Korean folk art, or minhwa

With most genres of art that are widely known today, there are famous artists associated with them. For example, we all know of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Starry Night. But what about art created by often anonymous, untrained artists such as folk art? Often seen as crude, superficial or unimportant compared to the popular artwork we admire, folk art has largely been relegated to an area of curiosity or sociological study. There is some truth in this assessment, of course, as folk art is often a reflection of the culture and values of society around it, and is not said to be particularly innovative or ground-breaking. However, those same characteristics make it a profoundly unique and fascinating genre of art to study. A truly universal art form, we will explore two examples of folk art from Korea.

Like elsewhere in the world, folk art in Korea—or minhwa—has been present for as long as people have had access to a portable surface and some pigments. The large-scale production and commercialization of minhwa began in the late 18th century as Korea (then called Joseon) underwent an artistic and economic renaissance. As trade with other countries increased, so did new ideas. This had a major impact on the style and purpose of folk art, as can be seen in one popular theme of minhwa called chaekgeori.

Yi Taek-gyun (Korean, 1808-after 1883). Chaekgeori. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://library.artstor.org/asset/24627389

A new phenomenon, chaekgeori art—meaning “books and things''—was, in its basic form, a screen painting of a bookshelf. However, as new objects and ideas began to flow into Korea through trade, chaekgeori art began to contain more than just books. In the given examples, we can also see all manners of exotic plants, vases, animals and other objects of curiosity. Another interesting aspect is that these paintings incorporated Western artistic techniques of linear perspective and shading, making it seem more realistic. It is fascinating how we can see from these paintings a change happening in Korean society at the time, where foreign objects and ideas were being readily accepted. Many people who commissioned chaekgeori paintings from artists also desired the art for a specific utility. The inclusion of expensive exotic objects in these paintings were used in a social setting to display the immense wealth and power of the owner and the books to display education.

Unknown Korean. (uncertain date). Chaekgeori. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://library.artstor.org/asset/24529456

Another popular theme was that of the Tiger and Magpie (kkachi horangi) paintings, which became widespread in commoner society. Using crude, bold artistic techniques and motifs, these paintings betray a more plebeian origin. In the folk shamanistic religion mostly practiced by commoners, the tiger and magpie were traditionally seen as auspicious animals; so these paintings were often commissioned to be placed in the home to ward off evil. However, there was another, more humorous, reason for the popularity of this theme: satire.

(18th or 19th cent.). Tiger with Two Cubs and Two Magpies. [folk painting]. Retrieved from https://library.artstor.org/asset/AAPDIG_10312354144

Most kkachi horangi paintings depict the tiger as an overimposed subject with an often-frivolous expression and grotesquely positioned body. The magpie, on the other hand, is always the secondary subject, being depicted more normally but confined to the edges. These details were a subtle satire of Korea’s strict social hierarchy at the time, with the tiger representing the prudish aristocrats who often abused their power over commoners. The magpies, on the other hand, represent the commoners, as though powerless and insignificant compared to the tiger, they look down at the tiger in ridicule, almost mocking it.

Through these two examples of minhwa, we can see how folk art allows us to explore deeper into the values and changes of the society in which it was made. Perhaps in the future, people will study the everyday art being created now, just as we have done.

By Yon-Jun Kim

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