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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”1
  • Jerome Silbergeld

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"Chaekgeori: Multi-Dimensional Messages in Late Joseon Korea" by Sunglim Kim

Chaekgeori is a genre of Korean painting with a long genealogical record. Popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the Joseon dynasty, chaekgeori’s depiction of books and display shelves remains as little known in much of the art world today as Korean art itself, but its family history reveals a widespread range of cultural transmission stretching from Renaissance Europe through far eastern Asia at the end of the dynastic era. Implicated in this transmission is the spread of book culture, humanistic values, the establishment of modern habits of collection and display, and the rise of the today’s public art and natural history museums. All of this comes with a revealing history of words once used as signifying private architectural space, now used to signify display furniture.

As if to reconcile Renaissance humanism with Christian orthodoxy, depictions of the scholars and precursors of humanistic studies St. Jerome (otherwise known for his time spent in the Syrian wilderness) and St. Augustine often showed them in studio settings, surrounded by instruments of clockwork, astrolabes, primitive telescopes, pharmacological accoutrements, shelves of books and other scholarly apparatus. Examples from the workshop of the pioneer of oil painting Jan van Eyck (dated 1440) and the paired frescos of these two scholars at the Church of Ognissanti, Florence (dated 1480, painted by Ghirlandaio and Botticelli, respectively, and purportedly commissioned by Anastasio Vespucci, father of the explorer Amerigo) serve as well-known examples, as does the 1514 print of Jerome by Dürer. In Italy, the studio (studiolo) not only became a private place to gather one’s scholarly and artistic implements for use and contemplation but an artistic object in its own right intended, as with Jerome and Augustine, to reveal the content of their character, putting privacy on display as it were, rather like today’s Facebook. Vasari’s studiolo designed for Francesco I di Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and completed in 1572, was a private art museum, walls and ceiling entirely covered with paintings. No studiolo was itself a more spectacular work of art than that from the from Ducal Palace in Gubbio, completed in 1482 and now in the Metropolitan Museum: a breathtaking masterpiece of intarsia, inlaid wood that creates a tromp l’oeil image of cabinets with doors partly opened to reveal their many contents, even the illusion of a small side room that serves as bird cage.

As Europe extended its reach through imperial conquest, in German-speaking central Europe the studiolo became the Wunderkammer (chamber of curiosities) or Wunderkabinett, Kunstkammer (art chamber), and Schatzkammer (treasure chamber). The Hapsburg collection, for example, included the feathered crown of Montezuma. Thomas Kaufmann wrote of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who ruled until 1612:

Rudolf’s collections have until recently been regarded as a kind of circus sideshow lacking any organizing principle or orderly display. Unicorn horns and magic stones are said to have been heaped up alongside great paintings by Durer and Breughel. . . . The Emperor is supposed to have grown increasingly mad as he spent his days contemplating his strange, secret treasure instead of tending to affairs of state. . . . I believe we can now see Rudolf II’s collections not only as a refuge for contemplation, but also as an expression of his imperial magnificence and a symbol of his claims to power . . . . I believe that we may also consider Rudolf’s possession of the world in microcosm in his Kunstkammer an expression of his symbolic mastery of the greater world.2

From his similar wish to make a grand display of power claims, Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera opened in 1727 as the first public museum in Russia.

In time, everybody who was anybody followed the urge to display their own favorite things. In France, his- and hers-versions emerged and the hers-version became the boudoir. In the English-speaking world, the equivalent was the closet (where things were kept close, private) and...


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