Essay by Kim Seung-ik
An Jungsik is one of the representative painters of the early twentieth century, during the first stages of Korean modern art. In 1915, An painted two different versions of Spring Dawn at Mt. Baegak, one in summer and one in fall. Both the “Summer” and “Fall” versions depict the landscape of Gyeongbokgung Palace and Gwanghwamun Gate—the heart of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) for more than 500 years—with Mt. Baegak (present-day Mt. Bugak) in the background. Although produced separately in summer and fall, the two paintings have almost the same composition, and can thus be thought of as part of a single inclusive work. While both paintings are dominated by the majestic Mt. Baegak, Gyeongbokgung Palace and Gwanghwamun Gate occupy a considerable portion of the composition below the mountain. In a serene landscape, shrouded by clouds and mist, the buildings of Gyeongbokgung Palace yield a mysterious sensation.
Gyeongbokgung Palace: Heart of the Joseon Dynasty
Approaching the painting, one’s eyes are immediately drawn to Gwanghwamun Gate in the center. The buildings are meticulously represented in the correct proportion, with the proper number of stories, with numerous fine details, such as the individual stones in the wall. Both versions employ perspective, with the platform leading to Gwanghwamun Gate rendered with receding diagonals, and the broad expanse of “Yukjo Street” widening toward the bottom of the painting.
“Yukjo” (六朝), the main thoroughfare of the Joseon period, refers to the “Six Ministries” found on both sides of the street: Personnel, Taxation, Rites, Military Affairs, Law Enforcement, and Public Works. In the lower part of both paintings, sculptures of haetae (mythical unicorn-lion) can be seen, surrounded by trees.
In the early twentieth century, Gwanghwamun Gate and Yukjo Street were viewed as iconic symbols of the Joseon Dynasty, and thus commonly appeared in photos and illustrations by foreigners. But in fact, An’s rendering of Yukjo Street is quite different from photos taken at the time. In reality, government offices and private residences lined both sides of the street, which was constantly bustling with crowds of people. In the paintings, however, the street is completely empty, with no buildings or people in sight. This depiction heightens the feeling of loneliness conveyed by the misty palace. In the “Fall” version, the fog spreads more widely, completely hiding the haetae statue on the right. Also, inside the palace, only the roofs of the buildings can be seen, with fog and the thick canopies of trees concealing the interior spaces. Furthermore, the fog surrounding the palace gives the space an uncanny quality, like a paradise transcending the real world. Thus, in the paintings, the palace exists in an atmosphere of mystery and serenity, which is in direct opposition to the clamor and commotion of the actual Yukjo Street.
Notably, the towering presence of Mt. Baegak behind Gyeongbokgung Palace gives the paintings an unusual sense of space. In reality, Mt. Baegak is much farther away from the palace than the painting suggests. Also, the mountain is depicted from the viewpoint of looking down from higher ground in the distance, rather than straight on from ground level. Demonstrating his adept skills at painting landscapes, An Jungsik rendered the fog with the “seonyeom” method, which involves using ink and water to blur the edges and conceal the brushstrokes. As a result, the Joseon palace blends with the natural landscape, absorbing the grandeur of the mountain that surrounds it like a folding screen. When the founders of the Joseon Dynasty selected the site of Gyeongbokgung Palace, they recognized the protective presence of Mt. Baegak, which was seen as a symbol of the Black Tortoise-Serpent, the guardian deity of the north from traditional geomancy. Fully aware of this conception, An Jungsik purposely emphasized the geographical conditions of Gyeongbokgung Palace in his paintings, enlarging and highlighting the presence of Mt. Baegak as compared to how it was seen in photographs or with the naked eye. This composition was the artist’s way of accentuating the spatial significance of the palace.
Altering the Landscape
In 1915, however, when An Jungsik made these paintings, Gyeongbokgung Palace looked very different from An’s depiction. Recognizing Gyeongbokgung Palace as the symbolic and political center of the Joseon Dynasty, the Japanese Government-General of Korea initiated plans to systematically demolish the palace in 1910. The actual demolition started in 1912, in order to make space for the construction of the Western-style Government-General Building. Then in 1915, to commemorate its fifth year of colonial rule, the Japanese Government-General of Korea decided to hold the Joseon Product Exhibition (朝鮮物産共進會) on the grounds of the palace. As a result, the government destroyed almost all of the major structures inside Gyeongbokgung Palace, replacing them with eighteen Western-style temporary exhibition halls. Thus, Gyeongbokgung Palace, the heart of the Joseon Dynasty, was transformed into a promotional space for Japanese colonial rule, hosting an event that would draw about one million visitors from around the country. From that point forward, the government continued using the palace grounds to hold exhibitions justifying Japanese colonial rule. In reality, the lonely, empty street that An Jungsik painted was swarming with people both day and night, while the palace buildings shrouded with trees had mostly been replaced by Western-style buildings.
So why did An Jungsik choose to alter the actual landscape of Gyeongbokgung Palace?
In 1881, when he was twenty years old, An Jungsik, along with Jo Seokjin (趙錫晉, 1853–1920), was chosen to accompany diplomatic envoys to the Qing Dynasty as a draughtsman, and thus spent a year studying mechanical drafting in Tianjin, China. In 1902, An and Cho helped to produce portraits of Emperor Gojong and the Imperial Prince (the future Emperor Sunjong). Based on such activities, An was given a government post, serving first as the Magistrate of Tongjin County, and then as the Magistrate of Yangcheon County. In 1911, he established the Gyeongseong School of Calligraphy and Painting (京城書畵美術院), Korea’s first modern school of art. In addition to his painting, he was also a social activist through his involvement with the Korean Self-Strengthening Society (大韓自强會), an organization dedicated to education and social awareness. Indeed, An had close ties to the thirty-three activists who led the March First Movement of 1919, including O Sechang, Son Byeonghui, Gwon Dongjin, and Choe Rin. Given his past government service and his subsequent activism, An Jungsik would clearly have been reluctant to depict Gyeongbokgung Palace in its actual condition in 1915, when it had been reduced from the royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty to a recreational facility for the Japanese colonialists.
Painting the Past and Future
By using “Spring Dawn” in the title of these paintings, An was almost certainly referencing a poem of the same name, written by Meng Haoran of the Tang Dynasty. The poem begins “In spring, one sleeps, unaware of dawn” (“春眠不覺曉”), and also includes the meaningful line “Last night there came the sound of wind and rain” (“夜來風雨聲”). Based on such sentiments, it would seem that An painted the palace as he imagined it must have looked during the bygone glory days of the Joseon period, rather than in its current condition in 1915. The resultant images express An’s longing for the splendid reign of the Joseon Dynasty, as well as for the “spring” that would inevitably come for Korea in the future. By restoring the status and prestige of the palace in this painting, An conveyed his desire to escape from the harsh reality of a lost country.
An could not have known at the time that an even darker future lay ahead for Korea, with three more decades of colonial rule, followed almost immediately by the devastating Korean War (1950–53). In the paintings, the elements that seem to imply the fallen status of Korea (e.g., the desolate empty street, the haetae statue concealed by fog, the closed Gwanghwamun Gate, and the mysterious, silent space of the palace) are the very elements that attract the viewers’ gaze. At first glance, this painting seems to continue the tradition of Joseon landscape paintings or documentary paintings of palaces, but when placed in the context of its time, hidden meanings begin to emerge. Painted by An Jungsik, the leading Korean traditional painter of the early twentieth century, Spring Dawn at Mt. Baegak is a landmark work that goes beyond simply providing a historical depiction of the palace, instead faithfully revealing the artist’s understanding of reality and the ideals of a Korean modern artist during the Japanese colonial period.
Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.