This special exhibition, which organizers began to discuss in the spring of 2014, started with eighteenth century Korean art, the so-called renaissance of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897). It was hoped that it could shed new light on the essence of Korean art based on recent academic research that has been revealing and reinterpreting eighteenth century culture from a different perspective. Moreover, since these research achievements are focused on the urban culture that developed during the late Joseon period, the exhibition naturally came to focus on the relationship between "the city" and "art." Within this framework, the exhibition was mapped out by analyzing art styles and artworks within the city of Hanyang(present-day Seoul) and selecting suitable works of art. This special exhibition is divided into the following four sections:
The first section examines changes in the scenery of Hanyang, the capital of Joseon, through the paintings of the period in question. By the waning days of the Joseon period, Hanyang, the center of politics and administration, has become a crowded commercial center. Due to the increase in population and the development of commerce, the city grew ever-more dense with shops and houses, resulting in flourishing markets. Accordingly, the urban field of Hanyang expanded beyond the original city walls. The city magnetized people. Poets came to recite city poems, while painters came to portray urban landscapes. Scenes of the city and the people living in it were favored as subjects for poetry and painting. At the same time, such changes were also taking place in China and Japan. An ideal city of the era is depicted in Scenes In and Around Kyoto (洛中洛外図) from Japan as and in Along the River During the Qingming Festival (淸明上河圖) and Prosperous Suzhou (姑蘇繁華圖) from China. Meanwhile, the ideal city as imagined in Joseon is depicted in The City of Supreme Peace (太平城市圖), The Complete View of Hwaseong Fortress (華城全圖) may actually be regarded as a blueprint for the city that King Jeongjo wished to achieve.
The second section examines the lives of the residents of Hanyang, particularly concentrating on the emerging cadre that was taking the lead in the culture of the city. They belonged to the group known as jungin (中人), meaning middle people positioned in between the ruling elite of scholar-officials and the commoners. They needed to be well-equipped with qualifications in and knowledge of literature, so as to closely interact with the noble upper class. Ultimately, jungin sought after the values, tastes, and lifestyles of the nobility. However, while sharing common interests with scholar-officials, jungin , who had risen as the leading group of Joseon society in the nineteenth century, created the exclusive cultural phenomenon of yeohang (閭巷, alleys where these middle people lived). Unlike the scholar-officials who regarded art as a leisure activity and the court painters who responded to the official demands on art, yeohang literary artists such as Jo Huiryong(趙熙龍, 1789–1866), Jeon Gi(田琦, 1825–1854), and Yu Suk (柳淑, 1827– 1873) considered themselves to be agents of creativity and became professional painters. Furthermore, they gradually assumed leadership of the Joseon art world by collecting, distributing, and sponsoring artworks. Their awareness and achievements seem all the more meaningful in that they triggered the advent of modern art and artists.
The third section displays works that reflect the tastes and sensibilities of the city. Abundant sophisticated products, including luxury items, objects of appreciation, and refined hobby items, fueled the refined tastes and culture of the city. A predilection to pursue, own, and showcase such products prevailed throughout the city. Previously, the powerful upper class has provided the major consumers; however, as the economy developed and markets expanded in the late-Joseon period, anyone with the financial means was equipped to easily acquire and enjoy these goods. Such shifts in the environment of the city affected the transformation of the contents and formats of art, which in turn sparked evolution in the existing art system. As the main agent of creation, artists expressed themselves more vividly than ever. They revealed their sensitivities and unconventional emotions rather than dwelling on the ideology and order of the past.
The fourth section scrutinizes the changes in art and artists’ conceptions within the novel urban surroundings of the modern era. Even before an understanding of the concept of modernity had emerged, new culture and products from the West were arriving in Hanyang with the opening of the ports of Korea. Artists, who were moving forward away from the order and customs of the past, had to seek changes once again in an unfamiliar environment. Even under colonial conditions they paved a new path for art, both stimulated and challenged by Western art trends and culture. At the same time, they agonized over the realities of colonization, Korean identity, and Korean traditions. Such concerns of the modern era are reflected in the self-portraits of intellectuals of the city and in cityscapes depicting a mixture of the familiar past and the unfamiliar present.
“Art” and “the city,” where art is born and nurtured, hold a long and profound mutual relationship. Unfortunately, few artworks describing this relationship remain. The National Museum of Korea hopes that this special exhibition, The City in Art, Art in the City , based on humanistic insights and creative imagination, helps address this scarcity.