There is a mountain ridge in Korea said to affect people so strongly that all who lay eyes upon it will shave their heads and retreat from the secular world to become Buddhist monks. The ridge is called Danballyeong Pass, or the “hair-cutting ridge.” It lies on Mt. Geumgangsan in North Korea, with its transformative powers stemming from the magnificent view from the mountain trail. Danballyeongmang Geumgangsando (1711) is a painting of this storied scene, also known as the Diamond Mountains, by Jeong Seon of the Joseon era. The master painter of true-view ink landscapes, well-known by his pen name Gyeomjae, captured the exquisite beauty of the numerous peaks and valleys in his work painted while climbing the ridges. The painting, now on display at the Arts of Korea Gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York City, takes visitors on a journey that modern geopolitics has rendered otherwise impossible, recreating the feeling of standing before the peak’s natural splendor.
In 1998, the Arts of Korea Gallery, covering a space of 168 square meters, opened at The Met, one of the world’s most prestigious museums, thanks to the support of the Korea Foundation and the Samsung Foundation of Culture as well as the assistance of Korean scholars. Since its opening, the gallery has served as a window into the arts and culture of Korea in the heart of New York, staging a variety of exhibitions. Last February, the gallery began a special show, Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of its founding and to celebrate Korea’s hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, highlighting the picturesque mountains that neighbor the Olympic venue. The exhibition has attracted keen media attention for its presentation of 27 paintings of the mountains on lease from the National Museum of Korea; the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art; Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art; and the Seoul History Museum.
Among the works on exhibit are Pungak Docheop (Album of Mt. Geumgangsan, 1711), an album of six true-view landscapes by Jeong Seon, which are the oldest extant works of the master; Bongnae Jeondo (General View of Mt. Bognaesan), a panoramic painting on a silk scroll; and other diverse paintings exploring the beauty of Mt. Geumgangsan. Also noteworthy is Geumgangsan Naesan Chongdo (General View of Inner Mt. Geumgangsan), a mid-19th century painting by Sin Hakgwon which is now shown to the public for the first time since its purchase by The Met last year. All these paintings help visitors chart the evolution of master painter Jeong Seon’s brush painting, techniques which in turn were inherited by future generations, as well as the rich tradition of Korean true-view landscapes.
At the same time, the exhibition serves as an opportunity to share the mysterious Mt. Geumgangsan with the people of the world. The mountains, which were the dream destination of the scholars of Joseon, have remained as an untarnished symbol of natural beauty and longing for Koreans. Since the division of the Korean Peninsula, Mt. Geumgangsan had stood within the borders of North Korea, and after inter-Korean tourism was suspended in 2008, the range has become off-limits to the people of the South, adding another scar to the modern history of Korea. In the meantime, the scenic mountains are emerging as a hopeful symbol of the future of the two Koreas, as people both sides of the 38th parallel turn their heads skywards in hope of brighter days. Yet whatever the future holds, the ongoing exhibition enables visitors to taste the superb quality of the Korean true-view paintings while understanding the nostalgia, frustration, and hope of Koreans evinced by the famous mountains.
Written by Park Ji-young