A Rare Look at a Korean Portraiture Tradition

Portrait of Oh Myeonghang, Korea, Joseon dynasty, ink and colors on silk (Gyeonggi Provincial Museum, Hyeju Oh Family Collection, photo © Gyeonggi Provincial Museum)

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.   

Installation view of Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (courtesy Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

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. 

Draft portrait of Lee Sam (1751), Korea, Joseon dynasty, ink on colors on paper (Asian Art Museum, gift of Arthur J. McTaggart, photo © Asian Art Museum)

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. 

Installation view of Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (courtesy Asian Art Museum of San Francisco)

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.” 

Yun Suknam, “Heo Nanseolheon” (2005), mixed media (collection of the artist, photo © Yun Suknam)

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.

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