Kang Se-hwang, a Joseon artist ahead of his time

Who is that person 
Whose beard and eyebrows are all grey? 
Wearing an official hat and plain clothes, 
His mind remains in obscurity
Though his name is on the Court 
Who would know that this man cherishes thousands of books in the heart
With the power of his brush shaking the five famous mountains? 
I enjoy by myself
The old man is 70 years old and his pen name is Nojuk (露竹, meaning dew and bamboo).
He draws his own portrait and writes a legend over his picture.
It's drawn in the seventh year of King Jeongjo's reign (1782).

“Self-portrait,” 1782 (courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).
This is what Kang Se-hwang (1713-1791) wrote on the self-portrait he drew when he was 69 years old. This is the first artwork that meets the audience at the entrance of the exhibition. In the picture, Kang is wearing an official hat while wearing casual clothes, which used to be regarded as a fashion faux pas in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). This painting shows what Kang aims at as a member of the literati of the 18th century: pursuing a life of seclusion although holding a government post. 

The National Museum of Korea has been holding a special exhibition titled “A Painter’s Life: Kang Se-hwang and Literati Culture in the 18th Century” since June 25 to mark the 300th birthday of the well-known painter and literary artist of the late Joseon era. This ongoing exhibition showcases a total of 103 pieces to introduce the extraordinary life of Kang Se-hwang, his art world, family and background, and artworks of other popular Joseon painters which have Kang’s written reviews. Among the displayed works, some paintings are especially interesting -- “Scenes in Buan Prefecture” and “Portrait of Kang Se-hwang” drawn by court painter Han Jong-yu (1737-?) -- as these are open to the public for the first time in Korea. 

Not many people have Kang Se-hwang in mind when thinking of popular Joseon painters. They would rather think of Kim Hong-do (1745-c. 1806), Shin Yun-bok (born 1758-?), or Jang Seung-eop (1843-1897). Others would also think of Yun Du-seo (1668-1715), Jeong Seon, (1676-1759), or Sim Sa-jeong (1707-1769) as leading Joseon artists. All of these painters, however, wanted to have Kang’s reviews on their works, highly valuing Kang's critiques and artistic insight. Kang was the teacher of Kim Hong-do, commonly known as the first Joseon painter who portrayed daily life. As a leading literary artist, he had a wide range of contacts with many artists as well as writers, establishing his own art world by encompassing poetry, calligraphy, painting, and critiques. 

Kang Se-hwang painted “Taejong Terrace Album of Journey of Songdo” (1757) when he traveled the area (now known as Gaeseong), introducing Western-style painting techniques like shading and perspective (courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).
This exhibition is composed of six sections. The first section “Portrait of Kang Se-hwang, Reflection of his Life” shows self-portraits drawn by Kang and portraits of him drawn by others, including court painters Han Jong-yu and Yi Myeong-gi (1756-?). In the second section “Kang Se-hwang’s Family and Times,” various documents and artifacts show the background of Kang’s family, the dramatic life of Kang, and his artistic talent that was passed down to his children and grandchildren. Despite his background coming from a prominent literati family, Kang gave up the idea of serving in government and at age 31 he moved to Ansan, Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province), where his wife’s family lived. He spent 30 years there until he was appointed to a governmental post at age 60 in 1773. Kang began his government career and was quickly promoted to higher positions. 

Kang Se-hwang drew “Scenes in Buan Prefecture” in 1770-1771, depicting the Beonsan area of Buan in Jeollabuk-do (North Jeolla Province) when he traveled to meet his son. This picture is owned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) M.2000.15.22 (courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).
In the third section “The Ideals and Dreams of Literati,” Kang’s paintings, calligraphy, and writings are exhibited to show the scope of his artistic activity through a broad network of various groups of people from different ranks and classes. The fourth section “Travel and Sketching for Nature” shows Kang’s pieces he drew when traveling. Some of the noticeable paintings in this section include “Taejong Terrace Album of Journey of Songdo” and “Scenes in Buan Prefecture.” 

 “Orchid and Bamboo,” 1790 (courtesy of the National Museum of Korea).
In the fifth section “Various Painting Genres and a Fresh Approach to Art,” Kang’s works on the Four Noble Plants and paintings of various materials, including plants and flowers, are on display to show the various techniques he used in his paintings. Artworks of famous Joseon artists, including Kim Hong-do, Jeong Seon, and Sim Sa-jeong, are also displayed in the last section, “The Greatest Critic of His Time” to show Kang’s critiques and artistic insight, and the styles of painting at that time. 

 “Butterflies,” Kim Hong-do, 1782 (courtesy of the National Museum of Korea) 
This exhibition will be held until August 25 and offers free admission. The museum is closed every Monday. It is open until 9 p.m. every Wednesday and Saturday and 7 p.m. on Sunday. More information about the exhibition is available at the homepage of the museum (www.museum.go.kr). 

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