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Exhibitions/ Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art/ Exhibition Gallery

Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art

At The Met Fifth Avenue
February 7–May 20, 2018

Exhibition Gallery

The art of the Diamond Mountains—and this exhibition—represents a site-specific experience of a universal phenomenon: the desire to travel to a famed or beloved locale and create lasting images. Perhaps the most iconic and emotionally resonant natural wonder on the Korean peninsula, these mountains, also known as Geumgang, have for centuries inspired artists to capture their visual splendor.

Map of Korea showing Diamond Mountains

Map of Korean peninsula indicating location of Diamond Mountains (Mount Geumgang)

Celebrated for its twelve thousand magnificent rocky peaks, the terrain covers more than two hundred square miles (over five hundred square kilometers) of lush and rugged scenery. To many, their location in what is today North Korea has inexorably bound the modern experience and symbolism of the Diamond Mountains with longing and nostalgia.

The exhibition presents distinctive and evocative works that highlight some key moments in the pictorial history of this important site from the eighteenth century to the present. All loans from Korea are making their North American debut—including a designated Treasure, the earliest dated work of the master-painter Jeong Seon (1676–1759). This show is part of a year-long celebration of the twentieth anniversary of The Met's Arts of Korea Gallery.

The Diamond Mountains have come to symbolize a cultural icon so familiarly and powerfully embedded in the national consciousness, and yet mysterious and just out of reach.

The exhibition is made possible by The Met's collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Korea and the National Museum of Korea.

Exhibition Themes

The vast territory of the Diamond Mountains encompasses three connected but distinct regions: Inner, Outer, and Sea Geumgang, from west to east, respectively. Inner Geumgang is celebrated for an abundance of spectacular vistas, including from temples and lookout pavilions, and for its tallest peak, Birobong. Outer Geumgang is more rugged and steep and boasts myriad rocky peaks along with glorious waterfalls. Sea Geumgang, the region along the coast, is especially distinguished for fantastical rock formations and basaltic pillars rising from the waters.

The name Geumgang has multiple associations, including as a sacred site of both Buddhist and Daoist origins, a ritual implement, and the diamond. These layers of meaning and its topographical spectacles have accorded the region a legendary status that has drawn enthusiastic travelers for centuries.

A preeminent literati painter of Joseon-period Korea, Jeong Seon (1676–1759) revolutionized landscape painting. He is credited with launching a new genre today known as true-view landscapes (jingyeong sansuhwa), featuring native sites rather than famous Chinese locales or generic, idealized scenery, as had been the convention, and new takes on traditional brushwork and compositions.

Two key elements of Jeong's stylistic vocabulary repeatedly appear in his paintings of the Diamond Mountains: razor-sharp vertical strokes (sujikjun) deployed to portray the eye-catching rocky peaks; and short horizontal strokes or dots (in homage to an earlier Chinese painter, Mi Fu) to articulate pine trees or, combined with broad washes, masses of foliage. These features appear prominently even in his earliest extant work on the subject, the Album of Mount Geumgang, displayed here. Deeply trained in various traditions of Chinese and Korean painting, Jeong masterfully synthesized the multiple paradigms and infused his work with a strong personal style. A giant in his own time, Jeong had a lasting impact on artists of subsequent generations, especially in works illustrating the Diamond Mountains. His legacy continues even today.

Selected Artworks

The works displayed in this section demonstrate how traditions of Mount Geumgang imagery continued and changed in the nineteenth century. Jeong Seon proved a potent inspiration for many painters, especially those of the literati class. One notable devotee was Sin Hakgwon. His two paintings in this exhibition—making rare public appearances—exemplify both the perpetuation of an earlier legacy and the emergence of an idiosyncratic style.

Painters catering to the non-elite transformed the conventions of true-view landscapes established by Jeong Seon. Indeed, the rise of folk paintings—whose whimsical representations of Mount Geumgang deviated from polished, realistic renditions—expanded the possibilities of landscapes of the Diamond Mountains.

Selected Artworks

Various artists during the nineteenth century amplified or transformed the traditions of the original true-view landscapes developed around images of the Diamond Mountains. An important trend of this period was exemplified by professional painters like Kim Hajong; their works took direct inspiration from the compositions and style of Kim Hongdo, a hugely versatile and celebrated court painter of the late eighteenth century. This lineage—which incorporated a Western-style sense of realism in shading, details, and spatial depth along with a greater range of compositions that included many more sites in Outer and Sea Geumgang—formed a parallel paradigm to that of Jeong Seon and his followers.

Selected Artworks

Major political upheavals and transitions in the twentieth century through Japanese colonial rule (1910–1945), the division of the peninsula into two halves (1945), and the Korean War (1950–1953) dramatically changed access to and image-making of the Diamond Mountains. Periods of rapid modernization of infrastructure and transportation as well as active tourism alternated with intervals of inaccessibility. As in the preceding era, artists took the opportunity, whenever possible, to travel to and experience the wonders of this famed site. Their work often reflects, directly or tangentially, the layered traditions of visual art on the subject. The modern and contemporary artists' impressions and interpretations of this landscape have been inevitably filtered through a deep sense of longing and nostalgia. The Diamond Mountains imagery continues to stimulate contemporary fascination while offering beauty and solace in our troubled times.

Selected Artworks

Jeong Seon (Korean, 1676–1759). Mount Geumgang Viewed from Danbal Ridge, leaf from the Album of Mount Geumgang, 1711. Ink and light color on silk, 14 1/4 x 14 7/8 in. (36.1 x 37.6 cm). National Museum of Korea, Seoul, Treasure No. 1875