Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art Back

Since Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un were once again playing a giant game of chicken, the Metropolitan Museum’s Diamond Mountain exhibit earlier this year was especially poignant. On the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of its Arts of Korea Gallery, the Met collaborated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism of the Republic of Korea and the National Museum of Korea to mount a small but stunning show. 

Depicting the famous spiked peaks of the Diamond Mountains (also known as Geumgang), the thirty landscape paintings on display here dated from the eighteenth century to the present. They had never been seen before in the United States.

Located in what is now North Korea, the Diamond Mountains have become inaccessible: North Korean travel restrictions imposed after World War II have made them almost impossible to reach from South Korea–or from anywhere else. Symbolic of remoteness and isolation, Geumgang has come to evoke the sense of sadness and longing that pervaded the exhibit.

The most important pieces on display were six leaves from the Album of Mount Geumgang (a designated Treasure) painted in 1711 by the celebrated artist Jeong Seon (1676-1759). Credited with revolutionizing Korean art by eschewing conventional generic imagery, Jeong created a new genre known as “true-view landscapes.” Instead of using idealized Chinese scenes, Jeong depicted realistic local views. Working with ink and light color on silk, his sharp-edged vertical lines depict Geumgang’s jagged granite precipices. Short, dark horizontal strokes or dots represent vegetation.

The first paintings in the exhibit, from the Album of Mount Geumgang, set the tone. Mount Geumgang Viewed from Danbal Ridge uses multiple perspectives to depict white spikey peaks that seem unanchored. Softer rolling hills in the foreground are covered with foliage and dotted with small figures, more dispersed and evident in Baekcheon Bridge, which includes images of travelers and their horses.

Jeong’s dramatic juxtaposition of boney white peaks and hillocks covered with dark vegetation is also evident in the more crowded General View of Inner Geumgang, which includes images of Jangan Temple and Brio Peak. In Buljeondage Rock, trees on the rock contrast with ethereal white rocky peaks that begin at the top and fade to faint lines at the bottom edge. Similar jagged white peaks form the background of Haesan Pavilion, which provides a sweeping view of Sea Geumgang. Water also occupies most of the space in Chongseok Pavillion.

Jeong adapted features from his early work in later pieces. Paintings from around the middle of the eighteenth century include his signature sharp white peaks, streams, oddly shaped fantastical rocks, hills covered with dark foliage, and small figures of travelers.

From the nineteenth century to the present, Jeong’s influence has persisted, as many artists have relied more on his depictions than on visits to Geumgang. Jeong has inspired the work of later Korean artists such as Sin Hakgwon, Kim Hongdo, Kim Hajong, Lee Ungno, Jo Seokjin, Park Dae-sung, and Shin Jangsik, all represented here.

The Scottish artist Elizabeth Keith (1887-1956), one of the few foreign visitors to the Diamond Mountains in the early twentieth century, abandoned Jeong’s conventions to depict Nine-Dragon Falls and the pool below in fantastical woodblock prints (ink and color on paper) replete with mythological iconography. Keith described the grandeur of Geumgang: “Sometimes a mountain-top would appear like the dome of a great cathedral. Then the tops would look like jagged spires.”

This small but mighty exhibit allowed us to see, for the first time in the United States, interpretations of the Diamond Mountains that have helped shape national identity and accentuated the remoteness of and fascination with North Korea. Rich in symbolism, they may also provide another opportunity for Trump and Kim to kiss and make up.

The Diamond Mountains exhibit was at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, from 7th February to 20th May 2018.