Clip & Save Art Notes

By Carroll, Colleen | Arts & Activities, February 2007 | Go to article overview
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Clip & Save Art Notes

Carroll, Colleen, Arts & Activities


This month's Clip & Save Art Print is a scroll produced in Korea in the 19th century. It is a classic example of "minhwa" painting, or folk painting. The subject matter depicted in the scroll is a common and popular one: the 10 symbols of immortality. Also called the 10 symbols of longevity, they are: rocks, water, clouds, the sun, pine trees, deer, turtles (or tortoises), cranes, bamboo and fungi.

The color blue is also a symbol of longevity, as well as a symbol of birth, life, vitality, good luck, dignity, humility and the expulsion of evil spirits--ingredients, in the Confucian sense, to a well-lived existence on Earth and beyond. This screen, and other screens that depict similar subject matter, were commonly used during ceremonies and special occasions, such as anniversaries, banquets and during festivities to celebrate the lunar New Year.

Because the artists who made these paintings were employed by the court, they were not allowed to sign their names to their work. Although they worked anonymously, according to information from the University of Oregon regarding an exhibition of Korean paintings, "... many Korean artists of the 19th and 20th centuries functioned essentially as visionaries, using their art to reveal otherwise invisible aspects of the world ... [and] such representations as landscapes, Buddhist hells and paradises, lands of immortality, and the cosmos itself provide opportunities for the artists to imaginatively envision sights (and sites) that could not literally be seen."

As an example of minhwa painting, this month's selection is representative of the genre's use of rich, saturated color, flattened space, atmospheric backgrounds and bold linear structure. In this scene, two deer, one dark and one light (symbolic of male and female, positive and negative, or yin and yang), move through a mountainous landscape of dazzling color. The animals are protected by the upper canopy of a pine tree that grows diagonally across the picture plane from an outcropping of rocks. Two birds flank the tree and seem to watch over the pair as they proceed through the forest.

A crane stands on the ground near a stand of bamboo to the left of the tree, while a bird in flight emerges into the space from the background. In addition to being symbols of immortality and long life, this avian pair creates a sense of balance in the composition and also leads the viewer's eye to the mammals that are clearly the central focus of the image.

Moving toward the right side of the composition, more symbols of immortality appear to reemphasize the work's meaning: a pair of tortoises (known for long life), the sun, clouds and water in the forms of waves. In this dreamlike world, the 19th-century Korean viewer would look and be reminded of the mysteries of Confucianism.


Symbols and symbolic meaning are important components of Korean painting. Because Korean art has been strongly influenced by Chinese artistic traditions throughout the centuries, much of the symbolic content and meaning is similar to that found in Chinese painting. Examples of this similarity would be the tiger and the peony: the former symbolizing bravery and strength; the latter symbolizing wealth.

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