Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Korean Munbangdo Paintings

Munbangdo literally means “scholar’s study painting” and is a still-life painting genre that emerged in late eighteenth-century Joseon Korea (1392–1910). Books are the primary and most important motif in this genre, which portrays objects associated with scholarly pursuits. An established genre by the 1780s, munbangdo were made through the modern period and continue to inspire contemporary artists. The Museum’s ten-panel munbangdo screen (2005.385) is a wonderful example of the continuation and transformation of such works in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It illustrates an array of objects typical of the genre, including books, bronzes, ceramics, fruits, flowers, and writing implements.

Based on the composition, munbangdo are categorized into three types: bookshelf, isolated, and stacked. The first type, as the name suggests, portrays a bookshelf filled with objects. The name is not only due to the visual prominence of the bookshelf, but also because of two terms—chaekgado and chaekgeori—found in historical records. Both terms contain the character chaek (冊) that means “book.” The ga (格) in chaekga means “shelf” or “rack” and geori (거리) in chaekgeori is a Korean vernacular suffix that means “hang” or “place,” thus both terms mean “bookshelf.” Though chaekgeori is widely used today, it is more accurate to use chaekgeori and chaekgado in reference to the bookshelf type. Munbangdo is the term that most frequently appears in historical records and it should be used to refer to all three types and to the genre as a whole.

In the bookshelf type, the painted image extends continuously across all the panels, resulting in a unified depiction of a shelf over the entire surface of the screen. Isolated munbangdo paintings depict objects against an empty backdrop. Unlike bookshelf munbangdo, each panel of the isolated type has a discrete composition. Isolated is not a historical term, but a modern designation because the objects appear to be separate and floating on an unpainted background. The Museum’s screen is a stacked munbangdo, also a modern descriptive term. Each panel comprises a distinct frame, but unlike in the isolated type, the objects are stacked rather than dispersed. Sets of books with colorful coverings are piled three or four high and at various angles. Vases with cut flowers, plates of fruit, and vessels containing rolled paper and brushes are placed alongside and on top of the bookstacks, tables, and shelves.

Munbangdo represents the advent of still-life painting in Korea. Recovering from the turbulent invasions of the Japanese and the Manchus in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the Joseon dynasty experienced a period of political stability and socioeconomic prosperity during the eighteenth century, a time that modern academics consider Joseon’s golden age. Within this environment, art production flourished. Subject matter expanded to encompass not only the Confucian and literary ideals of earlier Joseon painting but real and contemporaneous themes. The ideal and historical resided alongside true-view landscapes (silgyeong sansuhwa) and genre paintings (pungsokhwa). While these modes introduced new types of subject matter within the established genres of landscape and figure painting, munbangdo emerged during this time as an entirely new genre.

Joseon’s diplomatic and economic ties to neighboring Qing China (1644–1911) and Edo Japan (1615–1868) were key factors in the new artistic developments. Many of the objects depicted in the Museum’s munbangdo screen were originally produced outside of Joseon and reflect the cross-cultural interactions of the period. Viewing the screen in the traditional sequence from right to left, the three-legged ewers in panels 1 and 2 depict ceramic wares that were produced in China. The tripod green vessels (panels 3 and 4) represent Qing archaistic bronzes and their red-lacquered covers. The mirror, clock, and watch (panels 1, 7, and 10) are all examples of new technologies brought to East Asia via Jesuit missionaries and Western merchants. The citron fruits (panel 10), corals (panels 7 and 10), and peacock feathers (panel 3) are items that are not indigenous to the Korean peninsula. With the frequent envoy visits to the capitals of Qing and Edo (modern-day Beijing and Tokyo), Joseon officials and their ambassadorial entourages, which included court painters and artisans, had the opportunity to see and acquire various Chinese, Japanese, and Western wares depicted in munbangdo. The diplomatic missions and increased global trade sparked an interest in exotic goods and fostered a culture of curiosity and commodity exchange.

In addition to illustrating the appeal of new and foreign items in Joseon society, munbangdo represent three significant aesthetic trends of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: illusionism; antiquarianism and empiricism; and auspicious symbolism. The two ceramic ewers (panels 1 and 2) have illusionistic decorative characteristics. Their three-legged round body mimics the form of bronze tripod vessels (panels 3 and 4), but the handle and spout are modeled to look like tree branches. The handle’s branchlike illusion is reinforced by the manner in which the floral motif on the surface of the ewer is painted to look as if it were an extension of the branch handle. Another example of this type of pictorial illusionism is the small ceramic vessel on the stack of books in the far left panel. The vaselike vessel looks to have a textile tied around its neck. Tying textiles around ceramic vessels for added embellishment was a common decorative practice in both late Qing and Joseon. Qing artisans emulated this practice and incorporated it in the surface decoration of enamels, as seen in a pair of jars decorated with floral scrolls and a wrapped cloth (14.40.161a,b).

In Joseon art, this visual play with illusionism is most effectively illustrated in bookshelf munbangdo itself, which incorporates Western linear perspective and shading techniques. The orthogonal lines of the shelves and the dark shading contribute to the illusion of recessed space. From eighteenth-century archival records and extant bookshelf munbangdo dating to the early nineteenth century, modern scholars contend that the bookshelf munbangdo is likely the earliest of the three types, and that it originated at the court. The form of the shelf and the displayed objects in bookshelf munbangdo reveal the influence of Qing display culture, especially the décor trend of duobaoge popularized by Qing imperial interiors. Duobaoge  (literally, "many treasure shelf") were treasure cabinets that consisted of tiered and offset shelving that ranged in size and shape to display a variety of collectibles. Joseon court painters on ambassadorial missions would have seen duobaoge and their objects during their visits to Qing imperial halls, elite homes, and antique shops. While the shelving in bookshelf munbangdo is more symmetrical and systematic than duobaoge, the depicted bookshelf echoes duobaoge characteristics in its tiered shelving and asymmetrical compartments. Duobaoge and bookshelf munbangdo, similar to the Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer in Europe, illustrate the surging interest in collecting and display in both Qing and Joseon.

In conjunction with global activity, a growing emphasis on empiricism and antiquarianism fostered a collecting culture. A faction of Joseon scholars and officials in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries sought out different methods of inquiry that countered the metaphysical approach to Neo-Confucianism. This new school of thought was called silhak (literally, “practical learning”). Silhak scholars were not only drawn to Western learning but also promoted reexamination of the past through the study of classical texts, epigraphy, and antiques. The objects depicted in munbangdo, as well as the painting style of illusionistic munbangdo, reflect the period’s intellectual and philosophical developments. Clocks, mirrors, watches, and eyeglasses are often illustrated in munbangdo, and these objects all represent newly introduced Western technologies. The bronze vessels are contemporary Qing wares deliberately produced in archaic shapes, such as ding tripod vessels (09.118.11; 2001.210) and gu beakers (14.58.175). The landscape paintings, blue-and-white ceramics, brushes, paper, inkstones, and seals are all related to literati pursuits and the yangban lifestyle.

The growing penchant for commodities and collecting during the late Joseon period is also evident in the use of object imagery as decorative motifs. The Chinese ornamental motif called Hundred Antiques emerged during the late Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Composed of bronze vessels, ceramics vases holding flowers, and brushes in containers, the motif is pervasive on Qing ceramics (24.80.483a,b), textiles (30.75.15), and decorative panels (29.110.93), and it is likely that such works inspired the creation of isolated munbangdo. Though there are similarities between Qing “hundred antiques” and isolated munbangdo, both in types of objects—depicted as discrete units floating on a blank background—and in pictorial style, there are also interesting differences. Books do not feature as prominently in “hundred antiques,” nor does it become a painting genre in China.

The importance of auspicious symbolism is evident in the flowers and fruits frequently depicted in munbangdo. In the Museum’s munbangdo screen, the watermelon (panel 1), pomegranates (panel 8), and melons (panel 9) allude to fecundity. This connotation is overt in the portrayal of the seeds within the fruit. The reed pipe (saenghwang, panel 5) is also a symbol of fecundity and prosperity. The name saenghwang works as a homophonic pun on the word saeng meaning “to give birth” and “life” and to another homophonic character meaning “to ascend, to rise in rank.” As elite yangban took civil service examinations and became scholar-officials, reed pipes became symbols of passing examinations and rising within the ranks of civil service.

The flowers—peony, lotus, narcissus, and plum blossom—are rebuses with positive meanings of wealth, purity and rebirth, longevity, and perseverance, respectively. In case the symbolism of the objects is unclear, prosperity in terms of blessing and long life is more explicitly conveyed through the characters decorating a number of blue-and-white ceramic vessels in the screen. The characters bok (福, good fortune, panels 1, 7, 9, and 10) and su (壽, longevity, panels 1, 2, 8, and 9) plainly illustrate the symbolic sentiments that objects had come to represent and convey.

Based on surviving examples, bookshelf munbangdo were made in fewer numbers and examples from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries become increasingly  graphic and abstract. Concurrently, there was greater production of stacked and isolated munbangdo depicting an increasing number of objects. This move away from illusionism seemingly indicates a paradigmatic shift in the manner in which viewers related to the screen images. Early bookshelf munbangdo were coveted for the objects that were admired and the illusionistic realism in which they were depicted. In later decades, the desire for the real wanes, and the symbolic and emblematic qualities of the objects intensifies and becomes central. The growing dominance of the metaphorical connotation of the objects is also apparent in the continuous popularity of munbangdo, evident in the pairing of munbangdo imagery with other auspicious illustrations such as munjado (rebus paintings of Chinese characters) and flower-and-bird paintings. The appeal of objects continued as new forms of still-life painting emerged, such as gi'myeong jeoljido (2014.247), in nineteenth-century Korea.