Portrait of Byeonggye [Yun Bonggu] in His Seventieth Year Your head is round and feet square, and absorbs the vital energy [qi] from the heaven and earth. Your life is righteous, given by heaven and earth. You are cautious and careful. But do not fear sometimes being defamed or degraded. You never forget the lessons of clarity and sincerity. Have not you already followed and respected the teachings of Seonsa [Gwon Sangha (1641-1721)]? Do not ever say that your life has waned. Each day is just a new day, so remain diligent everyday. Younger brother Seokmunja inscribes Gu’ong [Yun Bonggu]’s own words of caution. Painted by Byeon Sangbyeok Although historical records document that the artist Byeon Sangbyeok was an exceptionally skilled portrait painter, few of his portraits have survived. Byeon is instead known for his paintings of chickens and cats, as implied by his nicknames “catty Byeon” and “chick Byeon.” Nevertheless, Byeon’s skillful and realistic depiction of animals is closely related to his portrait style. As a court painter, Byeon spent much of his career involved in royal portrait projects, particularly in the planning and execution of the portraits for King Youngjo and King Jeongjo in 1763 and 1773, respectively. According to records in the Jinhui sokgo, more than one hundred portraits by Byeon were in circulation at that time. In the LACMA portrait, Byeon beautifully captured the characteristics of the scholar-official Yun Bonggu. Seated comfortably on a mat, Yun wears a pale blue scholar’s robe and an informal black hat. Although his clothing is simply depicted in the contrast of jade and black, his face and beard are carefully painted in great detail (det. 1) to show Yun Bonggu’s clarity of mind and sincerity, both of which are mentioned in the inscription. After passing the Metropolitan examination, Yun Bonggu held several major official posts, including Magistrate of Cheongdo in 1725 and Minister of Works in 1763. Yun Bonggu was strongly influenced by the Ho school of philosophy and its belief that there was an essential difference between the human spirit and material nature. Yun’s mentor, Gwon Sangha (1641-1721), whose pen name as Seonsa, was the founder of this school and was at the center of the eighteenth-century debate between the Ho school and its counterpart, the Lak school. Although the inscription was written by Yun Bonggu himself, it was Yun’s younger brother, Yun Bong’o (also known as Seokmunja), who did the calligraphy on this portrait (det. 2,3). The inscription is particularly interesting because Yun Bonggu offers an intimate dialogue and expression of his personal sentiments and scholarly teachings. And, unlike other scholars who expressed regret on seeing their aging selves in their portraits, Yun seems transcendent, advising himself to focus on working hard every day. In this optimistic inscription, Yun is quite progressive in his thinking as he emboldens himself not to fear failure. The inscription and the portrait demonstrate perfectly how much of Yun Bonggu’s self identity was represented in the painting, as was often the case in scholar portraits during the eighteenth century. His decision to show himself as a scholar, rather than as an official in formal attire, exemplifies both his desire to be identified as a scholar and his adherence to the beliefs of the Ho school. Two other portraits of Yun Bonggu also depict him wearing a scholar’s robe. Foreign Artwork Record A very similar version of Yun’s portrait has been preserved in a private study hall, Hwanggang Yeongdang in Jecheon, Korea, which also houses portraits of other Ho school scholars (fig. 1). The dimensions of the two paintings are almost the same, as is their overall format and style. Although Yun’s portrait in the private collection does bear the title Portrait of Byonggye Master Yun [Yun Bonggu], it does not include an inscription or an artist’s signature. According to Yun’s own records, Byeon created several versions of this seventieth-year portrait, which confirms there were more than two versions of the painting by Byeon Sangbyeok. LACMA’s portrait is particularly important because its inscription not only corresponds with the written record but also identifies the painter of the portrait in the private collection. Yun Bonggu first met the artist Byeon Sangbyeok for the occasion of this seventieth-year portrait, although Yun confessed that he had previously heard about the artist many times. After he saw the final version, Yun praised the painter not only for painting his image so realistically but also for capturing his spirit. When the portrait was displayed, Yun noted that he was amused by the fact that neighbors were awed by the realistic depiction. However, Yun Bonggu also appreciated that the artist had fulfilled one of the primary functions of formal portraits in Korea: the portrait would transmit Yun Bonggu’s ideas to future generations. Footnotes  It was believed in ancient Chinese philosophy that heaven was round and earth was square. According to the physiognomy theory of Yi Hwang (1501-1570), the expression “a head is round and feet square” means that the body resembles the heaven and earth and, therefore, the universe.  屏溪居士七十歲真 甭[爾]頭圓足方 受天地之正氣 爾之生也直 亦天地之所畀 甭[爾]戰兢戒慎 敢或毀或墜 爾無忘明誠之訓兮 曾奉規於先師 爾毋曰 吾衰之甚兮 惟日新而孳孳 久翁自警 家弟石門子書 畫師卞相璧寫 The translation into English was modified from Kang Kwan-shik, “Self-cultivation in the Portraits of Joseon Literati Scholars,” Korea Journal (summer 2005), 200.  A representative example of a Byeon cat painting is Cats and Sparrows (National Museum of Korea). For an illustration, see Hwi-joon Ahn, Gukbo 10: Huihwa (Seoul: Aegyung, 1989), 129.  Choi Sunwu, “Byeon Sangbyeok,” in Encyclopedia of Korean Culture [Hanguk minjok daebaekgwa sajeon] , vol. 9, 668.  Yun Bonggu’s comment, which is the same as the inscription on the painting in discussion, was included in his own book: Yun Bonggu, Collected Works of Byonggye [Byeongye sunsaeng jip], gwon 44, 31.  Concerning the relationship between identity and portraits, see Kang Kwan-shik, “Self-cultivation in the Portraits of Joseon Literati Scholars,” Korea Journal (summer 2005), 182-215. The original article, in Korean, is Kang Kwan-shik, “Joseon sidae chosanghwa eui dosang gwa shimsang,” Misul sahak 15 (2001.8), 7-48. The discussion between the author and discussant, Yi Taeho, follows in Misul sahak 15 (2001.8), 49-55.  Two of Yun’s portraits are now in the National Museum of Korea. See Seonmi Cho, Korean Portraits [Hanguk eu chosanghua] (Seoul: Yeolhwadang, 1983), 310.  Yun Bonggu, Collected Works of Byonggye [Byeongye sunsaeng jip], gwon 43, 42b, 43a.  Ibid.More...
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