Illustration has a long history as a communicative expression that predates written language. In the Dark Ages, the illiterate masses of Western Europe read their stories of the Bible painted as frescos on Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals. And yet today we take visual communication for granted. Everything has words, movies, TV, texting, messaging with emoticons; they all leave nothing to the imagination sometimes. Visual communication is becoming a lost art in our culture in so many ways. Let’s all go back to the Dark Ages where the image was the story.
▲ Courtesy Jeju National Museum
Well, thankfully we can be part of a visually communicative world without actually dealing with plagues or Vikings. Right now, the Jeju National Museum is paying tribute to the wonderfully expressive and colorful field of children’s illustration with the exhibit “Fairy Tales and illustrations: Into the Dreamland” in the Special Exhibition Gallery just outside the main museum. The exhibit is based on the 2010 CJ Picture Book Awards in South Korea that was sponsored by CJ Cultural Association and Chuncheon National Museum. The 148 pieces of art from 51 various winning illustrators’ represent 25 different countries from Asia, the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and Australia. Jeju is fortunate enough to be the third leg of the exhibition’s journey throughout South Korea.
A variety of talent is on exhibit. It ranges from a very classically illustrative point of view where every inch of the paper is filled with exquisite detail to works of art that are expressed with bold and wild brushstrokes as in “Kafka” by Ekaterina Gaurilova. Touches of the modern artist Joan Miro can be seen in the book “Leaf Fall” by Emma Vakarelova. The show contains illustrations comprising of elaborate cities, some made entirely of tasty snacks including its inhabitants. In some stories, wild animals befriend people and other stories vice versa. The show has something for everyone depending on what you feel like at that time.
“Into the Dreamland” lives up to its name. The illustrations take us into strange and yet familiar worlds like in the piece “Moonbeams” by Kenneth Kraegel. In the three paintings, a boy joins a girl stuck in a tree. They watch from the treetop as the sun disappears over the horizon, radiating highways of sunbeams into the sky. It reminds me of the book, “Baron of the Trees,” by Italio Calvino, where a boy decides to live in the trees for the rest of his life and pledges never to touch the ground again. In order to make his way around, he devised a system of roads within the trees. In my mind, Kenneth Kraegel’s paintings are an extension of that story. What happens when the path can no longer be continued by the trees? The children continue their journey by walking along the beams of the moon and the sun.
▲ "Moonbeams" by Kenneth Kraegel. Photo courtesy Jeju National Museum
▲ "House" by Nikoletta Bati (Hungary). Photo courtesy Jeju National Museum
▲ Curator Oh Youn Sook. Photo by Stephen Krohn
Bringing such an event to an audience did present some challenges to the curator of the exhibit, Oh Youn Sook. The displays are strictly art without the story’s text. She could only provide so much explanation without retelling the entire story. Also, the works in her opinion are quite philosophical and profound because of their vague and mysterious nature. And there are only 2 or 3 images representing an entire book which makes the story even more of an enigma. (Who is that guy and why does he have his head in a gigantic red leopard’s mouth?) To resolve some of these issues, “Into the Dreamland” is divided up thematically: Dream and Fantasy, Adventure and Travel, Finding Love, and Daily Life and Play, which does help art goers organize the thoughts of the artists. But Oh Youn Sook is relying mainly on the imagination of the audience.
I fell in love with the empty spaces of the illustrations as in “Las Sandias” by Nicolai Troshinsky, the places where you would normally find text. These spaces of nothing were so beautifully handcrafted and thoughtful. They seem to be custom-made and reserved only for my imagination. It was here where I could add my text; I can continue the story and see where the hero travels off to next. Sometimes we see white as blank or nothing, but it is here in Far East Asia where the white was regularly exploited and used as an element to tell the story. These magical spaces are places to see the story that lies beyond the paper and ink and the images depicted. They lie as a doorway to for our imagination.
Along with the gorgeous art, the gallery contains hands-on activities for kids. They can make memories by using stamps with color pencils or there is a light table set up to trace templates of the art onto a piece of film with permanent markers. There is also a relaxing reading nook where you can sprawl out on the floor, pick up a book and just read, all depending on your knowledge of that language. (Remember, there are 25 countries represented and only a handful speaks English or Korean.) But then, art is universal and works in all languages.
▲ A hands-on part of the exhibit includes light boards. Photo by Stephen Krohn
The only thing about the exhibit that wasn’t child-friendly was the placement of the art. A few works are comfortably at the eye level of a smaller audience, but the majority of the works were hung for your 5-foot and over crowd.
I love the intimacy of exhibits such as these. You can easily spend a whole day at any museum and look at hundreds of pieces until your mind goes to mush and you forgot everything you saw. But at “Into the Dreamland,” the illustrations are no bigger than an A2 piece of paper and there are no more than 100 pieces showing at a time. It is so easy to get lost in your own imagination for an afternoon just looking at a handful of pieces.
Another wonderful thing about this whole experience is that it doesn’t end in one day. The gallery space couldn’t show all 148 illustrations at one time, so in three to four weeks new pieces will be on display. And do not forget, the exhibit is free to all, Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“Fairy Tales and Illustrations: Into the Dreamland” ends April 1 for Jeju. Afterwards it will travel to its fourth and final destination: Gongju Museum in the South Chungcheong Province. I am looking forward to seeing the exhibit again when the other works are on display.
The design of the exhibit is for children, those who have children, or for those with the imagination of a child. With a break between school semesters and the end of Saturday classes, Jeju National Museum is hoping to lure students and their families to the gallery with this exhibit. But you don’t have to be a child to enjoy these pieces. It’s a must see for everyone. Then see it again.
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