AS YOU walk into the exhibition, you are overtaken by a hanging portrait of Chu-sa Kim Jeong-Hui. Referred to as the father of documental archaeology and chu-sa-chae**, Chu-sa lived during the late Joseon dynasty from 1786 to 1856. The biographical exhibition is divided into three themes: Hak ye il chi, Hae dong tong you, and You hee sam mae, each theme defining a period of his life. In celebration of his contributions to Korea, the Seoul Arts Center invites you to explore Chu-sa’s life and his best works.
Hak ye il chi: Chu-sa’s literary and artistic works become one
The first pieces in the exhibit are letters exchanged by Chu-sa and his lifelong mentors Weng Fang-gang and Ruan Yuan. Chu-sa met these scholars when he followed his father to China upon his father’sappointment as a diplomat. Alongside Weng Fang-gang and Ruan Yuan, Chu-sa primarily researched on documental archaeology; together, the three focused on deciphering inscriptions upon steles. Chu-sa’s early focus on monuments and documental history are shown throughout the exhibition in the form of rubbings of stone inscriptions***. Among the rubbings displayed in the exhibit, Chu-sa was highly praised for identifying the stele that honored King Jin-heung’s**** visit to Mt. Bukhan. In addition to the original engravings on the monument, the rubbings reveal that Chu-sa engraved his own understanding of the stele into the right side of the monument.
The letters in the exhibit illustrate the relationship between the three scholars. The most noteworthy among them is dam gye juk dok between Weng and Kim. In this lengthy letter, Weng writes to Chu-sa with the highest level of respect despite Weng being 50 years senior to Kim. Weng asks Chu-sa for his opinion on Weng’s interpretation of steles, and provides an update on Weng’s family, depicting the intimacy between the two scholars.
Weng and Ruan’s influence went beyond deciphering stone inscriptions, as Chu-sa’s initial calligraphy style was heavily influenced by the two scholars as well. At the time, Weng was renowned for his calligraphy; as his apprentice, Chu-sa naturally adopted Weng’s writing style. Chu-sa’s earliest writings show evidence of rigid and sleek strokes, signatures of Weng’s calligraphy, but with some variations. Chu-sa’s early calligraphy is best portrayed in dan yeon juk ro si ok where the character ro, meaning furnace, is deliberately written out to look like an actual furnace. Chu-sa’s style of writing characters to visually portray their literal meanings stems from his expertise in archaeological calligraphy, an illustrative writing style that is closer to drawings than actual characters.
Chu-sa’s artistic and scholarly worlds became one when he incorporated his expertise in documental archaeology into his passion for calligraphy. Chu-sa’s calligraphy in its earliest days are displayed in the first section of the exhibit, along with the hanging portraits of his two lifelong mentors.
Hae dong tong you: Chu-sa’s world encompassing the Three Teachings
The exhibit’s second segment is defined by two characteristics: the development of chu sa chae and the integration of the Three Teachings. Il lo hyang gak is a key piece of the second segment that embodies these characteristics. Known as Chu-sa’s earliest forms of chu-sa-chae, this artwork is defined by Chu-sa’s unconventional character dimensions. Instead of writing all the characters in uniform size, Chu-sa wrote all the characters in different sizes based on what he wanted to signify.
Chu-sa’s use of unconventional character dimensions—thus chu-sa-chae—began during his exile inJeju Island in 1840. When Chu-sa came back to Korea, Chu-sa flourished among the literati and made a name for himself. However, he was exiled to Jeju Island shortly after being falsely accused with involvement in political crimes. Chu-sa had a hard time adjusting from a privileged life of a respected scholar to a miserable life in exile. Yet, he was able to get through the years when he embraced Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism—known altogether as the Three Teachings—during the exile. The Three Teachings allowed him to distance himself from the worldly values of fame and authority and become more carefree—which is what characterizes his Chu-sa-chae. Chu-sa’s “carefree” attitude is depicted through Chu-sa’s unconventional character dimensions, highlighting his break from societal norms.
Chu-sa’s multifaith perspective is also shown in pieces such as mun ja bin ya, a work of calligraphy that depicts Chu-sa’s Buddhist beliefs. The letters bin-ya in the title is the Korean translation for prajna, the Buddhist concept of wisdom.
Yu hee sam mae: Chu-sa’s perfection of his artistic world
During the final chapter of his life, Chu-sa immortalized his calligraphy into the form that is commonly known to us today. Chu-sa-chae is defined by two characteristics: unconventional character dimensions and various strokes. Joseon’s calligraphy was characterized by a very structured and uniform style of writing. However, Chu-sa believed that as a calligrapher, one should write in a way where the viewer is able to feel the emotions of the calligrapher. In order to do so, Chu-sa used different strokes to heighten his sense of expression and unorthodox character dimensions to give emphasis. The intensity and boldness of Chu-sa-chae won over many hearts, and Chu-sa was appraised as the most celebrated of Korean calligraphy. Whereas Chu-sa’s unique use of space was depicted in the second part of the exhibition, the last segment displays his best works that are marked by different types of strokes.
The characters of yu hee sam mae, one of Chu-sa’s best works, literally translate into “the perfection of arts.” Yu hee sam mae is the consummation of Chu-sa’s style of calligraphy. The four characters are all written in different widths and lengths, prompting the viewers’ eyes to dart left and right following the characters’ strokes. Character yu seems more like a drawing of a person dancing, which perfectly represents the meaning of the character—to play. Hee is marked by bold strokes touched off with a feathery dot on top. Lastly, the three impeccably horizontal lines of sam is followed by a slightly slanted mae. The differences between each character is unmistakable; yet the synergy and the beauty of these characters together are what constitute Chu-sa’s perfected style—a style that flows through his most distinguished works.
Korea’s admiration for Chu-sa continues until today. The last section of the exhibition displays sculptures and paintings done by contemporary artists such as Kim Chong-yung and Yun Hyeong-geun who have reinterpreted Chu-sa’s works.
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Towards the exit of the exhibition are two works of calligraphy—Chu-sa’s very first and very last pieces. His first work simply consists of scribbles he had written when he was 6 years old, while his very last work is a writing that he wrote for Bong-eun Temple three days before his death. These two paintings are placed at the very end of the exhibit as a striking representation of Chu-sa’s ceaseless passion for his art—the passion that revolutionized Korean calligraphy.
*Chu-sa Kim Jeong-hui: Chu-sa is Kim Jeong-hui’s penname
**Chu-sa-chae: A calligraphy style that was created by Chu-sa; very significant as Chu-sa-chae was the first calligraphy style that was made after an individual’s calligraphy.
***Rubbings of stone inscriptions: documentation of the stone’s surface to record textures inscribed drawings, and messages
****King Jin-heung: 24th king of Silla reigning from 540 to 576