Essay by Lee Heagyeong
Album of Genre Paintings by Kim Hongdo contains twenty-five paintings of everyday life during the Joseon era: Tiling a Roof, Tavern, Lunch, Plowing, Blacksmith’s Workshop, Threshing Rice, Shoeing a Horse, Cutting Tobacco, Weaving a Straw Mat, Weaving and Spinning, Dancing Boy, Wrestling, Fortunetelling, Yunnori (Traditional Board Game), Village School, Admiring a Painting, Shooting Arrows, Bridegroom’s Trip to the Bride, Peddling, Ferryboats, At the Well, Fishing, Street Encounter, Merchants Going Home, and Washing Place. Painted by Kim Hongdo, the most renowned and beloved artist of his time, these iconic paintings are now among the most familiar images produced during the Joseon period.
Kim’s paintings typically deal with various aspects of daily life, showing ordinary people at work or at play, or capturing the subtle sentiments resonating between men and women. Indeed, Kim freely portrayed people of all classes and ages, whether they were engaging in various types of labor (such as agriculture, commerce, and fishing), relaxing after their work, or playing games and sports. He painted both ordinary peasants enjoying their favorite pastimes and noble literati scholars partaking in their own distinguished hobbies. Vividly depicting such diverse people and motifs, Kim’s works are a veritable time capsule allowing us to travel back and experience life during the Joseon period. Moreover, the compilation of so many compelling works on daily life in a single album was quite rare, even in the late Joseon period, when genre paintings were popular.
Sketch-like paintings: minimal details and coloration
The works contained in Album of Genre Paintings by Kim Hongdo, depicted on paper pages that are approximately 30 cm per side, are very simple and concise. At first glance, without knowing Kim Hongdo’s status as a master artist, the works might appear somewhat rough and inelegant; the brushstrokes are not particularly elaborate, and the colors are not resplendent. Befitting their themes of ordinary life, the paintings are executed in a casual and comfortable manner, rather than a high and formal style. The details of the background are completely omitted, so that the viewer’s attention is focused completely on the primary motif.
For example, farmers are shown eating their lunch in a wide blank area, with no evidence of crops or a field, and a ring of onlookers watches two wrestlers grapple, with not so much as a single tree in the surrounding space. Using colors very sparingly, Kim employed light black ink as his base, occasionally adding some highly diluted tones of blue and brown. No other colors can be found in his works.
Even in Bridegroom’s Trip to the Bride, no vibrant or festive colors were used to enliven the bridegroom’s joyous visit to his future bride. The lack of detail and coloration serves to accentuate the given motif, which is why Kim Hongdo felt that scenes from the daily lives of ordinary people were best captured with minimal details or coloration.
Circles and other distinct compositions
To depict such diverse scenes, Kim Hongdo used a variety of different compositions to creatively organize the space in his works. In particular, a number of the works from Album of Genre Paintings by Kim Hongdo are characterized by circular composition, including A Dancing Boy (below), Wrestling, Village School, and Admiring a Painting. Although many Joseon paintings feature images of people sitting in a circle, it is quite rare to find an entire painting that is organized with a circular composition. Along with the three aforementioned paintings, all of which plainly depict a gathering of people sitting in a circle, Wrestling (shown earlier) has a more complex and dynamic circular arrangement, with numerous people (the most figures of any work in the album) facing in different directions.
Since his works often have no other details, Kim tended to rely on unorthodox compositions and arrangements of people to enhance the vitality of his scenes. For example, in addition to circular compositions, he sometimes placed people along diagonals, in an “X” shape, or in a trapezoid. These distinct compositions can serve to draw the viewers’ eye to either the center or the edge of the painting, depending on the motif. Thus, the arrangements enliven the scenes with a subtle energy.
Humor: people from different walks of life
Each and every one of these twenty-five paintings is sure to bring a smile to your face. Take a look at any of the paintings, and you will immediately be struck by the animated facial expressions, which instantly convey the mood and personality of the figures at that moment. In Rice Threshing, a group of workers are diligently engaged in various tasks: threshing rice plants, tying them into sheaves, and transporting them. In the upper right, however, another man wearing a gat (Korean traditional hat) is idly lounging, watching the men at work.
Perhaps reflecting the natural joy of harvest time or communal work, all of the men seem to be rather jovial, with the distinct exception of the man with his shirt open and arms raised with a bundle of rice stalks. That man seems to be fed up with the work and ready to quit, an attitude that is further conveyed by his slovenly clothes. On the other hand, the man without a shirt and another man binding rice plants have a look of benevolence, while the middle-aged man sweeping in the corner seems to be quite fastidious.
In At the Well, three women and a man meet around a well, a very common sight during the Joseon period. But in this case, it would be more accurate to say that one woman and one man are meeting, while the other two women fade into the background. Taking some water from a young beauty (on his right), the man brazenly bares his hairy chest, causing the object of his interest to look down in embarrassment. Observing the scene from behind, an older woman frowns with disapproval, while the other woman smirks with recognition and looks away. Hence, the humorous episode epitomizes Kim Hongdo’s uncanny ability to transform ordinary events from daily life into vivid stories.
A Dancing Boy : Masterful Composition
A Dancing Boy captures a moment of genuine energy and excitement, as a boy dances exuberantly to the rhythms of a sextet of musicians consisting of two pipes, a transverse bamboo flute, a haegeum (traditional stringed instrument), an hourglass-shaped waisted drum, and a large barrel drum. All of the players are either immersed in their own playing or eyeing the other people in the scene, as they collaborate on a passionate performance. Notably, the dancing boy is rendered with the most vibrant brushstrokes found anywhere in the album, conveying the dynamic spirit and movement of his dance. The bold strokes of dark ink and the distinct green color of the clothes make the boy stand out from the musicians, who are depicted in a more relaxed manner. Despite this contrast, the boy and the musicians are also harmoniously united in the performance, thanks to the innovative composition of the work. The musicians are arranged in a stable semi-circle, allowing them to connect with the boy through sound, movement, and eye contact. The circular composition thus proves to be an effective method for maintaining balance within the spirited scene of music and dance. At first glance, A Dancing Boy seems to be a rather simple and nonchalant work, but a closer examination of the composition reveals how Kim Hongdo meticulously utilized gestures, directions, and facial expressions to create a masterpiece.