Art Review: Review: When a Landscape (and Memory) Is All You Have


By the 19th century, representations of the Diamond Mountains had extended past elite artists and the literati to folk figures, and a market for images of the peaks had taken hold. One of the surprises of this show is a folk painting, lent from Seoul’s Leeum Samsung Museum of Art and nicknamed “Fireworks Kumgang,” that forgoes the precision of Jeong’s and Sin’s visions for bizarrely isolated views arrayed with no regard for spatial hierarchies. The gray, crenelated clumps look little like mountains, and more like elephants on fire.


“Mount Kumgang” by an unidentified artist. Credit Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Japanese occupation of Korea, from 1910 to 1945, made visits to the Diamond Mountains more difficult. In 1918, the former court painter Jo Seokjin traveled to Kumgang and painted a 10-panel screen, whose more saturated passages of ink reflect western and Chinese artistic influences. The screen’s most notable panel depicts the Nine-Dragon Falls, whose V-shaped valley gives onto a ripping white waterfall. He was not the only artist of the era enraptured by Nine-Dragon Falls.

In 1921, Elizabeth Keith, a Scotswoman who was one of the very rare westerners to visit Japanese-occupied Korea, made a woodblock print of the gorge, whose rich greens and blues sharply contrast with the Korean grisailles. She took the name a bit too literally, adding in the nonet of dragons at swim in the pool of the waterfall and slithering through the trees on either side.


Elizabeth Keith’s “Nine Dragon Pool, Diamond Mountains.” Credit Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, University of Oregon, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

With the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II, Mount Kumgang receded into the imagination for artists from the South. The painter Lee Ungno never saw the mountains, but his expansive panorama of Kumgang (perhaps painted after he moved to Paris in 1958) offers a modern take on an old tradition. Dark principal strokes overlay sensitive passages of mauve and light blue, and while Lee favored far blotchier brushwork than in classical Korean painting, the vista is one that Jeong Seon would quickly recognize.


Lee Ungno’s “View of Kumgang from Jeongyang Temple.” Credit National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

Between 1999 and 2008, South Koreans could visit the Diamond Mountains on special cruises approved by the North. (The program ended after North Korean soldiers shot a South Korean tourist dead, supposedly after she wandered off the trail.) This show closes with three contemporary paintings by South Korean artists who traveled to Kumgang in that brief window. The most distinguished of them is a nearly six-foot-tall painting from 2004 by Park Dae-sung, who portrays Nine-Dragon Falls as a blackout of thick ink, interrupted by a slash of white with the force of a Barnett Newman zip.


Park Dae-sung’s “Nine Dragon Falls on Diamond Mountains.” Credit Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, via Metropolitan Museum of Art

On Friday the two Koreas are set to march together into the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, under the flag of a united peninsula. Yet it remains to be seen whether a new generation of Korean artists will ever paint the Diamond Mountains from sight. Last weekend, a joint pre-Olympic cultural performance was due to take place at a long-abandoned resort in Mount Kumgang — but the North canceled it at the last minute, citing provocations in the South Korean media. Who visits these mountains, and who decides on the terms, remains a matter more fraught than art or sport.

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