Shaping the Future of Korean Art
By Sooa Im McCormick, Curator of Korean Art
The recent acquisitions Cityscape of Pyongyang and Umber-Black highlight the Cleveland Museum of Art’s conscious efforts to acquire a wide variety of Korean works of art, not only to deepen its historical art collection, but also to expand its frontier to include modern and contemporary art (figs. 1, 5).
With imagery drawn in ink and pale colors on silk, each panel of the screen portrays famous historical and natural sites in Pyongyang (fig. 2). Today the city is better known as the capital of North Korea, one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, but during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), it was Korea’s second-largest city and much celebrated for its stable government, economic prosperity, and talented entertainers.
By the late 1800s, when this painting was created, Pyongyang was nicknamed the “Jerusalem of the East” for its large Christian population. Many American and European missionaries and tourists visited the city, and some wrote memoirs. British explorer Isabella Bird (1831–1904), for example, recorded her impression as follows:
The first view of Pyongyang delighted me. The city has a magnificent situation, taken advantage of with much skill, and at a distance merits the epithet “imposing.” It was a glorious afternoon. All the low ranges which girdle the rich plain through which the Daedong river winds were blue and violet, melting into a blue haze, the crystal waters of the river were bluer still, brown-sailed boats drifted lazily with the stream, and above it the gray mass of the city rose into a dome of unclouded blue. . . . The great double roofed Daedong gate [(fig. 3)], decorated pavilions on the walls, the massive, curled roofs of the Governor’s office building, a large Buddhist monastery and temple on a height, and a fine temple dedicated to the God of War.
Painted by Kim Yoon-bo (1865–1938), native to Pyongyang, this maplike image provides us with a better understanding of late 19th-century Korean landscape painting characteristics; it is topographically accurate without losing the sophistication of calligraphic brushwork. Most historical sites rendered in this screen were destroyed during the Korean War (1950–53), making time and space in this surviving imagery of Pyongyang feel both eternal and lost (fig. 4).
Umber-Black of 1975 is perhaps the most significant acquisition in terms of shaping the future of the Korean art collection (fig. 5). The dark pillars of burnt umber paint that extend to the height of the canvas exemplify the type of work for which artist Yun Hyong-keun was most celebrated (fig. 6).
While the composition is simple, the creation process involved a long and complex procedure. After having added layer upon layer of paint — often applying the next coat before the last one had dried — Yun diluted the pigments with turpentine solvent, allowing them to seep into the fibers of the unprimed coarse linen (fig. 7).
Modern Western critics have often noted that Yun’s language of abstraction was influenced by American Abstract Expressionists, such as Mark Rothko (1903–1970) and Morris Louis (1912–1962), as seen in his nonrepresentational linear arrangements or his handling of paint as dye. Yun, however, commented on traditional calligraphy as the source of his abstraction and its aesthetics. In particular, he held special respect for the 19th-century scholar-artist Kim Jeong-hui (1786–1856), who is believed to have achieved the concept of “Perfection of Imperfection.” In Yun’s canvas, the blurred boundary between painted and untouched areas, created by the uneven rates of absorption of oil and solvent, and those areas’ unsettling relationship echo that quintessential approach of achieving perfection through imperfection.
What did the artist try to utter through his language of abstraction? In his diary, Yun explains that the untouched blank space in between the pillars evokes a pathway into “the gate of heaven and earth,” while blue represents heaven, and umber, earth. The heaven and earth in his canvas, however, are not a minimalistic depiction of the peaceful cosmos. Witnessing a series of historical traumas — Japanese colonial rule (1910–45), the Korean War (1950–53), and the postwar dictatorship — Yun was never one to bow to injustice: he chose to confront it. In this sense, Umber-Black is perceivable as a mindscape charged with anger and sadness, which inevitably follows an individual who strives to remain truthful.
Yun’s own voice, as he speaks about truthfulness as the foundation of the transcendent nature of great art, can be heard in the first track of BTS leader RM’s latest solo album Indigo. Yun recounts: “Truth is the one you must hold onto until the day you die. In Plato’s philosophy, three transcendental concepts — Truth, Goodness, and Beauty — have been discussed as the essence of humanity. In my opinion, if you obtain truth, then you have it all.”
Umber-Black will debut to the public in the upcoming installation in the Korea Foundation Gallery (April–October 2023) and will later be displayed along with works of historical and contemporary fashion in the special exhibition Persistence and Subversion in Korean Couture (spring 2023).
 Isabella Bird, Korea and Her Neighbors: A Narrative of Travel, with an Account of the Recent Vicissitudes and Present Position of the Country (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1898), 310.
 Yun’s diary entry about the meaning of his Umber series was written in January 1977.
 In various interviews, RM remarked that the first track (titled Yun) was his homage to Yun Hyong-keun. Yun can be heard in RM’s live concert on BTS’s official channel.
 The original Korean reads: “평생 진리에 살다가야한다 이거야 플라톤의 인문학에서는 인간의 본질인데, 진선미. 진실하다는 ‘진’자 하고, 착할 ‘선’자하고 아름다울 ‘미’하고인데, 내 생각에는 진 하나만 가지면 다 해결되는 것 같아.”