2013

Art of Korea: A life

Art of Korea  평생도 1Art of Korea 평생도 2

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
(As You Like It, Act II Scene VII, William Shakespeare)

If Shakespeare saw life as a series of independent scenes sown together by the presence of one man, so did the Korean artist from the Chosen Dynasty who painted  <평생도>, a painting that portrays one man’s life from his infancy to the 60th anniversary of his marriage. This painting depicts the life of one particular man in eight representative stages: 1) First birthday 2) Student 3) Marriage 4) The passing of the national public service exam 5) Career in the public office 6) The 60th birthday 7) Retirement, and 8) The 60th anniversary of marriage. Unfortunately, the name of the artist is unknown. However, what is particularly interesting about this painting is that it portrays a much idealized perspective on life, where human desires – whether it is wealth, power, fame, or long life – have all been attained and enjoyed without seeing any hardships or obstacles. Nevertheless, perhaps because of this idealization is it possible to appreciate the bright colours, the detailed outlines and texture, and the excitement of the figures drawn in the painting from an optimistic standpoint – life as understood by the artist is full of good things and happiness. And surely, such was a life so longed for by the common people of the Chosen Dynasty who could only wish for an escape from unavoidable class discrimination and poverty.

Let us take a look at each of the paintings, starting from top left in successive order:

1)      돌잔치 (First Birthday): This painting shows a family gathered to celebrate their son’s first birthday. The entire family is giving him a blessing and the baby is dressed in beautiful clothing ready to eat the delicious foods laid out in front of him.

2)      서당 (Student): The baby has grown into a child and is taking lessons from his teacher. With a book opened in front of him, the child is engaged in his study while his family looks.

3)      혼인식 (Marriage): It is time for celebration as the child has grown into a young man and is about to get married. He is waiting for his bride to finish her bow to his parents. Everyone from the village has been invited to his home to celebrate his marriage.

4)      과거급제 (The passing of the national public service exam): The young man is marching through his home village on a horse after having received the top score in the national public service exam, a required exam for all those aspiring to have a career in the public office. Like today, the exam for public service was very difficult and competitive, and to have achieved the top score was a reason for great celebration.

5)      벼슬살이 (Career in the public office): After passing the exam, the man has begun his career in public service. Like high cabinet ministers today, public officials during the Chosen Dynasty were very powerful and respected; thus when an official traversed through the town on a carriage, as it is shown in the painting, people would give him way for a clear passage to the palace.

6)      회갑 (60th Birthday): The man celebrates his 60th birthday. Given the harsh living conditions during the Chosen Dynasty, it was rare for people to live until 60 years old. Therefore, celebrating one’s 60th birthday was a sign of gratitude for having lived a long life.

7)      치사 (Retirement): In English, this word means resignation or retirement from office. After serving in the public office for his entire career, the man has now decided to spend the rest of his life in the quietness of his home.

8)      회혼례 (60th anniversary of marriage): This painting shows another marriage taking place, but it  is a replay of the man’s own marriage 60 years ago. Dressed again as groom and bride, the man and his wife are bowing to each other, promising to stay together until death do them apart. This man’s life has been blessed ever since his first birthday.

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