During the subdued Christmas and New Year holiday period, a very special painting commanded a gallery of the National Museum of Korea shrouded in darkness. The museum made commendable efforts to arrange a rare, enticing exhibition, hoping that it could give hearts and minds a respite from the COVID-19 pandemic. But a resurgence of infections heightened precautions against public gatherings and the exhibit closed after just two weeks. Its fate is unclear.
The exhibition celebrates magnanimous donations of ancient artworks by philanthropist entrepreneur Sohn Se-ki (1903-1983) and his son, Sohn Chang-keun. The highlight is their last donation: “Sehando (A Winter Scene)” by Kim Jeong-hui (1786-1856), who is widely considered Korea’s greatest calligrapher.
Kim, also known by his pen names Chusa and Wandang, produced the priceless painting in 1844, his fourth year in exile. Accused of false charges in a power struggle, he spent his days on Jeju Island, confined to a thatched hut isolated from society and surrounded by a hedge of thorn. It was the severest and most dreaded banishment during the Joseon Dynasty.
Still centuries away from becoming a popular tourist destination, Jeju Island promised rough terrain, fierce winds and crashing tides. When authorities wanted to send an offender especially far away, they chose the southernmost major island. Thus, Jeju became the home of condemned criminals and political threats.
“Sehando” is a simple depiction of a humble hut and four trees -- one old, gnarled pine and three arborvitaes -- standing in wilderness. (“Sehan” refers to the cold around the Lunar New Year and “do” means painting.) Befitting Kim’s reputation, the ink and wash painting exhibits masterly brush technique. The seemingly nonchalant dry brush of the renowned calligrapher and epigraphist wondrously expresses a lonely winter scene with grace and dignity.
The painting’s travel from Jeju is as intriguing as its origin. It crossed into both China and Japan, changing hands before finally finding a permanent home in the National Museum. The unusual history is indicated in the scroll’s unconventional dimensions: 33.5 by 1,469.5 centimeters. Dozens of men of letters from Korea, China and Japan shared their appreciation of the masterpiece and its creator.
Kim created the painting as a present for his student, Yi Sang-jeok (1804-1865), a government interpreter. A long colophon to left of the painting, carefully written on a grid paper, describes his gratitude to Yi for his continued gifts of valuable books he brought back from his trips to China.
Kim wrote, “The world today is swept by the tendency of chasing power and benefits. Amidst such a tendency, you make huge efforts to seek books and, instead of giving those hard-won books to people who would take care of your interests, send them to a person who is pitifully emaciated in a faraway place beyond the sea.”
Then he quoted Confucius, saying, “When the year becomes cold, then we know how the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves” (The Analects, Book IX “Tsze Han,” Chapter 27; Translation by James Legge). From this remark was derived the painting’s title.
Yi Sang-jeok was deeply moved by his teacher’s present. On his trip to Beijing later that year, he carried the painting and showed it to his Chinese friends at a gathering. Sixteen of the 17 men in attendance wrote encomiums, which were later attached when the painting was remounted on a lengthy scroll.
Men of letters in China befriended Yi during his frequent visits as an official interpreter of Korean diplomatic missions, so they were aware of Kim’s reputation as a scholar and calligrapher. Eight decades later, Japanese scholar Chikashi Fujitsuka (1879-1948) came to find about Korean scholar Pak Je-ga while studying Chinese philosophy in Beijing. Pak was Kim’s teacher and Fujitsuka was finally drawn to Kim, who frequently appeared in Qing scholars’ writings.
In 1926, Fujitsuka became a professor of Chinese philosophy at Keijo Imperial University, the forerunner of Seoul National University. He avidly studied Kim’s life and works and collected every object related to him that was available, including “Sehando.” In 1936, he obtained a doctorate from the University of Tokyo for his thesis, “Cultural Transmission from the Qing Dynasty to the Yi Dynasty and Kim Wandang.”
The thesis was recognized for illuminating Kim Jeong-hui as a master of classics well versed in the scholarship of Qing, in addition to being an epigraphist, and revealing unknown aspects of the 500-year cultural history of the Yi (Joseon) Dynasty.
Fujitsuka returned to Japan in 1940 and continued his studies and teaching as director of the Daito Bunka Gakuin, forerunner of Daito Bunka University, in Tokyo. In 1944, Korean calligrapher Sohn Jae-hyeong went to Tokyo and visited Fujitsuka daily for two months, asking him to sell “Sehando.” Fujitsuka, who was sick, eventually yielded to Sohn’s unwavering enthusiasm.
Giving the painting to Sohn without asking for any reward, Fujitsuka said, “I am returning ‘Sehando’ to Korea because first, I’ve been moved by how much you love Korea’s cultural property and secondly, I believe that you will keep it for long. Moreover, we are both his students, aren’t we?”
Three months later, in March 1945, most of the books in Fujitsuka’s collection were lost in a fire caused by US air raids. His collection was known to include over 10,000 rare books and 1,000 calligraphy manuscripts, some of which were exchanged between Korean and Chinese literati. Today, the Fujitsuka Chikashi Collection at the Harvard-Yenching Library, including some of the remaining books and letters of Korean Confucian scholars, sheds light on academic interaction in East Asia during the 18th to 19th centuries.
In 2006, professor Akinao Fujitsuka donated some 2,700 items of his father’s research materials, including handwritings by Kim Jeong-hui, to the Chusa Museum in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi Province. Gwacheon was where Kim spent his last four years before passing away.
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. She is currently editor-in-chief of Koreana, a quarterly magazine of Korean culture and arts published by the Korea Foundation. -- Ed.