The curatorial division of the National Museum of Korea began discussions in the spring of 2014 of a special exhibition to shed new light on the essence of Korean Art. Research focused on the development of urban culture in 18th century Korea (also referred to as the renaissance of the Joseon Dynasty), allowed the museum to naturally narrow its focus on the relationship between city and art. The result, which has been manifested as The City In Art, Art In The City exhibition, will uncover through the intricate details of art works a visualization of Hanyang (former name of Seoul) as a prosperous city it once was.
Divided into 4 sections (Beyond the City Walls; People, Captivated by the City; Art, Portraying the Sensibilities of the City; The City, Facing Modernity), the exhibition is laid out in a rather comprehensible manner. Starting with works examining changes in the scenery of Hanyang, paintings entail within them hundreds of stories. Paint strokes the width of a human hair portray the detailed expressions and actions of blacksmiths clacking on metal, housewives sewing Hanboks and government officials roaming the city streets in nobility. These pieces are so full of life it feels like looking at a live feed of a bustling city. A few Chinese and Japanese paintings are available to compare the difference in not only painting techniques but also that of culture between the 3 East Asian nations.
The show continues on to study the lives of the residents. Commoners watching a wrestling game (Korean Wrestling by Kim Hongdo) and noblemen being served drinks at a bar (Raising a Glass at the Tavern by Shin Yunbok) were some of the scenes shown. It is important to note the importance of an emerging cadre (known as the jungin) in this section. This middle class society that sought after the values and lifestyle of the nobility began to accumulate leadership of the Joseon art world and thus a new wave of Joseon art.
In the third section, you'll see some interesting contrasts in the artistic interpretations. Jo Huiryong, an artist known for his love of cherry blossoms, for example, paints two trees in brilliant blossom intertwining each other. An Jungsik paints Gyeongbukgung without any person, referencing the destruction of the palace by the Japanese and the artist’s faint memory of what it once was. These paintings and objects of desire represent the changes in content of art as the economy developed.
The exhibition closes with a section on art created during westernization and colonization of Korea. The use of different materials and media like oil on canvass or photography show once again the adaptation of artist in changing times. Although history took a turn with colonization and a civil war, it is clear from this collection of historical artifacts that Hanyang was once a city that nurtured a profound artistic culture.