- Kim Jeong-hui’s masterpiece in exile
Meaning “a painting in the bitter cold of the winter,” Chusa Kim Jeong-hui (1786–1856)’s painting "Sehando" has many empty spaces. On a large canvas, he dryly inked a thatched house surrounded by four pine trees. Why is this piece of art considered to be such a historical feat? Perhaps because it is not meant to be a realistic depiction of nature, but a piece that embodies the painter’s character, knowledge, and struggles in life.
Some speculate that Chusa painted it in gratitude to Lee Sangjeok (1804–65), an interpreter who diligently sent Qing publications to Jeju Island where Kim was in exile. Others discuss how a Japanese scholar Fujitsuka Chikashi had taken it to Japan, only to have it miraculously brought back to Korea by calligrapher Son Jae-hyeong amidst the air raids of the World War II. However, when and how he came to paint the piece was only recently uncovered.
|▲ Park Cheol-sang, old literature scholar|
Park Cheol-sang, a bank teller who has researched Chusa literature for over 20 years, is credited with the discovery. In his 2010 publication "Sehando," he collected and analyzed rare antique documents to conclude that the painting was inspired by "Yansongtu," a 12 century winter pine poem by Su Dongpo. During his 20s, Chusa visited Beijing as part of the Qing envoy crew and met the prominent local scholar Weng Fanggang (who became Chusa’s master). According to Park, it was at Weng’s grand library where Chusa encountered a poem on "Yansongtu" and was inspired to create the painting.
The hint came in 2009 from reading Chusa’s compilation "Bokchojaejeokgu," where he selected poems and critiques by Weng and added his own commentary. It was this book that included Chusa’s experience of viewing Weng’s grand library and being touched by Weng’s words on "Yansongtu:" “The old pine tree is hanging its branches askew, leaning over a house.” The words fit the composition of "Sehando," wherein a large old pine leans on a younger, straight tree to surround a house. Chusa was a big fan of Su throughout his life. The mystery of "Sehando" seems to unravel from this point.
Park conjectures that Chusa must have kept this poem in his heart since his visit to Beijing and waited his whole life to express it as a painting. After returning to Korea, he collected books on painting from Qing to dwell into the subject deeply. Park also discovered that Chusa adored the collection of Qing dynasty artists’ biographies called "Guochaohuazhenglu." A collection that was compiled by a Qing landscape artist Zhang Geng.
On Chusa’s copy, you can see the blatant trace of his passionate studies, such as his own titles, red circles, and footnotes on important artists. He idealized Zhang’s style as one that he must aspire to, and constantly quoted Zhang’s biography in his own anthology. "Zhangpushantie," Zhang Geng’s sketchbook, was another Chusa favorite. He always carried the art by his side and when he became sick in old age he requested in a dying wish that the book not be shown to anyone else.
Interestingly, he learned the ink technique used in the painting from his disciple Heo So-chi. Park found a letter from Chusa to Cho-ui Seonsa in which he confessed learning the technique from his artist disciple.
It was known that interpreter Lee Sang-jeok received "Sehando" and took it to China to collect critiques from 16 famous literati such as Zhang Yaosun and attached it next to the painting.
However, Park discovered that only 13 critiques were received at the time with four of them having been sent in a letter later on. Park remarked, “In the end, "Sehando" was motivated by his visit to China in his 20s, the memory of Weng Fanggang’s grand library, and the exchange with the scholars. The origin and the transmission of "Sehando" is a shining achievement of cultural exchange between Korean and Chinese artists in the 19th century.”
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