`A beast of happy augury'

THIS sprightly tiger holding his long tail so jauntily aloft could be said to epitomize Korean folk art. The work, painted in the 19th century, is decorative, harmoniously designed, and humorous, and it evokes a universal response. This sort of work in Korea was rich in symbolism. Here, for instance, the tiger was understood to be a benevolent messenger of the mountain spirit. Rather small, he was not feared: Korean mythology looked upon him as a protective beast of happy augury. He was a creature of the a utumn, and the afternoon hours from three to seven were his special time. Folk art was patronized by all classes in Korea, the rich and the poor liking to have examples of it in their homes, whether these were paintings or ceramics, carvings or embroideries; it thrived side by side with, but apart from, the art of the court during the long Yi Dynasty (1392-1910). The distinction between the art of the people and that of the elite was sharper here than usual because the Korean nobles and gentry and their scholars and officials were very much under the influence of China. The a rt and philosophy of their great neighbor were their inspiration, and the painters could not envisage any other way of expressing artistic ideas than through a Chinese framework; they were Confucians and traditionalists. The humble Korean was not under this erudite thrall, having too much innate freedom and individuality to let himself be limited by foreign codes.

This native art was, however, strongly influenced by shamanistic beliefs; from this came much of its symbolism. Quite beyond this it was naturally abundant, amusing, direct, and strong, sometimes naive, always giving pleasure. Because of this it was classless, appealing to everyone. Much of it has been lost because the materials (paper, cloth, wood, clay) were perishable and seldom preserved and because the country has been so often a battleground.

Korean society was divided into sharply defined categories; the aristocracy, the civil servants -- who were scholars, as in China -- the military, the clergy, the farmers, artisans, and merchants. In practice the rich merchants there as everywhere patronized the art they liked, so that in one way or another there was a good deal of overlapping of themes and methods. The local painters might well try their hands at traditional themes beloved by the Chinese, such as flowers and the scholars' tools (the br ush and pen rest, the ink block and books), which they would do in a fresh and colorful manner. Through the centuries there has nearly always been an insouciant and cheerful strain among the Korean people, and we see it in their art.

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