Saturday, March 25, 2017

Gopanhwa Museum, Year of the Rooster

Even though I visited the Gopanhwa Museum just six months ago, this time I was surprised to find that the museum was totally different. Three times a year, every four months, the museum is totally overhauled and the displays completely changed. And because 2017 is Year of the Rooster, the first display for this year are select woodblocks and prints featuring roosters.

Japanese 19th century woodblock print
Surprisingly many woodblocks and prints contain chickens and roosters in them - a very common background or theme, so every woodblock and woodblock print featured poultry, revealing many uses for those two-legged ground-scratchers. Chickens and roosters were raised for their meat and eggs; they were symbols of fertility, and as such played a part in wedding ceremonies and were embroidered or painted on screens and paintings. And of course they are one of the Chinese zodiac animals. While featured in many backgrounds to create a picture that would tell a story, they were also the focal point of the woodblock art. Director Han arranged his poultry blocks and prints to tell a story as he progressed through the museum -- the story of various countries that imprinted with the birds, the styles of carving and/or usage of colors while printing, the dates and influences of the era had on the rendition. A historical journey. A particularly humorous display in the museum (at least to us) was a 10-screen folding screen panel. However, Director Han only had six screens on display -- the others were folded behind because they didn't feature any chickens or roosters. 

The highlight of the tour culminated in the glass-encased room housing a large portion of the director's glorious woodblocks -- each woodblock representing some time in history; some of them dating back five or six centuries. Director Han was in a huge story-telling mood and he proceeded to pull woodblocks out of his room and tell the stories about their usage or maybe some tell-tale detail about their symbolism.

This is a tiny portion of one wall within the glass-encased woodblock room.
In total Director Han has about 4,300 woodblocks and woodblock prints!

woodblocks from five countries: China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia and Tibet
Director Han enthusiastically tell us about a few of his amazing woodblocks!

This woodblock wasn't intended for printing at all but was created to be a cover of a book.
I'm not sure which country this book cover represents, but it's amazingly intricate and has been stained to give it more aesthetic appeal.
My friend had commissioned me to ask for a woodblock with a dragon in it. I told the director and he immediately picked up this one and pointed to the dragon(s) around the Buddha, or is it the bodhisattva? Not so clear to see or take a picture so he quickly produced some more woodblocks featuring dragons.
This is a multiple woodblock set (red, yellow, green, black and seems there were a couple more woodblocks in the set). The woodblocks are all carved individually for stamping with a specific color. The stamping of one picture could take a couple of hours ... as the ink must set before stamping with the next color. Aligning is done with great care; if one woodblock is incorrectly aligned, the whole picture would be ruined. Absolute precision work. The Japanese were marvels at multi-colored printing with woodblocks!
A roller woodblock for printing letter paper. I thought the smaller roller might be used for inking the larger roller for a more sustained use, but since both rollers are carved, I'm clueless to the smaller one's use.
A very large Korean carved woodblock with double dragons carved in circles among the infinite knots featured in many Confucian (and Buddhist) patterns. 
Director Han explained a unique feature about dragons in iconography: if a dragon has:
5 toes - it represents the emperor
4 toes - it represents the king (here)
3 toes - it represents the royal family
A print made by Director Han of a 4-toed dragon.
(from a 17th century Korean-carved woodblock)

This woodblock features a very common idiom - 개천에서 용난다, which translates as 'a dragon comes out of a stream', implying that someone of low social status/birth rises from his humble origin to that of a powerful dragon. Until recently this idiom implied that it WAS possible to rise about one's lowly birth/status circumstances, but now the idiom is used to state that it is NOT possible to rise above one's station in life. An example of this used in its original sense is the attorney Woo Byung-woo who was taken in with impeached President Park Geun Hye. He was a 개천에서 용난 case who came from a poor family but made it high in the government.
The idiom is still widely in use today, but nowadays is used to mean the opposite of its former meaning.
Before we left the museum, Director Han brought out one of his cherished woodblocks, a woodblock from Mongolia that was unbelievably smooth and silky. We were instructed to touch its cool perfect surface and by doing so, we would be imbued with its transmitted luck.
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  1. Very nice. I need to go and get some pictures of his chicken prints