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First Exhibition of Traditional Korean Painting at the Art Gallery of New South Wales
The ten symbols of longevity, 1800s. 2 of 6 panel folding screen, colour on paper, each panel 63.5 X 40 cm. ⓒMusee Guimet/Thierry Ollivier.
SYDNEY.- This is the gallery’s first exhibition of traditional Korean painting. Korean Dreams includes a lively selection of some 40 decorative paintings and screens dating from the 17th to 19th centuries (Joseon dynasty).

The collection, passionately assembled by the distinguished contemporary Korean artist Lee Ufan, who now lives in Kamakura, is considered to be one of the most important collected by a single connoisseur. Lee Ufan gifted the collection to the Musée Guimet, Paris and he is coming to Sydney for the opening of the exhibition. Lee has participated in the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT) in Brisbane, and is represented in the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery. Three of his works are on show at the time of Korean Dreams.

The teeming life and fertile vistas depicted in Korean decorative paintings encapsulate the lost beauty of nature, and engender in us nostalgia for this loss. In Korea, shamanism, the belief that all animate and inanimate things have their own spirit, has always been a force, ensuring a great respect and understanding for the rhythm of the seasons and the patterns of life for plants and animals, real and mythological.

Apart from shamanism and an abiding empathy with nature, other influences on the development of a unique Korean visual language have been Confucianism and Daoism. These influences, together with a love of bright colours and simple compositions, have created a unique body of painting that is still unfamiliar to the rest of the world because of Korea’s turbulent history. Invasions through the centuries – the Mongols, the Manchus, and the Japanese – have destroyed much of the material culture of Korea. Decorative paintings, created by court artists and untrained itinerant painters alike for all levels of Korean society, have survived because so many were commissioned for the decoration of homes, and for use at auspicious occasions such as weddings and important birthdays.

Subjects include the popular bird-and-flower painting, landscapes, and paintings of animals and fish. The Confucian heritage shows through in screens depicting books, piled and scattered, with scholars’ objects such as brushes, censers, vases full of allusion-laden flowers, etc, artfully arranged across eight or ten panel screens. There are even screens inscribed with the single characters for the eight Confucian virtues - Xiao (filial piety), Ti (obedience to certain elders, for example older brothers); Zhong (loyalty); Xin (reliability); Li (politeness); Yi (duty); Lian (incorruptibility); and Chi (a sense of shame).

Daoist ideas, with all their symbols of long life and prosperity, pervade Korean art. An impressive ten symbol of longevity screen (in Korean Shipjangsaeng-do) in the exhibition is a masterpiece of Korean design, colour and content. The screen overflows with good wishes and symbols of longevity such as the peach, bamboo, pine, the sacred fungus, the spotted deer, crane, and tortoise. In this screen, as in many others in the show, the animals appear in pairs, a reference to the enduring wish for conjugal bliss.

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