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Mysterious Artist Resurfaces on Modern Culture Scene

2008/10/09 Source

By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

The Joseon Kingdom might have been the wrong time for mysterious, talented painter Shin Yun-bok who was ahead of his time due to his freewheeling and satirical disposition.

But Shin seems to be alive in modern times through various elements ranging from novels, TV dramas, films and art galleries.

So who was Shin Yun-bok?

Veiled, Mysterious Life

Shin is better known by his pseudonym, Hyewon. Hyewon was one of the big three folk painters of the Joseon Kingdom (1391-1910), along with Kim Hong-do, known as Danwon, and Kim Deuk-sin. But it has recently been discovered that Shin's original name was in fact Shin Ka-gwon.

It is not exactly known when he was born or died, but experts assumed that he might have lived between 1758-1813.

In history and his career, Shin was overshadowed by Danwon, a peer who was widely known to Korean art circles and the public, although he developed his own unique technique and artistry.

Along with Danwon, he is known for his realistic depiction of the daily life of his time. But his paintings were not acclaimed at the time because they were erotic and sensual ― forbidden subjects under the rigid Confucian society.

It is rare to find historic records referring to Shin. But according to research by Lee Won-bok, director of the National Museum of Jeonju, given that painting was a hereditary occupation in the Joseon period, Hyewon's father and grandfather had both been court painters.

The research shows that he was tall and handsome. So the recent trend, to depict him as a woman in a drama and film, might be the result of his girlish penname "Hyewon" meaning "a garden full with orchids" and his frequent portrayals of women.

It is known he was expelled from the royal painting institute Dohwaseo because of his sensual paintings. But there is no record that he attended Dohwaseo. It is more plausible that Joseon society didn't allow a father and son to work together in the same workplace, as his father was also a painter, Lee argues in an article.

Hyewon on the Cultural Scene

Western painters like Vincent van Gogh and Gustav Klimt have been reborn in numerous films.

But the rediscovery of the Korean painter first began with the best-selling book "Painter of the Wind" written by novelist Lee Jeong-myeong. The book was first published last year.

The novel depicts Danwon as a teacher of Hyewon, who tracked the truth behind conspiracies happening in the royal court through paintings. More than 300,000 copies of the book were sold last year.

The novel has been recently been reworked as a TV drama starring actress Moon Geun-young and actor Park Shin-yang. Moon plays the genius artist Hyewon, while actor Park Shin-yang acts as fellow artist and mentor Danwon.

Shin is born a girl, but due to restrictions of education and other activities among women, she lives as a man her whole life, later finding herself in love with her tutor Kim in the drama.

The upcoming movie "Portrait of a Beauty" is also spotlighting the painter's life, starring actress Kim Gyu-ri. The movie is drawing anticipation from the public, as its poster has become one of the hottest teaser promotions.

Directed by Jeon Yoon-soo known for his hit film "Le Grand Chef", the film is about a fatal love story revolving around Shin and his masterpiece "Portrait of a Beauty".

Actress Kim plays the genius female painter who disguises herself as a man to survive in the Confucian era.

Another novel dealing with the Joseon Kingdom's enigma about Shin, "Color, Sharaku" by Kim Jae-hee, is gaining popularity.

The book writes a veiled historical mystery surrounding Danwon and Hyewon, and the Japanese secretive painter, Toshusai Sharaku.

The book offers an interesting view, which suggests that Sharaku (1794-1795), one of the greatest masters of woodblock painting in Japan, was Shin.

Sharaku is also known as a painter with an elusive identity who went missing suddenly after 10 months in Japan, leaving behind memorable paintings. The author spins a work of historical fiction, juxtaposing Shin as an undercover agent Sharaku sent by Joseon.

The book is set in 1792 when Sharaku, abruptly appears in the city of Edo and swept people with his distinguished work.

"Some research show that Kim Hong-do was sent by King Jeongjo to Japan as an undercover agent. But after studying the paintings of Hyewon, I found the styles of the paintings of Sharaku and Hyewon are very similar rather than those of Kim. So I assumed Hyewon could be Sharaku", the author told The Korea Times.

She also said that the two painters lived at the same time, and Shin's age is closer to Sharaku while Kim was 10 years older.

"There is no record of Shin almost anywhere in history except for one or two cases. Even Kim Hong-do is mentioned less than 10 times, showing how rigid Joseon aristocratic society was", she said.

Not only the cultural productions but also the Gansong Art Museum is holding an exhibition to show "seohwa", or mixture of calligraphy and paintings, which shows traditional Oriental art combining diverse, affluent artistry with a time-honored history.

The museum presents 104 masterpieces including Shin's work "Portrait of a Beauty".

In the museum, Shin's four masterpieces ― "Scenery on Dano Day", "The Lovers Under the Moon", "Who Will Be the Hero at the Brothel?" and "A Boat Party on the Clean River".

To enjoy the works, visitors can compare the scenes of the drama in which Moon portrays the "Scenery on Dano Day" and "Who Will Be the Hero at the Brothel?"

Genre Painting ― Sensual, Colorful

Known above all for his genre-paintings, Shin drew primarily the daily life of the Korean upper class, called "yangban".

Through their rich details, his paintings contribute to the knowledge of the customs and activities of the well to do in the late Joseon Kingdom.

His paintings usually show young scholars and noblemen enjoying themselves with gisaeng, or professional female entertainers, or simply depict the girls in various situations.

Given that the society was heavily ruled by Confucian moral norms, his paintings were often daring and sensual. But they kept temperance when he portrayed women's beauty without being too explicit

This is not only because he depicted amorous couples, but also because the gisaeng were the primary figures in his work.

With his daring use of women and their lovers as subject matter, Shin vividly depicted the passion and romantic tastes of his era. Shin also excelled at landscapes in the literati style with depictions of birds and animals, and calligraphy.

"His unprecedented colorful strokes and affection for women as the main subjects were unparalleled in the Joseon genre paintings. He was a libertine who rebelled against the Joseon rule by portraying forbidden subjects", said Kim, the author of "Color, Sharaku".

She said that he was also good at copying Danwon's paintings. But he also expressed his pent-up complex of being middle class through his satirical paintings.

"His paintings and artistic world seem to meet the demands of modern people who are good at expressing themselves. So that's why more and more novels, dramas and films are revisiting Shin these times", she said.

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