The Odyssey of a National Treasure

“Sehando” (A Winter Scene), the quintessential Korean literati painting, arrived at the National Museum of Korea last year at the end of a long, winding path through history. At last, the 19th century masterpiece by calligrapher-scholar Kim Jeong-hui (1786-1856) has found its permanent home in the public domain.

To understand and appreciate “Sehan -do,” one must first distinguish the priceless painting from the scroll on which it is mounted. The painting is 70 centimeters long, but when unrolled completely, the scroll stretches 1,469.5 centimeters. How the painting, Korea’s designated National Treasure, became so disproportioned is a story that starts with Kim Jeong-hui, a scholar considered to be the nation’s greatest calligrapher, and involves border crossings and changing ownership.

In the late 18th century, when Kim was born to a wealthy family related to the royal house, practical knowledge had started to flourish among some scholars, paving the way for modernization. By the 19th century, the Joseon Dynasty was in chaos as a succession of child kings were enthroned while their maternal relatives held sway over state affairs. New ideas and adopted religions, such as Practical Learning (silhak) and Catholicism, were rejected by the conservative ruling class. Those in power purged enemies, real and imagined, by accusing them of supporting “subversive” thoughts or religions.

In 1840, at the age of 55, Kim became a victim of this political turmoil and was sent to the remotest and harshest place of banishment: Jeju Island. On the then barren island off the southern coast, he was kept in home detention for eight years and four months.

“Sehando” (A Winter Scene) Kim Jeong-hui (1786-1856). 1844. Ink on paper. 23.9 × 70.4 cm. National Museum of Korea. A designated National Treasure of Korea, this is the most celebrated literati painting of the Joseon Dynasty. Kim Jeong-hui, a distinguished scholar and calligrapher, depicted the bleakness of Jeju Island where he was living in exile. Left of the scroll-mounted painting is Kim’s colophon, which quotes a passage from “The Analects of Confucius” to convey his appreciation for the unchanging friendship of his student, Yi Sang-jeok.

“Master Wandang by the Sea Wearing a Bamboo Hat” Heo Ryeon (1808-1893). 19th century. Ink and color on paper. 79.3 × 38.7 cm. APMA, Amorepacific Museum of Art. Heo Ryeon, a prominent landscape painter of the late Joseon Dynasty, who is also known by his pen name Sochi, depicted his teacher Kim Jeong-hui living in banishment on Jeju Island. The motif of the painting was taken from “Dongpo in a Bamboo Hat and Clogs,” a portrait of the Chinese poet Su Shi, whom Kim admired.

Exiled to Jeju Island
As an eminent Confucian scholar, Kim was wellversed in poetry, calligraphy and painting – the three major skills that men of letters were required to possess. He created a calligraphy style called Chusache after his pen name, Chusa.

Throughout his exile, Kim battled constant sickness and the despair of losing his wife. Calligraphy and painting provided an escape. And from his student, government translator Yi Sang-jeok (1804-1865), he also received current news as well as books purchased during trips to China.

To show his appreciation, Kim painted “Sehando” in 1844 and presented it to Yi. The painting depicts a humble hut flanked by a gnarled pine and three arborvitae trees standing in the wilderness, surrounded by empty space. Kim’s dry bush technique is evident in the sparse scene. Attached to the left of the painting was a note that quoted Confucius: “When the year becomes cold, then we know how the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves” (The Analects, Book IX “Tsze Han,” Chapter 27; Translation by James Legge). The name of the painting was derived from this passage; “sehan” means “the bitter cold around the Lunar New Year.” With the cold winter as a metaphor for his lonesome life as an exile, Kim seemingly meant to convey that hardships would not crush his friendship with Yi.

Yi was preparing to leave for China when he received “Sehando.” He took the painting on the trip, and after arriving in Yanjing (Beijing), showed it to 17 Chinese intellectuals. Sixteen of them agreed to offer comments. Their writings, attached later to the scroll, mostly stressed the difficulty and importance of staying faithful to one’s principles. A century later, Koreans would add their own comments, but not before the painting took a long, rough journey.

The horizontal scroll of “Sehando,” stretching some 14.7 meters, contains comments by 16 Chinese intellectuals. Kim Jeong-hui presented the painting to his student Yi Sang-jeok, who carried it to Beijing and invited Chinese men of letters to comment on it.
The Chinese intellectuals appreciated the symbolic meaning of the painting and emphasized the importance of staying faithful to one’s principles amidst difficult circumstances.
Kim Jeong-hui left his writing on a separate sheet of paper attached to the left of the painting to express his feelings as an exile and gratitude toward his student, Yi Sang-jeok.
In 1914, the painting’s third owner, Kim Jun-hak (1859-?), wrote the title, “Wandang’s Sehando,” in five classical Chinese characters on another separate sheet of paper and attached it to the right-hand side. Under the title he wrote a poem on his feelings about the painting.

The Long Journey
Yi’s own student inherited the painting, and then that student’s son took possession. The painting changed hands a few more times before it was obtained by Japanese scholar Chikashi Fujitsuka (1879-1948) during the Japanese colonial period in the early 20th century. As a Chinese philosophy professor at Keijo Imperial University, forerunner of Seoul National University, Fujitsuka was preoccupied with the legacy of Kim, who frequently appeared in Qing Chinese scholars’ writings. When Fujitsuka returned to Japan in 1940, he took “Sehando,” along with his expansive collection of other items related to Kim.

Toward the end of 1944, a Korean calligrapher studying Kim’s oeuvre, Sohn Jae-hyeong (1903-1981), went to Japan in the hopes of getting the painting back. He pleaded every day for two months before Fujitsuka finally acquiesced without demanding any payment, saying Sohn deserved to keep the painting. The timing was fortuitous. Three months later, in March 1945, U.S. firebombs engulfed Fujitsuka’s collection.

When World War II ended and Korea regained its freedom in August 1945, Sohn celebrated by asking three distinguished Korean scholars to offer their comments on “Sehando.” They expressed overwhelming joy for the nation’s restored independence and praised Sohn’s recovery of the painting from Japan. Around this time, Sohn remounted the painting on the silk scroll upon which it sits now, with large blank spaces. Presumably, he expected more writings would be attached, but none have been subsequently added.

Needing money to run for the National Assembly, Sohn pawned “Sehando” in 1971; it soon became the property of Sohn Se-ki (1903-1983; no relation), a businessman from Kaesong (aka Gaeseong) who had made a fortune in the ginseng trade. Sohn Se-ki’s eldest son, Sohn Chang-keun, was next to inherit the painting. He donated hundreds of artworks and cultural properties to the National Museum of Korea in 2018, but at the last minute, decided to keep just one artwork: “Sehando.” His attachment to the painting was too strong. In February 2020, he finally relented. At the year’s end, the government awarded Sohn and 12 other individuals with the Order of Cultural Merit for their contributions in protecting cultural heritage.

Sohn was the only recipient of the Geumgwan (Gold Crown) Order, the highest honor among these awards, rarely granted to a living person. The Cultural Heritage Administration noted that most of the invaluable cultural properties that Sohn has donated are of either National Treasure or Treasure grade. By giving away “Sehando,” Sohn has turned it into “a common asset of all Koreans,” providing better public access to cultural heritage.

Kim Jeong-hui spent his last years in Gwacheon, Gyonggi Province. Located there is Chusa Museum, which contains thousands of Fujitsuka’s research materials, including handwritten documents by Kim. These items were donated by his son, Akinao Fujitsuka.

“When the year becomes cold, then we know how the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves.”

French media artist Jean-Julien Pous offers a modern interpretation of “Sehando” in his black-and-white video, “Winter Time.”

In the 20th century, three distinguished Koreans added their comments on the final stretch of the scroll.
At the very end of the lengthy scroll is an encomium written by Jeong In-bo (1893-1950), a Korean historian and journalist. Jeong expressed his compassion for Kim Jeong-hui and his joy for the recovery of both the painting and the nation’s independence.
Oh Se-chang (1864-1953), a politician and independence activist, praised the courage of calligrapher Sohn Jae-hyeong, who removed “Sehando” from harm’s way. Sohn went to Tokyo in 1944, at the height of World War II, and persuaded the painting’s owner, Chikashi Fujitsuka, to return it to Korea.
Zhang Mu (1805-1849), a Chinese scholar and author of “Record of Nomad Life in Mongolia,” left a comment intended to be a letter to Kim Jeong-hui.

A French Artist’s Interpretation
In November 2020, the National Museum of Korea opened the exhibition, “After Every Winter Comes Spring: Wintry Days and Memorable Moments.” It was the first showing of the entire “Sehando” scroll since 2006. The exhibition is scheduled to continue until April 4, 2021.

At the exhibition, a seven-minute black-andwhite video entitled “Winter Time” introduces the painting. It highlights loneliness and desolation with images of the winds and waves of Jeju Island, a spider weaving its web without cease, a thick pine forest and so on.

“The painting ‘Sehando’ makes me feel plenty of emotions, but the feeling of loneliness may be the strongest one,” said Jean-Julien Pous, the media artist who produced the video. “This feeling is undoubtedly exacerbated by COVID-19. The pandemic situation makes us feel all the more alone, even in a big city.”

A keen sense of aesthetics permeates the video, which could be seen as yet another comment on the painting from the 21st-century French artist. “Sehando,” which has inspired many people on its long journey from Korea to China, Japan, and then back again over nearly two centuries, has been reinterpreted into a new form of art in the digital era.

Kang Hye-ran Reporter, The JoongAng Ilbo
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