The “Flowers and Butterflies – In Perfect Harmony” exhibition, held at the Korea Foundation Cultural Center on August 9-26, featured some 120 works of art and items on this theme that were loaned by eight private museums in Korea.
In regard to Korea’s traditional culture and folk art, flowers and butterflies have been among the most popular subjects. Beautiful flowers with butterflies flitting about have long been associated with prosperity and a state of contentment, in addition to symbolizing the harmony between husband and wife and the family unit. Accordingly, flowers and butterflies are often depicted in paintings and everyday articles. Examples include folk paintings and everyday items like key charms decorated with colorful floral embroidery, butterfly-shaped locks, jewelry boxes with butterfly decorations, funeral biers decorated with floral engravings, and ornamental hairpins carved with floral and butterfly patterns.King of Flowers: Peony
As a result of its large and attractive flower, the peony has been known as the “king of flowers,” while also being a symbol of wealth, fame, and influence. The Chinese royalty revered the peony and sought to enhance its varieties. And, the peony was the national flower of China until 1929. Similarly, the peony has been admired by the Korean people as well, as evidenced by its appearance in folk paintings and folding screens. “Morando,” a folk painting of the late Joseon period that features the peony, attracted the considerable attention of exhibition visitors. Although somewhat less refined in comparison to the gracefulness of literati painting, its animated character and perfect portrayal of the sentiments of ordinary people are expressed through its intense colors.
The peony, however, was not the only flower subject of Korean artists, who expressed the dignity of the literati class through the depiction of Japanese apricots and orchids, along with adorning beoseon traditional Korean socks with the embroidery of brightly colored flowers. In addition, it was typical for the wooden funeral bier of a village to be carved with colorful flowers and human figures, so as to console the departed as they made their way to the other world.Longtime Cultural Symbol
The butterfly is another symbol of joy, pleasure, and a life of prosperity. Any artistic discussion of the butterfly would be complete without describing the contributions of Nam Gye-u. Nam was a literati painter of the 19th century, who was better known as “Nam Nabi” or “Nam Hojeop,” which mean “Butterfly Nam,” for his realistically detailed and vivid paintings of butterflies. Previously, the butterfly was more of a secondary subject of art works, while the flower was usually the featured item.
However, Nam Gye-u elevated the status of the butterfly to a primary theme of painting works. In order to depict the butterflies in accurate detail, he is said to have caught and preserved butterflies between the leaves of a book and then traced their forms onto paper, or placed them into a glass bottle for careful observation. Indeed, his paintings serve as an illustrated guide for the academic study of the butterfly. One of Nam’s six-panel screens on display included a panel that portrayed six butterflies flickering about in a leisurely manner. Although the work is entitled Hwajeopdo, or painting of flowers and butterflies, the main subject is the butterfly, with its wings, body, and legs depicted in precise detail.
The exhibition was comprised of eight sections that presented paintings of late Joseon, including the works of Nam Gye-u, and colorful folk paintings; locks, keys, and key charms with practical elegance; wooden furniture; women’s articles and embroidery; a variety of women’s accessories; wooden funerary biers that celebrate the cycle of life; and children’s clothing of the Miao tribe, a minority group in China with a colorful culture. The exhibition was supplemented by hands-on activities and special lectures held at the Seminar Room and the Cinema Room of the Korea Foundation Cultural Center, including “Making Flowers and Butterflies,” “Making Peony Fans,” and “Making Flower Pouch,” (hands-on activities), and “Folk Painting” by Gahoe Museum Director Yoon Yeol-soo, and “Philosophical Understanding of Flowers and Butterflies” by novelist Yoon Hu-myeong (special lectures).
The “Flowers and Butterflies – In Perfect Harmony” exhibition was made possible through the contributions of eight private museums in Korea: Kyungwoon Museum, Gahoe Museum, Mokin Museum, Sungkyunkwan University Museum, Lock Museum, Chojun Textile and Quilt Art Museum, Coreana Cosmetic Museum, and Samsung Museum of Art Leeum. The event organizers included Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and Arts Council Korea, together with support from the Korea Foundation Cultural Center, Coreana Cosmetics Museum, Samsung Museum of Art Leeum, Lottery Commission of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, and Hyosung. The exhibition was held as a cultural activity for the underprivileged with support from the Lottery Commission of the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, and a project of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in conjunction with its “Blooming with Culture” program.