reformed the country’s taxation system, reconciled infighting between his constituent lords, and most importantly of all, reestablished Confucian ethics as the foundation of Joseon society.
As King Yeongjo’s power extended, so too did his bureaucracy. He rewarded the soldiers who had come to his aid during the rebellion with prestigious titles and made them part of his private council. He named them Bunmu: loyal and dependable military men whose likenesses were recorded in a collection of official portraits — a great formality and an even greater honor.
These portraits, which have long been excluded from academic study because scholars dismissed them as unworthy of closer inspection, are now on display at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco as part of the exhibition Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture. Together, the images portray a period in history that, while told across a number of canvases of silk and parchment, remains barely known outside of Korea.
The style of the portraits was heavily inspired by Confucianism, the rise of which compelled Joseon dynasty portrait painters to capture the inner spirits of their sitters by precisely recreating their physical appearance. This approach was in stark contrast to that of their Buddhist predecessors, whose work emphasized abstract ideas over the concrete qualities of individual people.
“One key aspect of Confucianism is to respect your mentors and ancestors,” Hyonjeong “HJ” Kim Han, the exhibition’s curator (who is now the Joseph de Heer Curator of Asian Art at the Denver Art Museum), told me during a Zoom conversation. Portraits painted in this tradition were treated as stand-ins for their sitters. The originals were kept in portrait halls or family ritual spaces. Copies were given to families, who kept them as family heirlooms and worshipped them as if worshipping the real person.
The Korean saying “If one hair of the sitter is not rendered correctly, it is not the portrait of the sitter” became a guiding principle for portrait painters in the Joseon dynasty. The focus was always on the face, which was rendered in an ultra-realistic manner. If sitters suffered from chickenpox, for example, they were depicted with scars and all. One portrait, of Bunmu official Lee Sam, even shows an extra set of hairs growing out of a mole on the left side of the military leader’s face.
The varying levels of detail that different elements of Bunmu portraits received from their creators bespeaks the priorities of Korean society. “The rest of the body,” Han said, “is usually rendered more abstract and conceptual.” Clothing tended to be painted in flat, monotonous strokes of color. Only ceremonial garb and other emblems like rank badges — symbols that denoted the sitter’s social or political status — was given additional detail from the artist.
Backgrounds were usually left empty. In line with Confucian principles, sitters were separated from their immediate environment so they and they alone commanded the interest of the observer. “Among the many values of Confucianism,” Han summarized, “people prioritized worshipping ancestors, maintaining family lineages, and performing numerous proper rituals.”
The study of Korean portraiture, as Han notes in the exhibition catalogue, has a very short history. This was partially due to taste — Korean scholars did not start treating portraiture as a serious art form until recently — and partially to logistics.
Most surviving portraits remained in the hands of families that treated them as private belongings. Borrowing even a single portrait for research purposes proved cumbersome, even somewhat inappropriate. With planning and patience, however, Han was able to take some of these portraits out of storage and into the public sphere, allowing American audiences access to artistic and historical traditions that had, until this point, rarely, if ever, left Korea.
The Bunmu portraits aren’t the only paintings on display at the Asian Art Museum. Alongside these artifacts from the Joseon dynasty are works by contemporary Korean artists that both build on and break with the traditions established by their ancestors, specifically regarding the emancipation of women. Up until the 19th century, portraits of female sitters were hard to come by. In Confucian times, both sitter and subject had to be male, and unmarried men and women could not be left alone in the same room.
These gender biases created a gap in Korea’s portraiture records, which the contemporary painters in Likeness and Legacy seek to fill. Throughout her art career, the Chinese-born Korean artist Yun Suknam has tried to rediscover the sense of freedom she relinquished when she became a traditional housewife. Her first solo exhibition, Eyes of the Mother (1993), which included wooden portraits mapping the physical and emotional development of her mother, conveys what its catalogue refers to as a “respect for the resilience and courage” that her foremothers displayed.
Han made the decision to juxtapose the old with the new early in the exhibition’s planning stages. It’s consistent with the museum’s past efforts to shine a spotlight on modern-day artists standing in the shadow of their cultural canons. “Although the main themes of the exhibition were derived from traditional portraits,” writes museum director Jay Xu in the catalogue’s opening paragraphs, “it also addresses self-perception and identities through portraiture in the twenty-first century.”
At the same time, Likeness and Legacy is part of the museum’s decade-spanning effort to stage exhibitions on Korean art in the United States. This endeavor began in 1979, with an ambitious show titled 5000 Years of Korean Art. Once the museum had acquainted San Francisco’s museum-goers with the country’s fascinating but often overlooked artistic traditions, subsequent shows Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s Age of Enlightenment and Leaning Forward Looking Back: Eight Contemporary Artists from Korea could get a bit more specific.
This exhibition is only the latest step in a long journey to chart the development of Korean identity through art. It’s an exciting topic to tackle, but also a highly sensitive one. In the aftermath of the Korean War, South Korea adopted a Western education system and began a period of unprecedented industrialization. But as the country recovered from, and changed as a result of, the most devastating military conflict in its history, many people worried that they were leaving behind something important.
“Koreans didn’t have the luxury to think about Korean-ness until the 1980s or even 1990s,” Han explained. Likeness and Legacy may not provide a definitive answer to this question, but it certainly offers visitors much to ponder. By reuniting the Bunmu officials for the first time since their images were captured on paper and silk, the Asian Art Museum is doing its part in helping piece Korean history and culture back together.
Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture continues at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (200 Larkin Street, San Francisco) through November 29.
MTV’s The Exhibit Is Back With an Inflatable Dolphin
Episode four, in which artists tackled themes of justice and injustice, was the most lifeless of the reality TV show so far.
Florida Principal Ousted Over “Pornographic” Michelangelo Sculpture
Parents complained that the famous sculpture was shown to their sixth graders.
The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation Presents The Feminine in Abstract Painting
Curated by Jennifer Samet and Andrea Belag, this group exhibition in NYC explores the feminine through aesthetics, as opposed to identity or gender.
Tickets to Sold-Out Vermeer Show Are Going for Hundreds
The online resale market for the Rijksmuseum’s smash exhibition is booming, with tickets selling on eBay for over $2K.
NYU Steinhardt Opens 2023 MFA Thesis Exhibitions
Taking place at 80WSE Gallery in New York’s Greenwich Village, Part I is on view from late March through April while Part II opens in May.
Miniature Worlds: Joseph Cornell, Ray Johnson, Yayoi Kusama
Through small-scale works, this exhibition at the Katonah Museum of Art in New York examines Cornell’s prominent role in the lives and careers of Johnson and Kusama.
Three Looted Antiquities at the Met Repatriated to Turkey
Nine other repatriated works were seized from Met Trustee Shelby White, whose collection was subject to a criminal investigation.
This week, the world’s lightest paint, Pakistan’s feminist movement, World Puppy Day, and were some of Vermeer’s paintings created by his daughter?
The Wider World and Scrimshaw
On March 28, join the New Bedford Whaling Museum online and in-person for a symposium on global carving traditions from across the Pacific Rim.
Who Will Decide on the Future of a Miami Native Burial Ground?
Native activists say sacred remains and objects dug up from a Brickell construction site should remain there, but mega-developer Jorge Pérez is pushing back.
How Can a Curator Approach South Asian Futurisms?
How do I acknowledge my shortcomings while reckoning with obscured histories and the exclusion of subaltern narratives in the fine art landscape? A working checklist for curators.
MCA Chicago Presents On Stage: Frictions
Will Rawls, Shamel Pitts | TRIBE, and Barak adé Soleil explore Blackness, queerness, movement, and dance in performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
The Complicated Legacy of Camilo Egas
The Ecuadorian painter, a leading figure of Latin America’s Indigenismo art movement, has been both praised and scorned for his representation of Indigenous peoples.
Tom Jones Zeroes in on Ho-Chunk Visibility
“I think about the young kids, the teenagers, and I think being able to see yourself represented in art is so powerful,” says the artist.