Review: When a Landscape (and Memory) Is All You Have

Review: When a Landscape (and Memory) Is All You Have

This Friday the world turns its eyes to the mountains of South Korea, where the Winter Olympics are getting underway in the town of Pyeongchang: small, bustling and by all accounts, bitterly cold.The skiing events take place in the Taebaek Mountains, and for centuries before Alpine sports came to this country, pilgrims, artists and tourists trekked to these thickly forested peaks that span the eastern crest of the Korean Peninsula. No mountain in the Taebaek range is more august than Mount Kumgang, also called the “Diamond Mountains”: a stunning expanse of jagged granite peaks and coursing waterfalls, praised by poets and painters, Koreans and foreigners, Buddhists and neo-Confucianists, for more than a millennium.“I wish that I had been born in Korea,” the 11th-century Chinese poet Su Shi is said to have wept, “so that I could see the Diamond Mountains in person!”This month’s visitors to Pyeongchang will not be able to see them either. Mount Kumgang, just 90 miles as the crow flies from the Olympic Stadium, lies in North Korea — and, except during the years of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, it has been impossible to travel there from the South (or, indeed, from almost anywhere). The mountains, central to the cultural history of both countries, have become a misty mirage in the South Korean imagination.

“Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art,” a melancholy beauty of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reveals the indelible influence of this mountain range on Korean painting from the 18th century to today. Even before the division of the peninsula, Mount Kumgang inspired not just awe but also longing, wistfulness, regret. For artists of the late Joseon dynasty, for those living under Japanese occupation, and now for contemporary South Korean painters, the mountains have always constituted a thick tangle of natural beauty, historical legend and political symbolism.You will find no photographs of the mountains in this show, nor in the insightful catalog. The museum relied on the South Korean government to assist with loans, so contemporary depictions of the North would have been touchy. But even now, when anyone can fly over Kumgang’s peaks with Google Earth, these paintings offer a more complete view of the Korean landscape — where individual histories and national memories inform and reflect each other.“Diamond Mountains” is organized by the Met curator Soyoung Lee, who also mounted the museum’s 2013 exhibition of art from the earlier Silla dynasty. She has obtained some flabbergasting loans of works from the National Museum of Korea and other institutions, most of which have never been shown in this country — as well as a suite of paintings that have never been publicly exhibited anywhere. Among the choicest loans is a collection of works on silk by Jeong Seon, an 18th-century artist who revolutionized Korean painting by depicting real local landscapes, rather than Chinese vistas or idealized visions.If Korean painting has a golden age, it’s the 18th and early 19th century; and if the golden age has a pre-eminent painter, it’s Jeong. His paintings of the Diamond Mountains from 1711 are his earliest surviving works, and the suite alternates between painstaking depictions of specific mountain features and sweeping general views. In the album’s first painting, he captures the dramatic sight of the dense, sparkling granite, whose peaks are as sharp as canine teeth, afloat in the negative space of the bronze silk ground.

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