Stories in Tiles and Pictures

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Cheonggyecheon Stream and tile painting in Seoul
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Cheonggyecheon tile detail

Story Telling through pictures is as old as recorded history—whether ancient peoples carved out images on cave walls, or painted pictures on cave walls, or drew on papyrus or fabric, or made elaborate pictorial stories with stained glass in gorgeous Gothic cathedrals, or with lovely tile pictures in countries touched by the Moors.

They say that “a picture is worth 1,000 words” and that can often be so true. Today, most peoples of the world have a written language and can convey thoughts and ideas via the written word, be it printed or on a computer. But, still many times it’s easier, quicker and more effective, or has more of an emotional impact, to describe something with a picture, or many pictures.

With this concept in mind, I’ve chosen four examples of pictures telling stories that I’ve come across in Seoul.

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Viv M by part of the tile painting

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“King Jeongjo’s Procession to the Royal Tombs”

The first is a 192-meter wall running along part of the Cheonggyecheon Stream. Cheonggyecheon is an urban stream nearly 11 km long running through Seoul that once served as a sewerage channel during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Cheonggyecheon was cemented over during the Stream Coverage Project after the Korean War and remained so until being renovated into its present ecological park form in 2005.

It has a pretty promenade along both sides, with trees, small bushes and rushes; stepping stones to cross the stream; fish in the clear water; numerous bridges for traffic, the underpasses brightly painted; and a number of art works.

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One of these is the tile painting, or Banchado, of King Jeongjo.

It is apparently the largest tile wall painting in the world. It depicts King Jeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty, leading a royal procession to visit the tomb of his father at Hwaseong (Suwon) in 1785, escorted by his mother Hyegyeonggung Hong. The original painting (or Banchado), created by famous artists in the Joseon era, is 63 pages long in total. An enormous painting!

Many books and articles call this tile painting a Banchado, based on the old Korean word. A Banchado in the middle-to late-18th century Joseon Dynasty in Korea was an illustration or collection of illustrations for Uigwe, which are books or manuals documenting royal rituals of Joseon Dynasty.

The Banchado of King Jeongjo recreates the work on a magnificent scale in this tile

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painting. It is made up of 5,120 individual ceramic tiles, each one 30cm square and 2.4cm thick. As we strolled slowly past the wall tiles, we marveled at how detailed and intricate the tile painting is, and how the artists have constructed it to all fit together perfectly. I stopped and read the information boards (in both Korean and English), giving facts and figures about the procession. It’s immediately very obvious that trying to describe this procession in words would be tedious and not very interesting, whereas this huge painting caches your eye and imagination.

Korea’s Shinhan Bank donated “King Jeongjo’s Procession to the Royal Tombs” to the city, April 2005.

The other three examples are on a much smaller scale but are very warm and human. They are projects done by many local people, who interpret the subject in their own way, all the pictures or tile paintings adding up to a new whole.

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Seoul Past and Present
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Lovely sketches of Past and Present

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Seoul Past and Present

At Unhyeongung Palace, near Insadong, was a small exhibition in a room near the entrance, called Sketches of the Past and Present, done by members of the public. As the information board describes it, “In Seoul, the modern and the traditional exist in harmony. The quiet and lonesome temple sits under the tall building. As we sketch the streets, alleyways and roads that connect the graceful ancient palace with sleek skyscraper, we can see the complete spirit of Seoul. This is the inspiration that we would like to share with those who visit this exhibition.” A lovely idea and some really nice drawings/paintings on paper.

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Tile wall in Anguk Station
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Thoughts of Insa-dong, Anguk Station
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Thoughts of Insa-dong

Thoughts of Insa-dong

The next one is a wall of tiles, 10m by 2.8m, as you approach exit 6 at Anguk Station on Line 3. The square tiles (maybe 30 cm square) all fit together and make a running narrative about Insa-dong. As the board says, “This is a collection of story wall paintings made by citizens in addition to 168 artists. Each of them, handwritten or hand-painted contains yearning and admiration for Insa-dong. It is so meaningful in that celebrities, authorities and fresh artists created fresh narrative apces through the great story wall including respective flows of memory, according to ages, periods and occupational fields.”

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Some of the tile pictures are clear and obvious, some a bit obscure (to me anyway), some with very modern themes. All very interesting.

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Tile wall with thoughts about Hangeul

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Thoughts about Hangeul

The final one is a tile wall behind the central information desk between the King Sejong and Admiral Yi Exhibition Halls underneath Gwanghwamun Square. It too was done by local citizens and is their differing interpretations of and feelings about Hangeul, the Korean alphabet created by King Sejong. These are much smaller tiles, so from afar the wall looks like an abstract colored mosaic. Look more closely though and you see that each tile has a drawing and some text. This is a great idea, as the Korean people are justifiably proud of their special language.

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