Shin Yun-bok and Korean Wave
Lee Won-bok

Chief Curator
National Museum of Korea

October in Korea is the month of culture and events as diverse and colorful as the autumn leaves are being held all over the country. The crowds are so thick that it seems there has been an explosion of demand for culture. One small place attracting incredible crowds that has to be mentioned is the Kansong Art Museum, where two special exhibitions have been held annually since the autumn of 1971. The nation's first private museum, it was established in 1938 by the late art collector Chun Hyung-pil (1906-1962) and is named after his sobriquet, Kansong. The quality of its collection of Joseon Dynasty paintings, as everyone knows, surpasses even that of the National Museum. As such it is a veritable repository of Korean culture.
This year's special exhibition, “The 70th Anniversary of Bohwagak” is once again so popular that it is actually difficult to view the paintings. There's a real bustle at Seongbuk-dong, where Kansong (formerly called Bohwagak) is located, as the crowds come to see one painting in particular: “Portrait of a Beauty” (Miindo) by Shin Yun-bok, whose life has been dramatized in a recent novel and current TV drama series. But the exhibition caters to the pride and dignity of Koreans as a cultural nation, filled as it is with unrivaled masterpieces: “Valley of Cool Breezes” (Cheongpunggye) by Jeong Seon, a work that shows the essence and integrity of Korean painting; “Hearing a Nightingale on Horseback” (Masang cheongaeng) by Kim Hong-do, which gives us a glimpse into the warm heart of a scholar communing with nature on a spring day; “Three Pure Motifs” (Samcheongcheop), an album of ink bamboos by Yi Jeong, which indicates the level of art reached by some members of the royal family, to which he belonged; “Plaque in Clerical Script” (Yeseo daeryeon) by calligrapher Kim Jeong-hui featuring his trademark vigorous brushstrokes; and of course “Portrait of a Beauty” by Shin Yun-bok, showing the charming style of Joseon Dynasty women.
Unlike the other famous genre painter of Joseon, Kim Hong-do, little is known about Shin, not even the dates of his birth and death. From the paintings he left behind, all that can be confirmed is that he was a painter for the royal court from 1805 to 1813. As there is so little documentary evidence, we are left to make deductions about the artist's life from his work. The sensuous mood of his paintings suggests that he was a frequent visitor of gisaeng houses. During the period of Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) a demand for erotic pictures gave rise to many forgeries. The real can be distinguished from the fake from the style of the brushstrokes, and genuine works number less than 100.
Shin's father, Shin Han-pyeong, was also an artist. He was a famed artist at Dohwaseo, the royal office of painting, who participated in producing the king's portrait. He worked there for almost 40 years, but as father and son were not allowed to work in the same government office Shin was left to work outside the court. A blessing in disguise? Certainly Shin was able to create with greater freedom, and as a result left behind such masterpieces as “Portrait of a Beauty” and “Transmission of the Spirit of Hyewon” (Hyewon jeonsin cheop; Hyewon was Shin's sobriquet), an album of genre paintings that has been designated National Treasure No. 135.  
As with Kim Hong-do, Shin's work is not limited to genre paintings. He was a master of landscapes in the southern school style, animal paintings exquisitely combining realism and lyricism, and calligraphy. His genre paintings suggest that Joseon was not a stifling, straight laced society, and that our ancestors were gentle, open people with a romantic and humorous streak. Late Joseon was a golden age of culture dubbed “jingyeong sidae,” or a “true view age,” and more than any written documents, genre paintings are vibrant testaments to the dynamic social atmosphere of the time with their palpable rendering of the smaller details of everyday life. While showing us the sophistication of urban life at the time, it also reawakens in us the emotional rhythm that runs through our veins.
Koreans have demonstrated energy and enthusiasm accepting other cultures, selecting and rejecting elements in the process of creating a unique culture of our own. No one can deny that Koreans developed Buddhism and Confucianism, the essence of Eastern philosophy, and taken them beyond their origins. The Korean wave, the popularity of our pop culture overseas, is not an overnight or temporary phenomenon.
[The Hankyoreh, October 25, 2008]