I recently met curator Soyoung Lee in the galleries to chat about the landmark exhibition Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art, which celebrates the twentieth anniversary of the Arts of Korea Gallery at The Met. On my way, I wasn't sure what to expect. How could a remote mountain range be an object of either travel or nostalgia for me? Surely this exhibition was meant for someone else.
But after hearing Soyoung talk about the paintings, and seeing them through her eyes, all that changed. Coming away, I felt that the region had taken up residence in me as if it were my own home. I want to return there one more time, to wander through the landscapes, stumble over the tiny figures and dwellings tucked into the crags and crevasses, and read the cryptic labels that identify now-familiar places—Biro Peak, and Nine Dragon Falls—in a language I'll never know.
The day is rapidly approaching when we won't be able to see these paintings again. I already miss them, just as the title promised I would. In retrospect, I wish I'd asked Soyoung how the paintings construct the mountains as objects of longing. Because, in some miraculous way, they do. In the end, we find, it's not the Diamond Mountains we long for, but the artworks themselves—these true views.
For those who can make the journey to The Met—and for those who can't—Soyoung is a clear-eyed guide. I hope you will enjoy touring these captivating vistas with her as much as I did.
Sumi Hansen: What made you choose the Diamond Mountains as your theme for this special occasion?
Soyoung Lee: For the anniversary I wanted to bring a centuries-old tradition—one that is also entirely fresh and new—to The Met's audiences. Mount Geumgang is probably the most iconic and famous site on the Korean peninsula. It's in the same province where the Winter Olympics took place, but right across the border, in North Korea. Yet although it looms large within the Korean cultural consciousness, outside of Korea it's not that well known, either as a travel site or as an artistic phenomenon. Ninety percent of the objects in the exhibition are from Korea and are being shown for the first time in the US.
Sumi Hansen: The Met's Digital team has produced a video montage of the mountains so that viewers can see what the artists saw. What kind of topography did the artists encounter there?
Soyoung Lee: Mount Geumgang covers a vast region. Topographically, it's a really interesting place. It's not like Mt. Fuji, with that one famous snow-capped peak that gets repeated again and again as an iconic image. Its range is much more dispersed. When Koreans talk about Mount Geumgang, they speak of it as a mountain of twelve thousand peaks! It has a very varied topography. As we see in the video and in the exhibition, it's got sharp, jagged, granite-like rock formations, which are its defining physical feature. But it's also got valleys, and ravines, and waterfalls, and amazing panoramic vistas. The mountain range extends to the coast along the east, so it even goes straight into the sea. There are formations in the water—tall basalt pillars—that are actually part of the range, although they are in the water!
Sumi Hansen: You tempt us to go on a forbidden journey by putting the word "travel" in the subtitle.
Soyoung Lee: The theme of travel was important to me in putting together this exhibition. The Diamond Mountains is a specific site in a particular region, but the notion of traveling somewhere famous and meaningful—and creating images of it that are like lasting memories—is a universal concept. This is even more true in contemporary times, when travel has become so easy and so important. It's a big part of everybody's life. And with the smartphone, we're making images of our travel all the time. This particular site in what is today North Korea (since the division of the peninsula in 1945) was a destination for artists for centuries. The fact that it isn't accessible in the current geopolitical climate makes it that much more mysterious and exciting.
Sumi Hansen: The word "nostalgia" in the subtitle comes from the ancient Greek for "homecoming" (nostos) and "pain" (algos). It's a special kind of longing, like "homesickness." Is that the feeling that the mountains evoke?
Soyoung Lee: Yes, certainly in the modern era. The sense of longing for Mount Geumgang, though, goes back before the twentieth century—before the current politics and the division of the peninsula, but also before the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945). Even in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, which is when travel to the Diamond Mountains became easier and popular, both those who had gone and those who couldn't go felt this sense of nostalgia for it. Mount Geumgang is a legendary site—so mysterious and so well known for its great beauty. You can see it in the literature on the Diamond Mountains. There's a common feeling that this is a site you have to go once in your life. Everyone is longing for it—especially the artists, and especially those artists who have never even been there.
Sumi Hansen: Tell us about the name Mount Geumgang, which is translated as "Diamond Mountains."
Soyoung Lee: The name for the mountains actually originated with a Buddhist text in which there's a reference to a mountain with the same name—a place where the bodhisattavas live. Koreans came to associate that Buddhist mountain with Mount Geumgang in Gangwon province. The word itself has two meanings: it is both a diamond and a Buddhist ritual implement. Geumgang has implications of hardness, or impenetrability, because of its association with diamond.
Sumi Hansen: Are the mountains also hard and impenetrable in the sense that they are difficult to reach?
Soyoung Lee: For a long time, they were. Before the eighteenth century, when travel was more difficult, landscape painters mostly painted well-known Chinese sites or idealized, generic landscapes that could be anywhere and did not correspond to a specific place. But in the eighteenth century travel became easier, both in general and to this site in particular, and the notion of travelling to see one's own country, and visiting famous sites in one's own native land, came into the cultural consciousness for the first time.
The eighteenth century saw a new nationalism in Korea, as in Europe—not nationalism in the modern sense, but a new awareness of native identity, native places, and local traditions. A new artistic tradition involving travel to this particular site arose in the eighteenth century, which is why the exhibition begins then. For those who had been to the mountains, the landscape paintings were a way to induce remembrance; they reflected the viewers' longing for a place they had once seen. And for those who had not gone, the landscapes expressed a viewer's longing to be able to go—even if only once—before one died.
Sumi Hansen: Would you like to walk us through the exhibition, starting with the signature image?
Soyoung Lee: The exhibition starts with an image that is part of an album by one of the greatest landscapists of all of Korean art history, the eighteenth-century artist Jeong Seon. Jeong Seon is credited with being the founder of the artistic phenomenon known as "true-view" landscape, which involves travelling to native sites and capturing "true," or realistic, impressions of those sites. His works anchor the exhibition, and the signature image (above) comes from the album that is his earliest known work.
Jeong Seon went to the Diamond Mountains multiple times. The image, which is from his first trip, depicts a viewer's discovery of Mount Geumgang—their first glimpse. People are coming from the right-hand corner. If you look closely, there's somebody pulling a horse, and a group of travelers who have reached this plateau and are finally looking out. The Diamond Mountains are the white peaks or pillars rising in the distance. You, as the traveler, have journeyed a long way, and finally you come up to this place. You're at a point where Mount Geumgang rises before you, just as you enter the mountains. The signature image literally brings you into the mountains as you're walking into the exhibition.
Sumi Hansen: It also captures the feeling of longing, with the Diamond Mountains in the distance. There's something interesting about the mountains as the object of nostalgia. You're traveling to a place that's not your home, yet you long for it as if it were.
Soyoung Lee: That's right. I think for the Korean diaspora that is true. Not to argue that Korean Americans or the broader Korean diaspora are always thinking about Mount Geumgang. I'm not sure how pervasive it is in the consciousness of Koreans in their twenties and younger; but certainly everybody knows of this iconic site, and there's this sense that it's part of home. And historically these mountains have been recognized as a place that everyone longs to visit at least once in his or her lifetime.
The tradition that Jeong Seon started in the eighteenth century anchors not only the whole exhibition but also, I would argue, the whole visual tradition of Diamond Mountains throughout Korean art history.
One of the most important trends that he creates is that of capturing an overview, a general view, of the mountains. The idea of an overview—where you can see a wide stretch of the mountains, as you do here—is a visual and mental construct. There's no place in the mountains from which you could have that view! This special composition is something that he invents and repeats throughout his career.
Sumi Hansen: What other devices did he use to represent the topography of the mountains?
Soyoung Lee: The two key features of his style, which you can see here and in the signature image, are the strong, sharp vertical strokes that he uses to outline the bony white peaks, and the wet ink dots or short horizontal strokes, overlaid onto subtle washes, that he uses for the mossy, tree-covered slopes. He learned and reinterpreted these techniques from past masters, but in combination they become his signature brushwork. This brushwork so effectively captures the signature topographical features—the striking contrasts—of the Diamond Mountains.
But his work is not just about transcribing. True view is meant to be a realistic rendition not of a generic site, but of a particular site. It's "true view" in that sense. But it's not realism in the sense of Western European realism, because it's also very much about the artist's perception or impressions. Jeong Seon captures certain aspects of the mountains' topography very accurately, but his achievement is really his style and his recreation of the impression the views have made on him. His paintings were said to be even better than the mountains themselves!
Sumi Hansen: These majestic landscapes seem so at home in the Museum. But where and how would viewers originally have experienced these works?
Soyoung Lee: The album leaves were taken out one by one, and the handscrolls were slowly unrolled. They were never displayed unrolled in their entirety, as they are here. Jeong Seon translated the magnificent grandeur of the mountains into an intimate scale. It seems counterintuitive, to be able to view these mountains at home. It was a very intimate experience to look at these paintings.
So the exhibition opens with the prominent artistic tradition that first gets established with the artist Jeong Seon in the eighteenth century. From there, it moves through the nineteenth century to show how Jeong Seon's style and the tradition of true-view painting were continued or amplified or changed by his successors.
On the left is a panel from an eight-panel folding screen by Sin Hakgwon, an artist one century later than Jeong Seon. There is also a horizontal panel by him in the center of the gallery, which The Met was fortunate to acquire for this exhibition.
Ironically, Sin Hakgwon never went to the Diamond Mountains. He basically learned about—and learned to depict—the mountains from Jeong Seon. Through his writings, either on the paintings or elsewhere, we know that Sin idolized Jeong Seon. He copied, imitated, was influenced by, and reinterpreted his works. He follows that style with the dots and horizontal strokes versus the sharp vertical brushwork for the peaks, but his brush is a little less delicate and elegant, and a little looser.
Some of his works are also somewhat funky or whimsical. In this painting, you can't tell that this is a major peak, because he's made it so approachable. He's placed travelers on top of the Biro Peak, which happens to be the highest peak within the Inner Geumgang portion of the Diamond Mountains. In no other paintings, by anyone, are there people on top! He's made it a scalable peak.
Sumi Hansen: Would viewers have recognized this peak, and its name?
Soyoung Lee: Yes. I don't know about modern people! But yes, absolutely, especially if you had been exposed to this art tradition.
Sumi Hansen: So they would have appreciated the humor, because they would realize the true scale.
Soyoung Lee: Yes. It's also true that on this particular screen there are poems about each particular site, and the name of each place, inscribed by the artist himself. So even if you didn't recognize the site, you'd know from that. The practice of labelling well-known sites was well established before Jeong Seon, but he deepened the practice, and others continued it.
Sumi Hansen: Sin Hakgwon never went to the mountains. Were his paintings still "true view"?
Soyoung Lee: "True view" implies that you've been there, but it's true view even for Sin Hakgwon, because although he'd never traveled there, he's imitating and recreating true-view painting. He is a prime example of how Jeong Seon's iconic style gets repeated and amplified in the nineteenth century. Sin Hakgwon felt a particular sense of longing. We see it in his writings. There's this profound longing, this sense that I really should go, but I'm now sixty, and I don't think I'm ever going to make it.
Beyond the true-view painting tradition of literati-artist followers of Jeong Seon, in the nineteenth century we see the development of a folk tradition. These examples are on display in the second bay of the gallery. By "folk" we mean that the artists are not identified, so we don't know who they were, and they weren't part of the literati circles or the court's bureau of painting. Their take on the rendition of the mountains is what we might call naive. But although they may not have been formally trained in painting, they were clearly aware of the whole pictorial tradition that came before them.
Unlike the court painters, which we will look at next, in this painting there's no sense of Western perspective, or realism, or scale, or anything "rational." Everything is on the surface, flat, stacked one on top of the other. Plus, look at these outlines, these flamelike outlines! I think in the catalogue I call it "a mountain ablaze." I haven't seen anything like this anywhere. There could perhaps be a connection with Buddhism, but I don't necessarily want to say that. It's certainly not the typical way to depict this landscape.
Like many of the other works in the exhibition, all the peaks in this painting are labelled. So this painting, like others, also has a maplike quality. It's like a guidebook.
Sumi Hansen: A guidebook to map out future travel, as well as a nostalgic souvenir for someone who's already been there! I see a mountain halfway down, at the right, that has a yogi, or a Buddhist ascetic, sitting in a cave. Does it depict a sacred site?
Soyoung Lee: Korea was officially a Buddhist state for a thousand years, until the end of the fourteenth century. So there are a number of Buddhist temples in the mountains, as well as rock carvings of Buddhist deities both large and small. But by the nineteenth century, when this painting was made, Korea was no longer a Buddhist state. In fact, there were periods when Buddhism was actively persecuted. Nonetheless, it's not like people stopped believing it! It's true that most people would have been visiting the mountains not as Buddhist pilgrims, but because it was a famous site. But there were monks living in the mountains, it seems. They were not spiritual guides so much as tourist guides, because they knew the regions.
The third bay of the gallery displays a selection of leaves from the nineteenth-century Album of Sea and Mountains by Kim Hajong. This is the album you can see in its entirety as a slideshow on the website. Kim Hajong represents a third tradition of paintings of Mount Geumgang. The first two artists we looked at, Jeong Seon, the founder of true-view painting, and Sin Hakgwon, who's more humorous, were both literati artists, not professional painters. That doesn't mean they didn't have training, only that as part of the cultural elite, painting wasn't necessarily their livelihood. Then there were the folk artists.
But there were also court painters, men who belonged to the Bureau of Painting within the royal court, who were paid to paint on commission. Kim Hajong was a court painter who came from an illustrious family of court painters, and his style is somewhat different. Here is his painting of Myeonggyeongdae Rock. You can see that he has been exposed to the Western sense of realism—one-point perspective, shading, and three-dimensionality. This particular album is just so gorgeous in capturing all of the fantastical shapes and formations. It is very elegantly and beautifully done.
In the last section of the exhibition, we come into the modern period, when both travel and nostalgia become more complex. You can see this in these two mid-century paintings from the 1950s and 1960s, by two iconic modernist painters from Korea.
This large square painting has its origins during the period of Japanese colonial rule, although it was painted later. This period, which lasted from 1910 and 1945, was a complicated and emotionally fraught time. There was modernization of infrastructure and transportation, including for travel to the Diamond Mountains. In the '20s and '30s there was also a boom in tourism, with high-speed trains going from the capital city to Mount Geumgang. The Japanese colonial government actively developed a modern tourist industry, which involved building lodgings, running promotions in newspapers and radio, and creating postcards and brochures. But despite the fact that people could now more easily visit this very famous site in their own country, it was also a country lost. Cultural and political hegemony had been ceded to Japan. The Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese names and the Japanese language. So the longing that artists of that period expressed was for a homeland not occupied by foreign forces and to reclaim their own culture.
Both of these mid-century artists—Byeong Gwansik and Lee Ungno—travelled multiple times to the mountains and made sketches during the colonial period before 1945, when the peninsula was divided into north and south. Yet although they travelled and made sketches during this period, the finished paintings all date to post-1945, which speaks deeply to the particular sense of nostalgia people felt at that time, a nostalgia for a place before it was disrupted and divided. For a few decades after 1945, it was not easy to journey to the mountains. Lee Ungno, who painted this big painting (above), moved to Paris in the late 1950s and remained there for the rest of his career. The work of both these artists is deeply informed by a sense of longing and loss. They were recreating a site they had intimately experienced, which was no longer accessible to them.
Mount Geumgang is not just some past tradition; it's an iconic symbol that lives into the modern period and is very much alive in the minds of Koreans today. We end the exhibition with works by two contemporary artists who went multiple times during the period from the 1990s to 2008. During this time, tourism to the region developed again. The governments of North and South Korea jointly sponsored travel to these mountains, and the Mount Geumgang area was designated as a kind of independent tourist region. After 2008 the relationship deteriorated and tourism came to a halt. But a number of artists were among the South Koreans who were able to travel to and see firsthand the Diamond Mountains. And these are their true views.
Park Dae-Sung is a contemporary artist who very much works in the traditional ink tradition, although his work is so modern. This is a painting of the Nine Dragon Falls. The tall vertical format reflects the height of the falls, 240 feet high. The painting is evocative rather than literal. It captures the impact that the landscape had on him. For example, the rocks become black, and the foreground rock is moved closer to the falls. Shin Jangsik is another contemporary artist, working in Seoul, who's trained in Western European oil and acrylic. That's the medium he works with, but he's made Mount Geumgang his identity.
The one non-Korean artist featured is a Scottish painter living in Japan in the 1920s. Elizabeth Keith was one of the first Westerners to go to Korea, and she writes reverently about seeing them:
I would not have missed the grandeur for all the danger. Sometimes a mountain-top would appear like the dome of a great cathedral. Then the tops would look like jagged spires. . . . The beauty of the climb was a revelation to me.
Yet the prints that she did are so funky. It's almost shocking to see! In the painting at left, there are dragons in the mountains. Maybe she was hallucinating! You would never see such literal, and at the same time fantastical, elements in a traditional Korean painting of Mount Geumgang. In the painting at right, she shows Buddhist deities floating down. She probably knew about the Buddhist association with the mountains, and possibly on her trips she saw rock carvings of Buddhist deities. But she chooses to make the mountain into a Buddhist paradise.
Sumi Hansen: She brings to life the name "Nine Dragon Falls."
Soyoung Lee: Exactly. This is something only a foreigner would do! It's perfect that way.
Sumi Hansen: I walked into the exhibition this morning not knowing what to expect. I'm in awe. It's beautiful—and interesting!
Soyoung Lee: I'm so glad. I mean, I've seen these works before, I know these works well. And, of course, the exhibition designer and I meticulously plan the layout. But you never know how the final installation will look until the end. You have all of it in your head, and you're thinking, "Yes, this is going to work." But it's actually a revelation when it all comes together. It's such a relief.
Sumi Hansen: It's gorgeous, and the gallery is beautiful too. The color of the walls!
Soyoung Lee: We did a refurbishment to the space for the twentieth anniversary of the Arts of Korea Gallery. All the fabrics on the back walls were redone in grey tones. I do feel that as an installation it came out really well. I think the subtlety has its own magic.
Sumi Hansen: The subtle color really makes the colors of the paintings jump.
Soyoung Lee: My graduate intern, Youngshin Yook, took photographs of the installation of the exhibition. She will write a blog post about it, so readers can get a glimpse of the exhibition behind the scenes as it came together.
Note: The interview was edited for publication.
Visit the Exhibition
Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art, on view at The Met Fifth Avenue through May 20, 2018