Viewing Korean Minhwa, or ‘Painting of the People’

JaiChoon Kim standing in front of one of her paintings at Flushing Town Hall (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

JaiChoon Kim standing in front of one of her paintings at Flushing Town Hall (Photo by Yehyun Kim for Voices of NY)

“I empathize with Korean traditional folk art. The rich colors in the artworks remind me of my hometown,” a woman from the Caribbean island of Tobago said about the works by JaiChoon Kim now on exhibit at Flushing Town Hall, in her first solo show in New York that runs through May 31.

The bright colors of the works on display certainly are eye-catching. Kim is a Korean artist who specializes in the style of minhwa, or in Korean “painting of the people,” that was popularized during the late Joseon dynasty (which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1897). At that time, paintings were large enough to cover a complete wall of a room, and their large size made them all the more striking.

Kim, 68, has been an ambassador for the art form, and it has become more popular over the past 20 years in Korea, as Korean dramas and movies began to use the paintings to illustrate the lives of Koreans in earlier times. She founded an academy in Korea to teach minhwa, and is an academic advisor at Busan National University in Korea.

Currently, Kim says she is teaching more than 200 students. One of her students, Stephanie S. Lee, opened Korean folk art academies in Flushing and Bayside this month.

A work by JaiChoon Kim  (Photo courtesy of Flushing Town Hall)

A work by JaiChoon Kim (Photo courtesy of Flushing Town Hall)

More than a century ago, the art form was underestimated, both Kim and Lee said. Confucian scholars lived a frugal life, and the spectacular colors of Korean folk art were viewed as a sign of extravagance. Also, compared with the art produced for the royal court of the Joseon dynasty, folk art was looked down upon. People who produced the popular artwork did so with few limitations in terms of settings, subjects and techniques. Minhwa artists sometimes mass produced paintings, using broad strokes and humorous or diverse perspectives. Painters in the royal court, by contrast, had to follow explicit rules and standards in producing artwork. They were required to use careful techniques and stylistic devices to deliver certain meanings, and used more expensive materials.

Interestingly, Kim’s exhibit is titled “The Royal Blossom,” which led to some confusion. Traditionally, the contrast between minhwa and “court painting” has been well-defined. Here, though, Kim appeared to be adapting minhwa and blurring the lines between the two.

At a May 3 workshop to paint a Da Po, a handkerchief commonly placed under a teacup when drinking tea, one participant asked Kim whether her paintings could accurately be considered to be representative of Korean folk art. She answered in the affirmative.

As minhwa gets more popular in Korea, artists and scholars have disagreed over whether the royal paintings can be categorized as minhwa. When popular artists, in order to decorate their living areas, mimicked and adapted the style of the royal paintings by renowned court artists in the late Joseon Dynasty, Japanese art critic Yanagi Sōetsu named the paintings minhwa, to highlight the anonymity of the paintings and popularity among the non-royals. But with the passage of time, minhwa has been used interchangeably to describe both folk art and royal court art.

Though it is still controversial, both Kim and Lee regard the court painting as minhwa. When a visitor asked Kim what small green dots on a specific painting represented, she emphasized the symbolism common to both folk art and court painting. “The green dots represent moss that develops as the rocks age, and the moss symbolizes a wish for longevity.” Whether paintings were created by court artists or average people, the use of symbolism in the paintings was the same: conveying to the viewer the wish for a happy, healthy, long and rich life.

Above all, says Kim, her paintings represent modernized versions of the stories and messages of minhwa. “A folk artist first needs to restore the old things. I also do that. At the same time, the painter should be able to develop the painting with a modern sense.” For her, the most important thing is for more people to get closer to minhwa in their daily lives, as it was in history, and appreciate the detailed and richly colored work.

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