Korean Portraiture: Ancient and Modern


The Asian Art Museum own some rare ink-on-paper drafts of portraits of Bunmu (renowned military) meritorious officials. Part of this exhibition on Korean art and Korean portraiture is influenced by what came to light during a 2012 conservation and subsequent study of these portraits, including new findings about portraiture and processes used during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). The draft portraits are themselves highly refined works of art and reveal not only about Joseon-era portraiture, but also illustrate artistic processes and experiments. For example, reverse painting was a technique mainly used in final, finished, Korean portraits, in which infill colours were painted on the back of the paper to create portraits of greater depth and rendering. When the work was completed, one copy of the painting was kept at court while other copies were sent to the officials’ families. These portraits were then taken out for royal ceremonies, or family rituals that were heavily influenced by the Confucian practice of ancestor worship.

The exhibition, Likeness and Legacy in Korean Portraiture, pairs these draft portraits on paper with a selection of finished paintings on silk with contemporary works and approaches to portraiture by Korean and Korean American artists working today. The contemporary works include photo-based, mixed-media, and video works by Do Ho Suh and Yun Suknam, as well as Korean Americans Ahree Lee and Young June Lew, raising issues of conformity, group identity, and gender in this new information age.

Portraits Were Highly Valued in Korean Society

Hyonjeoung Kim Han, associate curator of Korean Art, writes in the catalogue, ‘Portraiture was highly valued in traditional Korean society. It exhibits complex ideas about people and societal values during the Joseon dynasty. Three parties were involved: commissioners, sitters, and painters. All carefully planned and executed portrait-making projects and delicately incorporated visions and beliefs of subjects and patrons. Through copy and display in various rituals, ancestors’ portraits have been handed down generations of a family – and continues today. An essential element of portrait in general, and certainly in the Joseon era, is the perpetuity of the sitter’s characteristics and his or her legacy. The process of portrait-making can provide insights into the past, it also can be meaningful today in relation to perceptions and identity’.

The series of portraits of Bunmu that form the main focus of the exhibition were initially commissioned in 1728 by King Yeongjo (r 1724-1776), as a reward for quelling an armed rebellion that threatened his young and vulnerable regime. Today, these portraits are incredibly valuable studies that showcase the care, craft, and precision of official Korean portraiture at that time. Under the influence of Confucian ideals, Joseon-dynasty portrait painters aimed to capture their sitters’ personalities with individualised facial expressions – down to astonishing details such as chicken pox scars. As Hyonjeong Kim Han points out, ‘If one hair of a sitter is not rendered correctly, it is not the portrait of the sitter’. This Korean saying reveals that the most important requirement of great portraiture is the realistic portrayal of the sitter, they were required to embed essential characteristics and virtues of the subject, using the golden principle ‘transmitting spirit through a depiction of outer appearance’, as popularised by the early Chinese painter and politician, Gu Kaizhi (fl 344-406).

The Rise of Confucianism in Korea

The rise of Confucianism also motivated portrait painters during the Joseon dynasty to capture their sitters inner spirit. In contract to the previous dynasty, Goryeo (918-1392), which observed Buddhism as the state religion, The Joseon period adopted neo-Confucianism as its state ideology. Among the many values of Confucianism, people prioritised worshipping ancestors, maintaining family lineages, and performing numerous prescribed rituals in daily life. Portraiture was an important part of this process and supported the values Confucianism created.

Hyongheoung Kim Han also explains: ‘Loyalty was an important factor in this Confucian world. Recognising and awarding loyal meritorious officials began with the founding of the Joseon dynasty. Joseon kings appointed 28 groups of meritorious subjects. Those appointed were considered courageous and intelligent officials who strengthened their king’s power and the nation’s stability, especially in times of crisis’.

Standard Portrait with Individual Detail

Each portrait of Bunmu officials depicts the face of the sitter in all its particularity while adhering to a standardised format. The set of eight draft portraits in Likeness and Legacy date to 1751, recommissioned as an additional series of portraits of the original sitters. For the Bunmu officials still alive in 1751, this generation gap is reflected in the officials’ advanced age; for those officials who had already passed away, artists based the drafts on the initial 1728 portraits, freezing their ‘likeness’ in time.

The study of traditional Korean portraits has had a relatively short history. With the exception of Cho Sun-mie, a pioneering scholar in the history of Korean portraiture since the 1980s, scholars and curators have only paid more attention to traditional portraits in the last couple of decades. Recently, families have donated or lent their ancestors’ portraits to cultural institutions in Korea, contributing to more vibrant publication and exhibition projects on portraiture. References to the most important exhibitions from 2007 onwards are referenced in this exhibition’s catalogue.

Modern Korean Portraiture

Importantly, Likeness and Legacy also features work from later artists, including those working in Korea today. In modern Korean art, the emphasis on family and tradition is subtly reflected and commented upon, as can be seen in the works on show. Bridging the Joseon-era and modern Korea, a matching set of full-length portraits from 1925 by Chae Yongsin (1850–1941), on loan from Amorepacific Museum of Art in Seoul, depicts a patriarch and matriarch from the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) with a naturalism that points to a broader cultural shift.

The Contemporary Section of Korean Portraiture

In the contemporary section, there is a selection of mixed media and painting works from the self-taught Yun Suknam (b 1939), who has been a formative presence in Korea’s art scene since the 1980s. A pioneering figure, whose explicitly feminist output addresses the history and cultural contributions of women, Yun reconfigures discarded or found objects and weathered wood to build up multi-dimensional portrayals of those similarly ‘abandoned’ by history or society. Here, Yun has crafted images of the 16th-century female poets Heo Nanseolheon (1563–1589) and Yi Maechang (1573–1610), who did not leave behind official portraits. Yun instead has imagined their appearances, creating intimate renderings that project the inner power of these no-longer forgotten women. In the portrait of Yi Maechang, the sitter’s face looks sharp, and her confidence is expressed with a faint smile.

Do Ho Suh

The photographic prints by Do Ho Suh (b 1962) comment upon the pressures of conformity in Korean society. In the work High School Uni-Face: Boy and High School Uni-Face: Girl (1997), layered composites of student portraits are taken from yearbooks in the decade before strict dress codes were relaxed. In this series the artist compiled and overlapped 64 photos of this classmates for the works. Before the abolition in 1983 of school uniforms, Korean schools had very strict requirements, including rules on hair styles. By overlapping school year book photographs, the artist he created a unified image to explore the idea of an individual self in a larger group or society.

In the sculpture Uni-Form/s: Self-Portraits/s: My 39 Years (2006) Suh also moves beyond the conventional emphasis on the face in portraiture into three-dimensional work, arranging replicas of his own uniforms worn from kindergarten to his mandatory military service—an expression of his self in relation to a group identity pre-determined by an exacting social system and shaped by shared experience.

This new exhibition allows the long history of Korean portraiture, its history, culture and relevance to the modern world to be thoughtfully explored by a fresh audience in San Francisco.

Until 29 November, 2021, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, asianart.org. There is a symposiyn on 11 September. On 7 October, the artists Ahree Lee and Yun Suknam are in conversation at the museum.