▲ Chusa Kim Jeong Hui’s masterpiece Sehando (“A Winter Scene”, 1844, National Treasure #180). Photo courtesy Seogwipo City Hall
To step into the Jeju Chusa Exhibition Hall is to enter an actual masterpiece — in this case a painting by a prominent Joseon government minister, Silhak scholar, poet, painter and calligrapher, who lived from 1786-1856. The hall is modeled after a triangular roofed structure in Chusa Kim Jeong Hui’s 1844 painting Sehando (“A Winter Scene”), which was completed during his 8 years of exile on the island.
But this is just the beginning of an unusual artistic and architectural experience.
The 75 billion won ($6.7 million) building in Daejeong-eup, Anseong-ri was designed by renowned Korean architect Seung Hyo Sang and impresses right from the beginning with a very unusual staircase down to the front entrance. A narrow, steeply-inclined path crisscrosses down over the concrete steps.
Having never seen anything quite like that before, I asked for more information from our guide, Park Yong Beom of the Cultural Policy Division of the Jeju provincial government.
He indicated that the peripatetic nature of Chusa’s long walks, with such lonely and austere surroundings, was the basis for the design of the front of the hall. The unusual design of the steps forces visitors to “slow down” their usual sightseeing pace and actually reflect on the hard life Chusa had as an exile, Park said.
It was a subtle but effective beginning to the visitor experience.
▲ Photo courtesy Seogwipo City Hall
The hall is a two-story building with three exhibition halls, a lecture room and a conservation room. Only one third of the 180 works by Chusa, his ancestors and his disciples are on display. Three pine trees planted outside look like the Sehando painting, itself designated a National Treasure No. 180.
The logical layout and no-nonsense presentation of the works is refreshing, and encourages contemplation over sheer information overload. Unlike many seemingly random or yawn-inducing museum set ups I can think of, it balances Chusa’s significance, influence and calligraphic legacy, with the serenity and dignity the man and his art deserves.
Of the over 200 people in Korean history exiled to Jeju Island at one time or another, Chusa certainly stands out. He was a student of Silhak scholar Pak Che Ga (1750-1805) and served as rector of the National Confucian Academy in Seoul (Sunggyunggwan).
Chusa’s exile stemmed from false charges in a government power struggle after he was appointed vice minister of justice and deputy envoy to Qing China. He was sentenced to death in 1840 but a friend in the government was able to convince officials to exile the 55-year-old to Jeju Island instead.
He made the most of his time, painting, making tea, and developing his unique calligraphic style of Chusache, which according to one definition is characterized by “vibrant movement and harmony from asymmetrical composition” and a clear difference in the thickness between horizontal and vertical strokes, his own take on the clerical and semi-cursive scripts of the time.
▲ One of Chusa's most representative works. The calligraphy, which itself comes from a rubbing from a stone etching, conveys extra meaning in the pictorial brush strokes, " On the empty mountain, devoid of poeple, water flows and flowers bloom. " Photo courtesy Seogwipo City Hall
You can read more about the history of Chusa’s life in Robert Neff’s history article on page 18
Park said that since the hall opened in May, 31,000 people have visited but only a handful were non-Koreans. However, they hope that by the end of the year some 70,000 people will have appreciated the significance of Chusa’s influence.
The exhibition course begins with an introductory timeline of Chusa’s life and proceeds to the calligraphic works and letters of his esteemed grandfather and father — surely influences on his own life and work.
The paintings, calligraphy, wood carvings and letters are impressive in their artistry and the fact that so many were donated by, rather than purchased from, citizens, including Kim Jeong Hui’s family, the Buguk Cultural Foundation and the Chusa Society, among others.
The presentation then continues up to and including his years of exile from 1840, then to his post-Jeju life and work, and that of his students and friends, including the son of another Silhak scholar, Dasan Jeong Yak Yong (1762-1836).
After this, there is a walk up a flight of stairs of an empty amphitheatre to a large cast-iron bust of Chusa by artist Lim Ok Sang, who is solemnly looking across the room towards a porthole-like window, again as depicted in his painting “A Winter Scene.”
This whole space is empty, Park said, to emphasize the loneliness that Chusa felt during his exile. Overall, the effect was as intended, and I think expats on the island may well understand that feeling of displacement and occasional yearning to go home.
From there one can walk outside into a small peaceful garden to the actual location of Chusa’s home in exile, and from which he could have admired Mt. Songak looming in the distance.
The home, composed of four buildings which were reconstructed in 1984 from the original plans provided by the family of owner Gang Do Seon, shows how Chusa lived and worked, enjoyed tea and taught his students calligraphy from 1840-1848. Park pointed out that up until around 20 years ago, his grandparents lived in a very similar set-up — a traditional homestead of separate, small thatched roof structures. It was interesting to imagine a young Park spending time in just the same setting as Chusa.
Chusa’s home in exile was also near the east gate and 5.1-meter-tall main protective basalt stone wall of the town fortress of Daejeong, which was built in 1418.
There are also a number of other interesting historical sites for Daejeong-eup within walking distance of the Exhibition Hall, including three walking trails that follow the routes Chusa took in the area. Developed by Jeju National University’s storytelling research and development center, the three trails that are slated to open in December follow three routes: to the local Confucian school (hyanggyo), his route to the tea fields where he picked his own leaves and the third, which ends in Andeok Valley, where he would sit and meditate.
Though not all the works on exhibit have English explanations, those that can be found at the beginning and end of the exhibition are well-translated and informative. A translation of the explanatory signs for the rest of the exhibition is in the works.
The only obvious problems I noticed were the lack of signage, the lack of chairs in the contemplative amphitheater, and perhaps a booklet explaining what Park helpfully pointed out about the layout and details of the architectural plan, which are not obvious but undoubtedly would charm non-Korean visitors like myself.
The Jeju Chusa Exhibition Hall is open every day from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. Tel. 064-794-3089.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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