Chosun Genre Paintings Show Change in Women's Roles

      July 17, 2006 21:39

      Korean genre paintings of the 18th and early 19th centuries show a profound change in the role played by women in the Chosun Dynasty. The director of the Myongji University Museum, Lee Tae-ho, took a fresh look at some 60 genre paintings produced between the 18th century and early 19th century by Kim Hong-do, Shin Yun-bok, Yun Du-seo and others, and concluded that they pick up on how women in that era took on a more independent and powerful role. "Paintings produced after the 18th century often feature women focusing on entertainment rather than their traditional role as mother or wife," Lee says. "That change can be compared to a kind of cultural DNA which runs through to today’s women in Korea, who play a more active and aggressive role."

      A painting by Shin Yun-bok

      ◆ Women Take to the Streets

      Against the widespread perception that women in the late Chosun era were confined in the framework of Sung Confucianism, genre paintings show women taking part in an ever greater variety of social events. The Gisagyecheop, an album of paintings depicting a party in honor of retired high ranking scholar-officials produced between 1719 and 1720, is the first series of court paintings that features ordinary people watching the event. Depicting the party with King Sukjong, who was 60, and the 10 retired high ranking officials, the paintings show 15 women among the 88 onlookers gathered around Gwanghwamun. Paintings of King Jeongjo's Visit to Hwaseong in 1795, some 70 years later, show the king paying a visit to the grave of his father Crown Prince Sado, and Lee spotted no fewer than 137 women among the 358 people who look on as the king crosses the Han River.

      ◆ Gisaeng Girls as Trendsetters

      Gisaeng or all-round female entertainers were the trendsetters of the era, with noblewomen borrowing from their style. Genre paintings confirm, for example, that clothes emphasizing women's body silhouette such as tight-fitting short jackets were highly popular. "It is deplorable that clothes only gisaeng girls wear to flirt with men are popular," lamented two scholars of the so-called Silhak or practical learning movement, Yi Ik (1681-1764) and Yi Deok-mu (1741-1793). Colors became more diverse and flamboyant, and especially blue, which was considered luxurious and sophisticated, was all the rage. Among the 70 women who appear in an album of 30 paintings by Shin Yun-bok in the early 19th century, 52 wear indigo, which was the most difficult to produce with traditional dyeing methods.

      ◆ From Den to High-Class Establishment

      Genre paintings produced by Kim Hong-do around 1780s and Shin Yun-bok in 1810s show a sea change in traditional Korean taverns. While taverns in Kim's paintings have thatch roofs and women owners wearing monochrome jackets without any particular decoration, those in Shin's paintings some 30 years later have tiled roofs that were seen only in noblemen's houses at the time. The manageresses look urban in their indigo skirts as they welcome customers.

      ◆ Fun Over Chores

      In most genre paintings, women in clothes that identify them as noblewomen are seen flirting or even posing for erotic pictures. But in those painted by scholar Yun Do-seo and his son Yun Deok-hi, they are shown reading or doing chores. An unattributed erotic painting of the time even depicts a noblewoman having sex with a Buddhist monk.

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