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Buddhist Art: Embracing the Beauty and History of KoreaRaising young Buddhist artists is necessary to conserve Korea’s history
  • Yim Se-youn, Lee Seo-yeon
  • 승인 2016.04.11 20:00
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  ▲ "The Exhibition of Young Buddhist Artists" was opened at the“Buddha Art Festival”from March 24th to 27th. Five graduates and one student from the Dongguk University exhibited their work.  

/Photograph by Yim Se-youn

   Art reflects the history and values prevailing at the time which makes it inseparable from perceiving the traditions of the country in which it is created. Buddhist art is no exception. It is actually one of the most important fields of art that must be researched and studied more in depth when talking about the history of Korea.

   Dongguk University teaches the messages of Buddhism that it has Buddhist Studies and Buddhist Art major.  However, overall in Korea, the field of Buddhist art receives much less support in the academy, compared to the general field of Buddhism. This in turn hinders raising young Buddhist artists.

 

Buddhist art as Korean traditional art

   The history of Buddhist art began in India in about 200 B.C., and it then spread to other Asian countries, including Korea. Each country then formed its own distinctive aesthetic in architecture, sculpture, painting, and crafts. In the case of Korea, Buddhist art has served as the first visual revolution and became the basis of Korean traditional art. It had spread starting from the Goguryeo Dynasty to Baekje to Silla, unifying the religion and ideologies in Korea.

   Buddhist art in Korea was at its peak in the unified Silla Era and during the Koryo Dynasty, as it had diversified with Buddhism, since it was the national religion. However, Buddhist art in Korea lost its fame during the Joseon Dynasty with the downfall of Buddhism as a national religion and of art activities in general.

 

Work quality neglected in the market

   The field of Buddhist art is now in a poor condition. This is not because the market is insufficient but because a relatively small number of people are handling the business. These people are not thoroughly educated in Buddhist art because they were personally trained by the previous generation as their own tradition, which means that they are not educated in practical and theoretical ways in instututions of higher education like universities.

   In order to become an expert, one must go through an in-depth analysis of color, body structure, and theories based on professional art studies, when creating an artwork. Professor Kim Chang-gyun of the Buddhist major in the Department of Fine Arts said, “The quality of the work of a professional Buddhist artist is much higher than those personally trained people, so their works are much more expensive than the works of the non-experts who are controlling the majority of the market and are using cheaper materials.”

   Partly for this reason and because of closer connections with them, many Buddhist priests look for the works of these non-experts.  Professor Kim then explained, “This increase in the number of Buddhist artwork of low quality is in fact causing problems in the development of Buddhist art.”

 

   
 
  ▲ This is The Picture of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy drawn by Kim Min-jung (Senior, Buddhist Art major), which was exhibited on "The Exhibition of Young Buddhist Artists."  

/Drawn by Kim Min-jung

For more chances to exhibit artwork

   Most Buddhist artworks are produced when the managers, who are mostly Buddhist priests, of particular temples ask for supplies. Therefore, it is less possible to exhibit the artwork for the people in the Buddhist art field generally compared to artists in other fields. To overcome such inconvenience, Dongguk University’s Buddhist Art major and the Korea Buddhism Art Association (KBAA) have collaborated to open “Buddha Art Festival” running from March 24th to 27th. This is an annual event, but for the first time, Dongguk University and the KBAA have organized “The Exhibition of Young Buddhist Artists” without a charge. In this exhibition, six students including graduates of Dongguk University’s Buddhist Art major have exhibited their work. 

   At the booth, the Post was able to meet Kim Min-jung (Senior, Buddhist Art),  one of the young artists who exhibited their works. She was the only artist who was an undergraduate among the exhibiting artists. During the interview, she has emphasized the lack of interests from the public. Kim said, “People consider Buddhist art as an art only targeting religion, but there are distinctive features that are different from other genres. I wish people  acknowledge the artistic value of Buddhist art and consider it as one of the art genres.”

   Professor Kim Chang-gyun said, “Through this exhibition, I hope Buddhist art will overcome the current problem of being too concentrated on the practical function and put more effort into becoming a medium for spreading the messages of Buddhism by developing expression techniques.” 

 

The value of Buddhist art in Korean art history

   Furthermore, Buddhist art in Korea has an important meaning, since it is closely related to the history of Korean art itself. More than 80 percent of traditional art pieces contain Buddhist art, and they show distinct characteristics according to their background period. Even though Buddhist art was passed on from ancient India, Korean Buddhist art pieces have illustrated different ways of expressing a figure’s form, compositions, and combinations of colors than that of the Buddhist art in ancient India.

   Yet, it is being ousted by the Western art pieces and discounted as a limited area of Korean art. About this matter, Professor Kim claimed, “In the long run, it is important to specialize Korean Buddhist art in order to attract attention from the world.” For this reason, he puts emphasis on creating paintings of Buddhist subject or stories which many people, not only believers, can enjoy.

 

The one and only Buddhist  Art Major in Korea

   Dongguk University’s Buddhist Art major is the only place for Buddhist art education in Korea. With 46 years of history, the Buddhist Art major welcomes 15 freshmen every year, having a total of around 60 students. This major not only trains students as artists but also cultivates them as theorists in the field of Buddhist art history and of repairing cultural assets through more than 80 percent of theoretical classes opened to students.

   Kim Da-bin (Junior, Buddhist Art) mentioned, “Becoming an artist has been my dream since I was little. I used to think that any university with an art major would do. However, once I discovered the Buddhist Art major at Dongguk University, I was finally able to specify my dream of becoming an artist.” She continued, “Now, after some studies, I have set my goal as to contribute to the field of repairing cultural properties of Buddhist art.”

   Moreover, there is an active student self-governing activity every weekday. Students from sophomores to seniors help freshmen with their drawing from 6 P.M. to 9 P.M. for 50 days in order to supplement the insufficient technical-skill based practice time. Through this effort, students can advance themselves as Buddhist art experts in practical and theoretical ways even without any additional support from school.

   Compared to other fields of art, Buddhist art is in a poor condition. However, the value and the meaning it has in Korean art history are the reasons for its further progress. As Professor Kim mentioned, it is necessary to express words of Buddhism in a modern way. “The Exhibition of Young Buddhist Artists” at the Buddha Art Festival is an example of such a movement. With continuous efforts like this, it is not an exaggeration to say that Korean Buddhist art will be welcomed by the world in the near future. Dongguk University should be the pioneer of this change as the sole university that has a Buddhist Art major.

   
 
  ▲ Kim Min-jung (Senior, Buddhist Art), is one of the young artists who exhibited their works. She was the only artist who was an undergraduate among the exhibiting artists.  

/Photograph by Yim Se-youn


»Interview of Kim Min-jung

Q. Hi, please introduce yourself.

A. Hi, my name is Kim Min-jung, majoring in Buddhist Art, now completing a course in teaching. Although I am studying teacher education right now, I would like to continue working as a Buddhist artist.

 

Q. You are the only undergraduate who took the chance to exhibit your work. What do you think made this possible?

A. Although all the students did their best, I think I really have put all my effort on completing my work without a regret.Students got their opportunity to exhibit on the festival with the recommendation of Professor Kim Chang-gyun. I think he thought better of me because I was always punctual on finishing the assignment. By doing so, I think I was able to finish my work in only a year, which was comparatively a short period of time.

 

Q. Could you please introduce your work?

A. The name of my work is “The Picture of Avalokitesvara Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy.” I saw the abstract of this picture that was not colored and thought that I would like to finish it in my own style. The distinctive features of my work are that I have thought about the colors on my own and that I have tried to draw lines and illustrate the faces more realistically.

 

Q. What kind of message related to Buddhism did you want to deliver with your work?

A. I wanted to deliver a message that even ordinary people can be a god or the Buddha. In Buddhism, regardless of your status, you can always become a Buddha.  By contemplating such message, I wanted people to strive themselves to change, overcome, and draw their own abilities instead of leaning on to religions.

Yim Se-youn, Lee Seo-yeon  seyoun8120@dongguk.edu, sullylee0516@dongguk.edu

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