Recreating Korea’s Royal Court Paintings

Chee Seok Hwang, in front of her reproduction of “King Cheoljong’s Royal Wedding Procession.” (Photo by Kyeongmin Park for Voices of NY)

“Looking at two pages of [the illustrations of] the wedding procession was so frustrating to me. I wanted to see it all at once and I wanted to show its majestic beauty to people.” – Chee Seok Hwang, artist and director of the Joseon Dynasty Royal Culture Research Center

“Majestic Ceremony: Royal Court Paintings of Joseon Dynasty” are on view at the Korean Cultural Center New York until Aug. 31. Five artworks are displayed in the unique “Sarangbang” space, a reproduction of a guest room typical of a traditional Korean home. Four of the five works relate to “Uigwe,” a massive collection of 3,895 books which detail the Royal Protocols of the Joseon dynasty. The books are composed of detailed illustrations and texts of various royal ceremonies and rituals such as weddings, coronations and funerals.

Chee Seok Hwang, the painter, won the 2017 Gallery Korea competition which gave her an opportunity to display her work in New York. This is the second special exhibit held in the Sarangbang room, planned by Hee Sung Cho, curator of the Korean Cultural Center New York.

“Every year, more than 200 people participate in this competition, but traditional artworks tend to be excluded from the judging process,” said Cho. “That’s why I transformed this Sarangbang into an exhibit hall, and specially selected one traditional artist.”

Hwang, 56, said that her strict Confucian family culture spurred her interest in Korean traditional paintings. Hwang has a Ph.D. in education and has studied traditional drawing extensively.

For many years, Hwang said, she was haunted by Uigwe and decided to research this subject. Afterward, she learned that [following the French military campaign in Korea in 1866] the French seized 297 Uigwe books, which were neglected for a long time in a warehouse of the National Library of France. These were among the most beautiful of the collection, and the fact that they were held by the French made her resentful and sad.

Three works by Chee Seok Hwang. (Image courtesy of the Korean Cultural Center)

Therefore, she decided to reproduce, using painstaking techniques, her first work from the Uigwe collection, entitled: “The Wedding Procession of the eldest grandson of the King Young-Jo.”

“Every day I prayed, wishing for the return of our ‘Uigwe’ and drew the ‘Uigwe’ with all my heart,” Hwang said. [Coincidentally, the government of France returned, through an elaborate agreement, a few books from the Uigwe collection before she finished her first piece.]

The illustration of King Cheoljong’s Wedding Record, one of the displayed works, is the longest (the original was 92 pages long, with illustrations of 1,981 people and 561 horses) and the most magnificent of such records in the Joseon dynasty, painted by 22 artists of the dynasty.

However, Hwang reproduced the illustration alone, using the same natural colors employed by Uigwe artists, and painted the figures in the same size, but on a scroll.

Through detailed research and meeting with experts, she reproduced the exact pigment used in the original paintings. The original “King Cheoljong Royal Wedding Procession” is a 92-page book, of which only two pages can be viewed at a time. Hwang wanted to show the entire procession all at once, so she drew on 25 meters of traditional scroll paper.

She chose to meticulously outline each of the figures one by one, rather than use stamps as were used in the original. Hwang said that the repetitive process of drawing all of these figures induced so much pain in her arms that she had to take painkillers.

But the experience has not dissuaded her from her passion: Even now, she says, she continues to draw copies of processions from the Joseon dynasty’s Uigwe collection.

Kyoengmin Park is an intern with Voices of NY.

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