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How Historical Figures Can Influence People’s Perceptions

2007 Korea-Spain Forum
Kim Hyeong-guk
Professor Emeritus, Seoul National University
In the 13th century, when Marco Polo returned home from his journey to China, he introduced the East to the people of the West. Though lesser known, there was also a person from Spain who made his way to the other side of the world to the Far East, including Korea. The first known encounter between Korea and Spain occurred when Catholic Priest Gregorio de Cespedes, from Madrid, followed Konishi Yukinaga, a Japanese general, to Korea during the Imjin War, or the Japanese Invasions of Korea, which broke out in 1952. Konishi, who was a Christian, led the first of nine Japanese invasion forces, which landed on the Korean Peninsula and went on to capture Hanyang (Seoul).

Meetings of People and Countries
This priest, who stepped onto soil of the Korean Peninsula in late 1593 to offer mass and confer sacraments, like baptism, at Konishi Yukinaga’s earnest request, undoubtedly had an interest in investigating the possibility of spreading Christianity to the Korean Peninsula. In light of the fact that when Cespedes accompanied the Japanese invaders onto the Korean Peninsula, this was within a 100-year period from the time that Columbus had arrived in America in 1492, it is likely that the priest had contemplated the propagation of Christianity in Korea. ‘Christopher,’ the Anglicized first name of Columbus, means a ‘bearer of Christ,’ while Father Cespedes must have known that the final destination, which Columbus had sought, was the Far East, where Japan is located.
However, his arrival was at a time of fierce fighting, and he could only make contact with Koreans who had been captured and were about to be dispatched to Japan. Nevertheless, he taught Christian doctrine to the most literate Koreans, who then taught the others. As a result, the number of Korean detainees in Japan who converted to Christianity amounted to some 7,000.
Even more impressive than his efforts to spread Christianity was the way that Cespedes expressed his love for humankind to the Korean captives in the chaos of war. Moreover, he dissuaded Portuguese merchants from engaging in the trade of captured Koreans, at a time when Kato Kiyomasa, a Buddhist leader and political rival of Konishi Yukinaga, was actively selling off Korean prisoners of war to the slave market. Inspired by this example, Francesco Carletti, an Italian priest who visited Japan in 1597, rescued five Korean boys from the slave trade in Nagasaki, and sent them to Goa, India. He then took one of them with him to Florence, where he was educated, given the name Antonio Corea, and eventually settled in Rome. This boy was thought to be the first Korean who landed on the soil of Europe.
Fortunately, the existence of this Korean was documented in a well-known artistic rendering, entitled Korean Man, by Peter Paul Rubens in 1617-1618. Dressed in traditional Korean attire and hat, he is clearly recognizable as having belonged to a respectable family. The drawing was said to be a sketch for background figures in Rubens’s oil painting The Miracles of St. Francis Xavier. St. Francis Xavier was one of the first missionaries of the Society of Jesus, which was known for its evangelical endeavors in the East, and to which Father Cespedes belonged as well.

Unfortunate Circumstances
The encounter between Korea and Spain, through Cespedes, was historic but unfortunate, since it occurred in the midst of a tumultuous war. This was somewhat similar to the initial meeting of Korea and the Netherlands, which took place in the mid 17th century, when Hamel and his crew of the Dutch East India Company came ashore at Jeju Island, after being shipwrecked. Sometime thereafter, positive sentiments between the peoples of Korea and the Netherlands flourished noticeably and bilateral exchanges in various fields expanded dramatically, due to the fact that Dutch coach Guus Hiddink led the Korean national soccer team to the semifinal round of the 2002 Korea-Japan FIFA World Cup. As for the relations between Korea and Spain in the modern times, these connections have also been favorable, due to the influences of Spain’s artist extraordinaire, Pablo Picasso.
During the time of Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula, Korea’s pioneering would-be artists, who sought to follow the current of modernization, went to Japan to study, from the early 20th century. Picasso was naturally on the top of the list of the world-renowned artists to which they aspired, while studying abroad. As for Picasso, who was respected and admired by intellectuals around the world for his artistic genius and formative art works, which reflected his social consciousness, the adulation of Koreans for the Spanish icon was exemplified by Kim Byeong-gi.
In his Guernica work, Picasso depicted the brutality of the Nazis who supported the Franco-led rightists, which served as a critical turning point in people’s attitudes. This was an example of how the powerful expressiveness of his art could impact the thinking of people. Around this time, Picasso encountered the arts of Korea when, in June 1939, he attended a performance by Choi Sung Hui, the ‘Korean Dancer,’ who debuted on the dance stage of France.
Upon completing his study in Japan, Kim Byeong-gi returned to his hometown, Pyeongyang, where he reveled in Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule. Believing that liberation would be for the benefit of everyone, whether leftist or rightist, he became actively involved in North Korea’s recovery efforts. He assumed the post of secretary general of the North Korean General Union of Literature and Art; however, he soon came to the South, in search of true freedom of expression, when he realized the reality of the communist regime in North Korea that criticized artists for their artistic pursuits instead of working for the regime.
Kim Byeong-gi once had a keen interest in socialism, like many other intellectuals during the Japanese colonial rule period. As a young man, he acquired a passion for literature, in general, and Russian literature, in particular. However, he started to question communism after reading Andre Gide’s ‘Retour de l’U.R.S.S.’ (Return from the Soviet Union) in 1937. This French author, who delivered the eulogy at the funeral of Maxim Gorky, wrote about his visits to the Soviet schools and factories arranged by the Soviet Union. Of note, the book provided the liberal camp with an important foundation for critical views of communist and socialist polity. After Kim Byeong-gi witnessed the brutality of the communists in North Korea, just after Korea’s liberation, he defected to the South to escape such inhumanity. Then, facing social catastrophe caused by North Korea’s invasion of the South, he became a staunch anticommunist.
While seeking refuge in Busan, the provisional capital of South Korea during the Korean War, he was taken aback after reading an article in a foreign magazine that described Picasso’s painting of Massacre in Korea, which depicted a slaughter of North Korean people by U.S. troops. Prior to his painting of Massacre in Korea, Korean intellectuals, including Kim Byeong-gi, did not pay much attention to Picasso’s communist sentiments, which they believed resulted from his observation of the ardent participation of communists in the resistance movement in France against the Nazis.
It was also believed that a true artist, in the end, would not be blinded by ideology. According to Kim’s personal experiences of the Korean War, Picasso’s Massacre in Korea misrepresented the actual reality. Above all, he was not aware of any incidents in which U.S. troops massacred North Korean civilians, as portrayed in the painting. Moreover, he could not accept the audacity of North Korea, which started the war, but laid the blame on the U.S. forces when its intended outcome could not be realized. Dismayed by the painting, Kim wrote a letter of protest to Picasso, but it could not be delivered because of the ongoing conflict. Instead, about 30 cultural figures, including poet Oh Sang-sun, gathered at a secluded cafe, in Nampo-dong, Busan, for the reading of a declaration entitled ‘Parting with Picasso,’ which noted that they could not tolerate Picasso’s act of supporting the communist North through this painting.
Although Picasso is described as one of the most talented artists of the 20th century in every art textbook published in Korea, there are no references to the Massacre in Korea painting. In line with Korea’s adoption of a strict anticommunism policy, the work was not mentioned by the news media or included in art books because it was deemed to serve the interests of communists. In fact, business proprietors who marketed products with a brand name, like ‘Picasso Watercolors,’ were subject to arrest for violating the Anticommunist Law.

Art that Overcomes Ideology
Though art might be inspired by ideology, the value of a masterful art work is based on its ability to express universal principles that transcend ideology. Since ideology will tend to distort reality for its own purpose, truly exceptional art will depict the triumph of human perseverance in overcoming life’s vicissitudes. Of course, people have differing views about whether Massacre in Korea should be regarded as one of Picasso’s monumental works.
Spain is steadily becoming closer to Korea thanks to the endeavors of artists, not politicians. Of note, it seems that the art community of Spain is willing to acknowledge that Picasso’s advocacy of North Korea’s communist regime had been misguided, while its public has become increasingly aware of Korea’s remarkable realization of industrialization and democratization. As for Korea, its people well recognize Spain as the home of a number of world-class masters of the artistic and musical realms.

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