Picasso, but then differently

AW-orWbCAAABg0uNow this must be one of the most incredible pictures I’ve ever seen. What is it? Well, take a wild guess. What do you think it is? When I saw it for the first time, I thought it was an early 20th-century engraving or something like it. Boy, was I wrong. It is in fact the seal of the older brother of Chosŏn’s version of Leonardo da Vinci, Chŏng Yag’yong (丁若鏞, 1762-1836), Chŏng Yakchŏn (1758-1816) .  This Chŏng was an ardent Catholic believer, something which just might separate your head from your shoulders (which is what happened with another Chŏng brother, Chŏng Yakchong, executed in 1801 for his beliefs).
The story of Catholicism in Korea is fascinating. In the period of European expansion, Catholicism would typically bring disease, angry monks, suffering, warfare and bitching nuns to countries, but in Korea it was brought there by Koreans themselves. Who baptised themselves just because they liked Matteo Ricci’s writings in Chinese on Catholicism. At that moment, they still saw Catholicism as a minor philosophy to complement some weak points of Neo-Confucianism (don’t tell the Pope: when the Pope found out about Koreans baptising themselves and then others without the blessing from Rome, he got so upset he immediately sent missionaries to the peninsula to suppress this horrible show of religious independence). Anyhow, Catholicism entrenched itself as a dissident voice and has ever since been more critical of social injustice than most other religions on the Korean peninsula. At least, that’s my impression as a Religious Studies layman (pun unintended; although by explicitly saying it was unintended -it wa2011082813512583799_1s- I’m saying I like it I guess).

Back to the picture. Can you imagine this is a late 18th-century product? A Chosŏn period product? It is one of the most beautiful seals I’ve ever seen. Visually stunning and rich in meaning. Completely different from anything contemporaries made, but yet intimately related to it. It reminds me of other products from the same period. These products are unrelated qua production process: the seal is the product of a highly educated member of the elite of the elite, while the products I’m referring to are wrapping cloths 보자기, made by at least formally uneducated women from left over cloth. But these cloths are astounding in their visual splendour. Just look at them. Again it reminds the unsuspecting eye of early 20th century art. We still look at the Chosŏn period as a period of classical flowering, but it seems to have been much, much more. And much more interesting. How did the sensibilities that would culminate in such stunning seal or surprisingly modern and beautiful wrapping cloth arise? What is their background? I don’t know. But I like it, so just to drive the point home, spot the Mondriaan in the gallery below…

Respond to Picasso, but then differently

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