Art Through Time: A Global View
Domestic Life Art: Grapevine in the Wind
The Chosôn (or Joseon) period in Korea lasted over five hundred years, from 1392 to 1910.
Among the most privileged members of Chosôn society were the yangban, a class of elite men who held government offices and were students of Confucian thought. These men sought to live according to Confucian principles and mores, and applied these standards to their social spheres, as well as to their professional ones.
Following Confucian tenets, the yangban typically maintained separate spaces for men and women within the home. The center of life in the male quarters was the sarangbang, or “study,” where the head of house would receive and entertain guests. The yangban actively participated in the arts of poetry, calligraphy, and landscape painting, as both patrons and amateur practitioners. During gatherings, a host would often unroll painted scrolls and hang them on the wall for his guests to enjoy and examine.
This hanging scroll is typical of the kind of monochrome ink paintings favored by the yangban. The work is minimalist, offering a close-up view of a grapevine rendered with an air of spontaneity and a calligraphic elegance. Bold strokes applied with varying degrees of speed and pressure create the branch of the vine, and subtly suggest volume by allowing the scroll’s silk ground to show through in places, a technique known as “flying white.” Chosôn literati were partial to natural motifs that often held symbolic meaning associated with Confucian virtues. For instance, bamboo, which sways in the wind but does not break, was understood as a metaphor for nobility and integrity. Although the precise significance of the grapevine is unknown, it likely signified prosperity and fertility.
Soyoung Lee, Associate Curator of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“In Korean history, and let’s just talk about the Chosôn history which was the last 500 years up to 1910, a good part of painting that was produced was produced for the court, for the royal court. They were made by court artists, court painters who were appointed into that bureau. And so they were partly for public propaganda to espouse the new Confucian principles that the elites lived by. But, of course, they were produced for private enjoyment as well. They were made as either hanging or hand scrolls. So most of the time, they were not hung on walls the way that Western paintings or European paintings were in frames. They would be stored away and brought out for the particular occasions and then hung and viewed, and discussed, and so forth.
The Korean society and home during the Chosôn Dynasty was very segregated in terms of the sexes. And it was usually the males who engaged in these art activities. So usually it would be the head of the household and his own practices of the arts and his friends’ enjoyment of the artworks would take place in his study, known as the sarangbang, which is basically the center of the household. And so it served both as his private study and a public space for entertaining guests.”
Cambon, Pierre. Poetry of Ink: The Korean Literati Tradition 1392–1910.Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 2006.
Lee, Soyoung. “Yangban: The Cultural Life of the Chosôn Literati.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/yang/hd_yang.htm (October 2004).
Mullany, Frank. Symbolism in Korean Ink Brush Painting. Kent, UK: Global Oriental, 2006.
Pratt, Keith. Korean Painting. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
“Unidentified artist: Grapevine in the Wind [Korea] (1994.439).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ho/08/eak/ho_1994.439.htm (October 2006).