Yoon Yul-soo has dedicated his entire life to the collection, research and exhibition of Korean folk paintings. He started his career as a curator in 1973 at Emille Museum in Seoul, where he fell in love with folk paintings. Yoon looks back fondly on the joys and anxieties he has shared with the tigers, dragons, magpies, peonies and lotus flowers in numerous minhwa.
Namwon, a small city in North Jeolla Province where I grew up, was a treasure trove of ancient relics from the Three Kingdoms period. Shards of earthenware and even fully intact vessels in their original form were found not infrequently while plowing the fields. When I was young, I used to pick up fragments of earthen vessels lying around and take them home. That habit stuck with me and I’ve been a collector ever since.
My collecting bug really began with stamps. When I was in elementary school I amassed quite an impressive collection over several years, but had it all stolen one day. Disheartened, I thought of something that would be hard to steal; bujeok (talismans) came to mind. They were the perfect item since practically every house had one, and I began to collect them avidly. My collection grew significantly while I served in the military. Other soldiers who knew about my hobby would bring some back whenever they returned from leave. Thanks to these men, I was able to collect a great variety of talismans from across the country.
In April 1973, shortly after completing my military service, I started working as a curator at Emille Museum, founded by Dr. Zo Za-yong. Thus began my lifelong relationship with folk paintings.
An architect who had studied in the United States, Zo had a profound knowledge of traditional Korean culture and art. He was particularly fond of folk paintings and was a dedicated collector. With no knowledge whatsoever about folk painting despite being a curator, I sat down with Zo almost every day and together we pored over and discussed the details of a specific piece. After repeating this daily ritual with several hundred works, I began to develop a discerning eye and naturally fell in love with the paintings.
“Magpie and Tiger.” 20th century. Ink and color on paper. 98.3 × 37 cm. Gahoe Museum.
The painting has an uncommon composition that places a magpie and tiger in vertical alignment with mountain tops and peonies in the background.
In November 1975, Zo embarked on a touring exhibition in America with 32 paintings from his museum’s collection. The seven-year tour, which began in Hawaii, was the first to showcase Korean folk painting to the world. I was in charge of the exhibitions, starting with the one held at the Oakland Museum of California in 1981. Seeing the locals respond so enthusiastically, I had a new vision for the future of Korean folk painting.
I resigned in 1983 when Emille Museum relocated from Deungchon-dong, Seoul to Mt. Songni in Boeun County, North Chungcheong Province. However, my love for minhwa remained. I went on to work at other museums, but never stopped studying folk paintings and traveled far and wide across the country to see as many of them as possible. I believed this was the best form of learning. Meanwhile, my collection grew piece by piece.
I nurtured the dream of running a museum one day with the knowledge and experience gained from my 30-year career as a curator. It was by pure chance that this dream came true. Just one day before the deadline, I came across a job opening posted by Seoul Housing and Communities Corporation for the position of director at a museum to be established in Bukchon, a tourist hotspot with clusters of hanok, or traditional Korean houses. My wife and I hurriedly prepared the necessary documents. Finally, I seized the golden opportunity that allowed me to do something I loved and knew well.
“General Zhang Fei.” 19th century. Ink and color on paper. 111 × 64 cm. Gahoe Museum.
The Chinese historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” dramatizes and romanticizes historical events and characters, which have often been painted for didactic purposes. Here, Zhang Fei, a fearless general who helped the warlord Liu Bei found Shu Han, is depicted humorously.
Minhwa and hanok – it was the near-perfect combination. Minhwa is a traditional art form that was intimately connected to the lives of the Korean people, so it best embodies the Korean sentiment. I considered it a tremendous fortune to run a minhwa museum in Bukchon Hanok Village, where the ambience of the past still survives.
After much preparation, the museum opened in a small hanok in 2002. My wife and I had lengthy discussions about the museum’s operation, from its name to the exhibition style. We decided to connect the rooms to open up the space and install underfloor heating so visitors could take their shoes off. But this was easier said than done. I had spent so much of my income purchasing old folk paintings that I lacked financial resources. Gahoe Museum would never have existed if not for the dedicated support and encouragement of my wife, my steadfast patron. A Korean history major at college who was born and raised in Seoul, she understood the special significance of a minhwa museum in Bukchon.
The theme of our first exhibition was “warding off evil.” From among the talismans and folk paintings that I had collected over the years, I picked out the ones related to repelling evil spirits. Talismans come in a wide variety, including dangsaju, which illustrate how a person’s destiny will unfold through pictures so that even the illiterate can read their fortunes. The brushwork bears a close affinity to that of folk painting, and although the style and purpose of dangsaju and minhwa are starkly different, they share insight into the human heart. While the fortune telling pictures show compassion for human vulnerabilities, folk paintings reflect universal hopes and desires for happiness.
In this regard, dangsaju seemed a good choice for the museum’s first exhibition. Folk painting exhibitions on the theme of repelling evil spirits had been held before, but this was the first to showcase them together with talismans.
I displayed the talismans close together on panels and the walls but soon ran out of space. So I attached the rest to the crossbeams and rafters, the way people actually did in the past. To look at the pictures, viewers had to lie on the floor. Inadvertently, the exhibition was turned into an immersive hanok experience. Guests enjoyed the artworks, lying down on the warm floor and soaking in the atmosphere.
That’s when I came up with the idea for the next exhibit: folk paintings featuring tigers. They exemplified the true essence of minhwa painted to repel evil spirits. The tiger, a symbol of the primeval roots of Korean culture, had long been regarded as a spiritual being with mystical powers, yet viewed with affection by Koreans through generations.
Minhwa is a traditional art form that was intimately connected to the lives of the Korean people, so it best embodies the Korean sentiment.
I considered it a tremendous fortune to run a minhwa museum in Bukchon Hanok Village, where the ambience of the past still survives.
Gahoe Museum opened in 2002 in a traditional house at Bukchon in the heart of Seoul. It houses some 2,000 objects, including folk paintings, talismans and other folk artifacts. Due to the development of the district, the museum was relocated to a nearby modern-style building in 2014.
Our first exhibition drew many visitors, including Korean folklorists as well as foreigners interested in Korean folk art and religion. Since then, I have held special exhibitions each year consisting of folk paintings from my personal collection. Though small in scale, it’s rewarding to be able to curate exhibits around specific themes. It also gives me the opportunity to systematically organize the objects in my collection.
By now, I have organized more than 20 exhibitions. They include “Pictorial Ideographs – The Virtues of Confucian Culture” (2003), “Searching for the Origin of Folk Religion – Paintings of Shamanism” (2004), “Restored Lives in Cheonggye Stream” (2005), “Paintings of Peonies” (2006) and “Beautiful Landscape Paintings” (2007). I have also participated in regional exhibitions outside of Seoul. Each time, I dig deeper into the subject, the outcome of which is documented in the art catalogs.
From humble beginnings in our small museum, we branched out overseas. Some of the most memorable overseas exhibitions include “Korean Traditional Onggi and Folk Paintings” (2006) at the Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which captured the jest and wit of Korean folk art; “Korean Folk Paintings and Picture Books” (2010) at the Otani Memorial Art Museum in Nishinomiya, Japan; “Korean Shaman Paintings” (2010) hosted by the Korean Cultural Center in Paris; and “Folk Paintings Evoking Longevity, Happiness, Health and Peace” (2012) at Sayamaike Museum in Osaka, Japan. We also held eight exhibitions in various cities across Australia from January 2013 to July 2015. In 2018, a Korean folk painting exhibition was held at the State Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, the first of its kind in Russia, followed by another exhibition at the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus in Minsk.
It has been 47 years since my first encounter with minhwa. My current dream is to collect 100 tiger paintings for a special exhibition. It will naturally entail logical, methodical research, which will be recorded in a catalog to give enjoyment to people for many years to come. I’m now taking a breather in order to work toward that goal.
Half a Lifetime Devoted to Chaekgeori Paintings
In 1973, Kay E. Black traveled to Korea and fell in love with chaekgeori, paintings mounted on folding screens that feature books and scholarly paraphernalia. She devoted her life to the study of this traditional Korean art form. In June 2020, an exhaustive book was published in Seoul, culminating her enthusiasm spanning almost half a century.
Lee Eun-ju Reporter, The JoongAng Ilbo
Instantly captivated by Korean folk paintings during a trip in 1973, Kay Black devoted her life to studying chaekgeori paintings.
In July, a book arrived on my desk. As an arts reporter, I often receive new publications in the field, but this one looked different. The book, published in English, was titled “Ch’aekkori Painting: A Korean Jigsaw Puzzle.” The author was Kay E. Black.
Out of curiosity, I opened the book and a beautiful picture appeared before my eyes. As I turned the pages one by one, I became enraptured. I was astounded that way back in the 1970s, a foreigner had recognized the value of these Joseon Dynasty paintings and made them her life’s work.
I called the publisher, wanting to learn more about the author, but was shocked to hear that she had recently passed away in the United States. “As soon the book was printed, we sent her a copy,” the editor said in a voice laden with sadness. “She was gravely ill and bedridden, but we heard that she was elated to finally hold the book in her hands. Unfortunately, she passed away shortly after.”
The editor explained that the book was delivered to Black by express mail toward the end of June; 10 days later on July 5, she passed away in San Francisco. She was 92 years old.
Hoping to find out more, I took a closer look at the book, an impressive academic study on chaekgeori paintings. The foreword written by Ahn Hwi-joon, professor emeritus at Seoul National University, was a friendly introduction to the author: “It was in the fall of 1996 that I first met Kay E. Black while I spent a sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley. […] In meeting with Kay Black, I was impressed by her genuine love for Korean art and ardent dedication to studying her subject.”
I began to gather more information about the author from various sources. I learned that Black was a housewife living in Denver, Colorado when she traveled to Korea in 1973 with fellow art aficionados. As part of the trip, she visited Emille Museum; it was here that she first set eyes on a folding screen with a chaekgeori painting and instantly became mesmerized. Upon returning to the United States, she announced to her family that she was going back to school to study chaekgeori, and with that, she enrolled in the University of Denver’s Asian studies department. At 45, she set foot on a college campus once again.
Chaekgeori is a genre of still-life painting on folding screens that features shelves filled with books and various other objects, such as ceramics, writing implements and incense burners. Also called chaekgado, the art form was popular in the royal court around the 18th century, gradually spreading to the realm of folk art in the 19th century and onward. The value of this art form has been reassessed in recent years, but it was a barren field of research in the 1970s.
“Chaekgeori.” Yi Eung-rok (1808-1883). 19th century. Ink and mineral pigments on paper. 163 × 276 cm. Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
Chaekgeori is a still-life painting mounted on a folding screen, which features scholarly paraphernalia, such as books, ceramics, writing implements and incense burners. It was a popular art form in the late Joseon Dynasty. This painting incorporates Western linear perspective, which was rarely seen at that time.
Kay E. Black’s “Ch’aekkori Painting: A Korean Jigsaw Puzzle,” published in June 2020 by Sahoipyoungnon [Social Criticism] Academy in Seoul. A comprehensive academic study on the art form, the book is the culmination of the author’s exhaustive research spanning 30 years. Hardcover, 336 pages.
This makes it all the more remarkable that a foreign visitor took up the subject back then. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Black investigated numerous chaekgeori paintings and photographed major works not only in Korea but also scattered around the world, in places like America, Europe and Japan. Several years later, she began collaborating with the late Edward W. Wagner, then professor of Korean studies at Harvard University. An authority on Joseon-period genealogy, Wagner helped Black identify the intricate family lineages of several chaekgado painters. The two jointly authored a number of theses in the 1990s.
I In the book’s preface, Black wrote, “I was privileged to have worked with the late Edward W. Wagner (1924-2001), professor and founder of Korean Studies at Harvard University, for 12 years on the project.” She also thanked Gari Ledyard, King Sejong Professor Emeritus of Korean Studies at Columbia University, for introducing her to Wagner at the most opportune time. She added, “It has been a pioneer effort, and I hope it inspires others to pursue the subject and complete the puzzle.”
Courage and Tenacity
Growing more curious about this remarkable author, I asked around for the email address of her daughter, Kate Black. Kate studied architecture at MIT and currently serves as Piedmont’s city planning director. It was not long after she had been bereaved of her mother, so I was extremely cautious about asking her any questions. But she soon came back with a touching reply.
“It was truly her life’s work,” she wrote. “My mother was an amazing role model for me. She taught me that I can do whatever I put my mind to. I greatly respect her courage and tenacity.”
Closing the book, I pondered the many days and nights Black must have spent poring over chaekgeori paintings. How many clues and puzzle pieces have we failed to notice in the pictures? Through her book, Black urges us to look for the door that will lead us to the mysterious world of chaekgeori, and reflect on our fascinating cultural legacy.
Director, Gahoe Museum