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  • Chaekgeori: Multi-Dimensional Messages in Late Joseon Korea
  • Sunglim Kim (bio)

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"From Studiolo to Chaekgeori, A Transcultural Journey: An Introduction to Sunglim Kim’s 'Chaekgeori: Multi-Dimensional Messages in Late Joseon Korea'" by Jerome Silbergeld

The rapid rise of consumer culture between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a worldwide phenomenon, fueled by the industrialization, commercialization, and urbanization of the West and significant cross-cultural encounters, clashes, and appropriations in the East.1 Few places avoided internal social, political, cultural, and economic upheavals resulting from this dynamic spirit of consumerism. With an inflow of Chinese books and foreign objects, mainly through tributary missions to Beijing, late Joseon Korea shared in the unprecedented ascent of a new consumer culture.2 While the scale of the new materialism in Korea did not match the flourishing consumer culture of late Ming and Qing China and Edo Japan, nonetheless, and perhaps inevitably, Korea’s traditional, austere Confucian culture began to dissolve under the onslaught of alluring material imports.

With these developments arose a Korean form of “still life” painting called chaekgeori 冊巨里 (“books and things”), which first appeared during the eighteenth century of the late Joseon dynasty (1392–1910; Fig. 1). Known also as chaekkado 冊架圖 (literally “bookshelf painting”) or chaekka munbangdo 冊架文房圖 (“painting of bookshelves and scholarly objects”), in the West this type of painting is most commonly known as chaekgeori.3 Chaekgeori paintings include images of books as well as ceramics, bronzes, jades, fruits, flowers, and scholarly paraphernalia such as brushes, inkstones, handscrolls, and water droppers. Chaekgeori became a primary form through which art owners could express their actual or idealized identities, and through which artists could experiment with new, exciting, and in some cases Westernized, artistic devices and styles. This yielded a unique and intriguing marriage of traditional Confucian symbolism and a new materialism and visual sensuality.

This paper examines five aspects of chaekgeori painting.4 First we will look for the origins of Korean chaekgeori as a multicultural fusion of diverse elements from Europe, China, and Korea. In its subject matter, chaekgeori appears to have appropriated and represented, in modified form, the Chinese “cabinet of many treasures” known as duobaoge 多寶閣, which is shelving that displays art objects in interior settings, and combined it with the traditional Chinese painting subjects of antiques and symbolic flowers and fruits.

Second, Korean chaekgeori, as its name implies, includes a large number of books; we will examine how the Korean literati’s passion for books inspired distinctive Korean still-life paintings with books at their center. In addition, we will see how King Jeongjo 正祖 (1752–1800, r. 1776–1800) used chaekgeori as both a personal and political propaganda tool.

Third, we will see how the shift of Joseon society away from Confucian material restraints toward a consumer society impacted the nature and purpose of chaekgeori painting, as more and more Qing-period luxury consumer objects appeared in them. This process was facilitated and accelerated partly by the jungin 中人, the technocrats of Joseon society, who were the major actors in trade and commercial activities.

Fourth, we will explore how patrons used chaekgeori paintings to transmit ideas and messages related to their scholarly cultivation, social and economic status, and personal desires. These messages were transmitted both through the selection of objects and how they were presented stylistically, including the traditional “painting reading” or dokhwa 讀畫 that intimately unites visual and textual media in East Asian literati culture.

Fifth and finally, painters, for their part, used chaekgeori to experiment stylistically. Chaekgeori painters appropriated some aspects of Western perspective and modeling, which had been introduced into China through Jesuit missionaries in Beijing, but they also embarked on their own search for compositional interest and visual enjoyment. Eventually, they created paintings that were as much about the pleasures and possibilities of painting itself as about the content depicted. In addition to the bookshelf-style chaekgeori favored by the elite and wealthy, several other forms of chaekgeori were developed as folk painting and were widely enjoyed by the public.

The Origins of Chaekgeori

Without available documentation, the origins of chaekgeori have not been completely understood, but art historians have speculated about possible sources.5 The [End Page 3]

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