Erotica in Korea – Racy folk paintings from the Joseon Dynasty

Written by on February 19, 2013 in Arts

Strict and proper. Stern and austere. It is the general image we have of the Joseon Dynasty, when Confucianism was the ruling philosophy and doctrine. But really, think about it. That can’t be all, can it? There is always bound to be the other side, a frivolous, not-so-serious, let-us-have-some-fun side, even if it is that era of dignity and virtue, Joseon.
“Official” documents and manuscripts would have us believe otherwise, but Joseon wasn’t that uptight. When it came to matters of a more personal sort, like sex, it just wasn’t mentioned nor recorded much. Not blatantly. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
18th century Joseon was the Korean renaissance. Culture bloomed under the reign of King Youngjo and Jeongjo, and the progress in Korean art was particularly noticeable. In addition to traditional ink paintings of still life and landscapes, folk paintings depicting the everyday life of Koreans emerged as a new genre. Although few in comparison with their counterparts, these folk paintings provide a good and rare look into what life was like back then.

“Seodang” by Kim Hong-do. Circa 1780. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Korea.

Although there were many anonymous painters, the most well known painters of the genre, Shin Yun-bok (신윤복) and Kim Hong-do (김홍도) were actually resident painters of the royal painting institute. The styles of the two painters, however, differ not only in their techniques, but in their subject matter, too. Kim is known for his candid portrayal of peasants in their everyday lives, whereas Shin took interest in portraying the ruling noble class. Both had a humorous eye, although Kim looked at his subjects with a fondness and Shin with a satirical perspective.

“Lovers under the Moon” by Shin Yun-bok. Circa 1805. Photo courtesy of Kansong Art Museum.

Shin, in particular, had certain eroticism in his paintings. Many romantic scenes appear in his paintings: clandestine meetings, voyeuristic views, men and women enjoying one another’s company when one of the teachings of Confucianism was “Men and women should not sit together after the age of seven.”
Shin’s risqué paintings also went even further, illustrating realistic sexual scenes. These paintings are called “chunhwa” (춘화), literally “spring painting”, for spring is the season when everything blooms and is full of life. Spring was frequently used as a euphemism for sexually related matters, even in the neighboring countries of China and Japan, and these sexually themed paintings were more common there than in Korea, where Confucianism had a stronger hold and commerce was less developed. (The development of commerce, bringing in new ideas and morals, created doubt to the class structure, which was much satirized in these genre paintings.)

Gallery Hyundai with a chunhwa exhibition

Despite knowing that chunhwa exist, there was few occasion for the general public to actually view them. The Gallery Hyundai in Seoul is currently holding an exhibition titled “The Refined and Tasteful Life of Joseon Dynasty”, a collection of folk paintings and chunhwa which were never shown before.
Of course, Shin Yun-bok’s paintings are featured, but what some may find surprising, is that Kim Hong-do also has racy paintings in his repertoire. The painting albums from these two prominent artists are the core of the exhibition: “Wunwudocheop” (운우도첩, The Album of Cloud and Rain Paintings) and “Geongonilhoecheop” (건곤일회첩, The Album of the Joining of Heaven and Earth).

Kim Hong-do (Attributed) from “Wunwudocheop (The Album of Cloud-and-Rain Paintings)”, early 19th Century, Ink and light colors on paper, 28 x 38.5 cm. Photo courtesy of Gallery Hyundai.

“The Album of Cloud and Rain Paintings” is attributed to Kim Hong-do and depicts explicit scenes of sexual intercourse. The cloud signifies the woman, the rain, the man. Many of the encounters occur outdoors among the flowers and trees, bringing the meaning of “spring” to the paintings quite literally. (The flowers in the painting above are azaleas, which are symbols of spring in Korea.)
The paintings also show people from different backgrounds and class, even of various ages. Nobility meet the peasantry, there are man and wife; there are non-married couples. A jab at the corruption of Buddhism or from the prejudiced Confucian perspective, monks are caught in flagrante delicto with noblewomen. There are paintings which simply can be described as Kama Sutra, Joseon style.
Attributed to Shin Yun-bok, the paintings from “The Album of the Joining of Heaven and Earth” are overtly realistic in their depiction of sexual intercourse but also include somewhat tame entries. A painting of two women intensely looking into a chunhwa album – the one on the banner on the gallery – is like a reflection of what the visitors of the exhibition was doing. In this album, too, is the mixing of class, the young and the old, the appearance of a Buddhist monk. There is also voyeurism and some other things not appropriate to mention here.

Folk paintings by Kim Jun-geun are also on display

It’s not only the racy folk paintings which were interesting. I actually enjoyed the various styles of painting by different artists of “regular” folk paintings, marveling over the minute details they had put into the expressions and movements of their subjects: a seated lady smoking a pipe while idly gazing into the winter air, an outdoor picnic bustling with activity from courtesans and men of nobility, a complete wedding procession with each character filling its part.
In the annex, the exhibition continues with the paintings of lesser known artist Kim Jun-geun (김준근) of the late 19th t0 early 20th century, who is known as an “export folk painter”. Most of his paintings were done under commission for foreign diplomats and missionaries and show great detail in his portrayal of life in Korea: customs and traditions, farm life, games, and such. The collection is like looking at illustrations for an encyclopedia entry; they are that comprehensive.

Exhibition catalogues can be purchased at the gallery

Not surprisingly, the racy chunhwa section is restricted to 19+ (not available for those under 19). I personally found it funny watching the visitors look at the artwork. Although paintings, they are rather explicit, and watching people look at adult content in a public place was itself a new experience. I deliberately went to look again at paintings people were lingering over. It was also hilarious how quiet it was and how little time people spent in that section compared to the regular folk painting section. Even though it’s the 21st century, Koreans are still conservative in that way.
Unfortunately, since this blog is a family friendly site, it is impossible to show you more of the racy paintings which were on display, so if you’re in Seoul and are intrigued with this subject, do go have a look. All explanations and docent tours are in Korean only, but the paintings really do speak for themselves. The exhibition is in its final week and I say it’s definitely worth it; this sort of exhibition won’t be coming around that frequently.

Date: Until February 24th, 2013.
General admittance: 5,000 won (3,000 won for students)
The gallery is situated directly in front of the east gate of Gyeongbokgung Palace.

For more information:

*Note: The “Wunwudocheop” painting above may not be copied, reproduced, or distributed without permission from the Gallery Hyundai. The Korea Blog and is not and will not be responsible for any circumstance which may occur from misuse and breach of copyright.

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Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul