In 1711 Jeong Seon, a low-ranking Korean official with an aristocratic background and a scholar’s education, sparked a new, enduring genre of Korean landscape painting when he walked into the sprawling Mount Geumgang—or Diamond Mountains—equipped with paper, ink and brushes. Six of the 13 views Jeong (1676-1759) produced form the starting point of “Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. About 50 miles within today’s North Korean southern border, the mountain has been in the news as North and South Korea negotiate whether and where to host joint celebrations during the Olympics. Visit the show, and you will understand why this site is such a big deal.
Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art
The Met Fifth Avenue
Through May 20
Art of the Mountain: Through the Chinese Photographer’s Lens
China Institute Gallery
Through Dec. 2
To mark the Korean gallery’s 20th anniversary,
the Met’s curator for Korean art, has filled it with an overview of 300 years of Diamond Mountain imagery, from ink to acrylic, factual to fictive. Paintings depict steepled pinnacles crowding into bristly masses, forests stippling mountainsides, and crystalline peaks soaring like stalagmites. Columns of stacked basalt blocks rise, precarious, by the sea. Temples nestle within tectonic folds. Waterfalls split rock faces.
In Korea, as in China, mountains commanded reverence for their presumed proximity to the heavens. Buddhists regarded Mount Geumgang’s 12,000 peaks as home to select bodhisattvas. Taoists associated the mountain with the Land of Immortals. And neo-Confucians considered it a wellspring of nature’s energy and creative power. Jeong—who returned at least twice, in 1712 and 1747—was not the first to paint this geological marvel. Records refer to court painters depicting the site, possibly as early as the 12th century. But none of those works survive. The earliest known to exist are those of Jeong’s 1711 album.
Its paper is tea-colored, the brushwork varied and masterly, and the scenes at times so otherworldly I searched out photographs to make sure Jeong had not, in the mold of Chinese painters, arranged topographical elements to invent a landscape or express an emotion. He did not. But neither did Jeong always faithfully represent what he saw, as suggested by “true view,” the term scholars later applied to his drawn-from-observation style. One general view, for example, offers a vista no vantage point affords (somewhat like some
depictions of Venice), while elsewhere massive rocks emerge from the ether. “First-hand response” might be more accurate, if less artful.
New roads and better maps made the Diamond Mountains increasingly accessible, fueling a proliferation of paintings and literature and inspiring many who never visited—witness the lively profusion of crystalline peaks in scenes by an unknown and probably untrained 19th-century artist. Most of the works in the gallery, however, in some way carry forward the principles of Jeong’s “true view.”
In “Sumitap Rock” (late 1700s-early 1800s), for example,
used European shading and perspective to render the texture of a renowned rock.
deployed similar techniques to inject “Myeonggyeongdae Rock” (1815) with personality. And Byeon Gwansik in his 1966 “Autumn Colors of Samseonam Rocks in Outer Geumgang” portrays three famous rocks, one of which bisects the composition. The effect is disconcerting, almost violent, separating a house and its inhabitants on the right from the mountainscape to the left, no doubt reflecting how South Koreans like Byeon regarded the border severing the peninsula since 1948.
Though not conceived in tandem, “Art of the Mountain: Through the Chinese Photographer’s Lens” at the China Institute Gallery offers a wonderful counterpart to the Met’s show. It focuses on the influence of mountains in Chinese art through a medium that could not be more “true-view.” The camera requires that artists observe their subjects, while choices in exposure, framing, or digital manipulation allow them also to convey emotion, tell stories, or comment on social issues.
With about 60 works by some 25 contemporary photographers, the show provides a rewarding variety and a wealth of information. In introducing China’s most revered mountains, color photographs at first feel entirely documentary—a soaring peak, a chain of mountains, an aerial view, a close-up of striated rocks. But other truths emerge as dawn reddens rocks, clouds fill a valley, mists veil a summit. In the third and last section, artists take this a step further as they play with and against classic landscapes. Thus Yang Yongliang re-creates the forms and textures of an 11th-century masterpiece using images of urban construction, miniaturized and collaged. And
offers a view of two rounded mountains complete with viewing pavilion and waterfall—but the mountains are piles of rubble, making us question the nature of the mist and the source of the gushing water. In the pavilion stands not a scholar imbibing nature but a photographer documenting decay.
Bridging these two sections is a gallery devoted to
depictions of the Yellow Mountains in Anhui province. His black-and-white images variously energize, uplift, stir and quiet the soul. In his statement, he explains that he holds on “to the documentary quality that [film] photography offers” to transmit “the spirit of xieyi, or ‘spontaneous expression,’ found in Chinese landscape painting.” Jeong might well have approved.
—Ms. Lawrence writes about Asian and Islamic art for the Journal.