On the evening of Jan. 23 at the Portland Art Museum, an audience sat enraptured as Dr. Kumja Paik Kim, the first curator of Korean art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, analyzed long-lost Korean pictorial records for evidence of Confucian philosophy.
Kim’s lecture, “Confucian Ideals in Korean Visual Culture,” spotlighted several paintings from a significant collection of Korean documents from the Joseon Dynasty. These documents have recently returned to their homeland after 145 years in France, where they were taken when the French invaded and looted Korea in the 1860s.
The return of the pieces symbolizes the return of an important piece of Korea’s history and culture, Kim said.
“Royal event historians have a keen interest in these documents.”
Kim herself found historical significance in the paintings accompanying these documents in her search for the extent of the impact of Confucian ideals on visual art. Kim further elaborates Confucian principles as traditionally placing emphasis on the good and important matters of life, among which include a strong sense of propriety, the value of learning and a disposition to do good.
“Confucianism is an Asian philosophy that runs through so many Asian countries, but each culture has adapted it a bit differently.” said Katherine Morrow, the program’s administrator for the Institute of Asian Studies and Confucius Institute at Portland State University, expanding on Kim’s speech.
“Asia is a vast region made up of many cultures; it’s not one homogenous culture. You can see how Confucianism adapted itself into Korean art compared to other regions of Asia.”
To illustrate, Kim projected several images of the Korean artwork under her study and guided the audience through her analysis. She explained how the Confucian ideal of filial piety, or respect for one’s parents and elders, was painted into a silk screen depicting a King Jeongjo’s elaborate royal procession in honor of his mother.
“This [artwork] celebrates Kim Jeongjo’s virtues, his respect for Confucius, [and] according to Confucian teachings, his commitment to be a strong commander-in-chief, and most of all, being a filial son, thereby observing the Confucian virtue of filial piety in honoring one’s parents as well as elders,” Kim said.
Kim further identified the value of moral wisdom in vivid illustrations depicting Korean mythology, the Confucian reverence of education, and other Confucian principles in a detailed painting of a bookish scholar’s study.
The event was part of PSU’s Ongoing Korean Program Series, sponsored by the Institute for Asian Studies, with assistance from the PSU Korean Studies Program Endowment.
The purpose of events such as this is to provide students with the opportunity to apply what they’re learning in class to projects in the community and to expose them to expertise outside the classroom, Morrow said.
“To have [Kim] come to our campus was a wonderful opportunity. I think it says a lot about Portland State’s collaborations, partnerships, and the strengths of our expertise, because we were able to bring a speaker of this caliber to our campus,” said Dr. Suwako Watanabe, interim director of the Institute for Asian Studies at PSU.
“Any insights about the art in a foreign country or foreign culture information from an expert has a tremendous value,” said Watanabe. “Learning about foreign countries enriches your life by broadening your ways to interpret things.”
For information regarding upcoming events, visit http://www.pdx.edu/asian-studies/quarterly-korean-event-series