The crowd gasps in awe as one of the wrestlers is lifted high up in the air. Dangling with both feet off the ground, he desperately tries to grab onto the shirt of his opponent to stay within the match. “Ah, ah,” whimpers the wrestler as he squeezes his face in agony. The first person to get knocked out onto the ground loses and the crowd has suddenly awakened to this unexpected explosion of action. People from all levels of society – the young, the old, the poor and the rich – have come to enjoy this game of wrestling – an extremely popular recreational activity of the Chosen Dynasty. And capturing this scene in paint and brush is one of the most famous painters of the Chosen Dynasty: Kim Hong-do.
What you are looking at is one of Kim Hong-do’s 18th century paintings called “씨름,” or “Wrestling” in English. Born in 1745, he worked under the sponsorship of King Jeong-jo, the 22nd ruler of the Chosen Dynasty, and left behind numerous works of art in his legacy. He is particularly known for painting the daily lives of the common people. His fast brush strokes, the absence of colour and background, yet the unique positioning of the characters and his close attention to the facial expressions of the characters have defined Kim Hong do’s artistic style.
Take a look at “Wrestling” one more time. Can you notice how each member in the crowd has a different facial expression? Some are very excited by the match, while others are maintaining their calm despite the sudden turnover of the game (Example: the old man wearing a hat in the top left-hand corner). Some are crouching forward to get a closer look; others are leaning back with one hand behind on the ground, comfortably enjoying the match unfolding in front of them. But can you notice something odd about the hand of the man who is leaning back (bottom right-hand corner)? Yes, his right hand has been reversed with his left hand – a glitch in the painting that Kim Hong-do, whether intentional or unintentional, had left unattended. Ironically, this glitch has become one of the trademarks of this painting.
Another unique trait of Kim Hong-do’s artistic style is his sense of wit. The painting on the left is called “빨래터,” or a “Wash place,” like a nearby stream where women could do their laundry. In the painting, three women are doing their laundry while one woman is tying up her hair. But secretly eyeing on the group of women is a young man hiding behind a rock, covering his face with a fan, and surreptitiously enjoying this lustful scene. Without him in the picture, the painting would have appeared rather boring; however, his naughty presence suddenly adds a sharp taste to the painting. Can you imagine how people of the Chosen Dynasty reacted when they first saw this painting? Probably a small grin on their face as they appreciated Kim Hong-do’s facetious cleverness.
I guess young men of the Chosen Dynasty were not that different from young men of our generation today!