Art of Korea: A Search for Utopia

몽유도원도A vagabond, shunned by society and its people, strolls aimlessly in the forest. At the far end of the forest, he sees a small clearing where there is a small peach tree, with its flowers in full bloom, sprinkling the surrounding air in pink confetti. The vagabond approaches the tree, stops, looks around and notices a small trail hidden behind it. Out of curiosity, he decides to follow the trail. As he walks further, the trail becomes steeper and steeper until he finds himself climbing up a mountain. Tired and out of breath, he finally reaches the summit. With a feeling of gratitude, he raises his eyes to get a glimpse of the view. But what has met his eyes is not like anything he has ever seen before in his lifetime.

A fertile land moistened by a softly moving mist; rows and rows of peach trees colouring the white mist in elusive pink shades; people grazing the land in peace and harmony; sounds of laughter and joy filling the air; an eternal home of felicity – a land of utopia.

The vagabond walks down the mountain and joins the people below. After a couple of days, he decides to leave the place and come back along with his family. But when he returns and tries to find the trail again, he cannot find it. Thus became a legend – the Atlantis of the East, or as it is called in Korean, “무릉도원.”

An- Kyun’s <몽유도원도> is a painting that depicts the story of the vagabond who has found the land of utopia, lived in it, left it, but could no longer return to it. It was painted in 1447, and it presents an aerial view of the vagabond’s travel and discovery.  Starting from the barren lands of the real world (left), the vagabond wanders through the mountains and the forest (middle), finds a small clearing with a peach tree (bottom-middle), and walks up the trail leading away from the tree only to find himself standing on top of a mountain overlooking the land of utopia (right).

In Asia, the peach symbolizes eternity. Thus a land with peach trees represents a paradise where the people live eternally free from war, poverty, and worries. <몽유도원도> is an artistic realization of this idealized paradise. This yearning for utopia prevailed throughout the Chosen Dynasty and even into the early 20th century.


Take a look at An –Jungsik’s  <도원문진도>. It was drawn in 1913, but under the same subject of a vagabond’s search for utopia. What is striking at first is the lush usage of green throughout the entire painting. Also, decorated in intimate touching are small dots of pink, white, and yellow, depicting the peach trees with their flowers in full bloom. This time, however, the vagabond enters on a canoe, where the entrance to the paradise is marked by tall, revering pine trees. On the top left of the painting, there is a small chapel surrounded by both peach and pine trees. The vagabond is probably looking for this chapel.

Thus, isn’t it interesting to see how human desire for paradise has been a common yearning for everyone regardless of race, culture, and country?

Categories: 2013

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