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East meets west in a portrait: A conversation with Korean art scholar Burglind Jungmann

East meets west in a portrait: A conversation with Korean art scholar Burglind Jungmann

UCLA Professor Burglind Jungmann, a member of the core faculty of the Center for Korean Studies, speaks about her work and Rubens's drawing, "Man in Korean Costume," on exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum.

International Institute, UCLA, March 25, 2013—A new exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum, “Looking East: Ruben’s Encounter with Asia,” is built around a drawing of a man in Asian dress created by Peter Paul Rubens sometime around 1617. According to the museum, Rubens, who never traveled to Korea, may have encountered Korean court dress through his interactions with European missionaries returning from China.

A recent conversation with Burglind Jungmann, UCLA Professor of Art History and a member of the core faculty of the Center for Korean Studies, added more detail to the east-west encounter depicted in the drawing. “[The portrait] is certainly a European impression of ‘an Asian’ during Rubens’s times,” she remarked.” Rubens did portraits of Jesuit priests who worked in China and who visited his studio in Antwerp. Therefore he had direct access to some knowledge about East Asia.”

“However,” she cautioned, “we also have to be aware of his intentions. Rather than trying to draw an ‘authentic’ portrait, he created the image of an exotic Asian looking man whom he could use for a large altar painting.”

A specialist in Korean art history, Jungmann was one of several consultants to the curator of the Getty show and wrote an essay for the book published in conjunction with the exhibit, “Looking East: Rubens’s Encounter with Asia” (J. Paul Getty Museum, 2013). She also spoke at a related symposium organized by the Getty Center on March 15.

With respect to western knowledge of Korea, Jungmann noted that the first account of the country was published in 1668 by the secretary of a Dutch merchant ship, Hendrick Hamel. The ship, which belonged to the East Indian Company, was shipwrecked on Cheju Island (present-day South Korea) in 1653. “The crew was held in captivity for 13 years,” related Jungmann, “but the survivors (16 out of 36) were able to escape to Nagasaki [Japan].”

“Korea’s knowledge of Europe was mainly channeled through China,” explained the scholar, where Korean envoys met with Jesuit priests from the early 17th century onward.” According to Jungmann, envoys of the Chosŏn (also transliterated as Joseon) dynasty (1392–1910) in Korea, as well as “intellectuals back home,” were principally interested in western astronomy, calendar calculation and cartography. As a result, they received technical instruments and books from the Jesuits.

Western understanding of the Chosŏn dynasty remains incomplete. “Most Westerners still think that the Chosŏn elite merely copied Chinese art and culture,” noted Jungmann. “However, they were very aware of their own traditions, had their own categories for a selective adaptation of new fashions, and created something new from the inspiration they received from China (and elsewhere).”

 "Man in Korean Costume,” around 1617, Peter Paul Rubens, The J. Paul Getty Museum

Unfortunately, there are no existing impressions of the west in Korean art from the time of Rubens. Jungmann explained that Japanese and Manchu invasions of the country in the late 16th and early 17th centuries left little room for cultural and artistic developments. After those invasions, she remarked, “The country was in ruins and the majority of works of visual culture was destroyed.” The earliest Korean art works that reflect European inspiration date from the early 18th century, she noted.

Jungmann first went to Korea as an exchange student in 1973 and has returned more or less annually ever since. She earned a Ph.D. in East Asian Art History from the University of Heidelberg in 1988, completing a second doctorate (“habilitation”) there in 1996. After teaching Korean and Chinese art history at the Universities of Heidelberg and Munich, she joined the UCLA art history faculty in 1999.

The scholar has been instrumental in developing an academic art history specialization in Korean art, both at UCLA and worldwide. The demanding field requires fluency in Korean, Chinese, and Japanese—languages Jungmann acquired during studies at Seoul National University and long research stints in Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.

The talented professor has also helped curate a number of Korean art exhibits. From 1999 to 2003, she served as Curator of Korean Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. More recently, she guest curated the exhibition “Life in Ceramics—Five Contemporary Korean Artists” at the UCLA Fowler Museum (2010–2011), for which she also wrote the catalogue.

Jungmann will soon depart for four months in Korea to conduct research on a female painter of the 16th century, Sin Saimdang. She will focus on how the life and work of Saimdang were remembered and reinterpreted by different social groups under different historical circumstances over the centuries, up to the present. “Her invented ‘portrait,’ for instance,” observed Jungmann, “was chosen only recently to adorn a banknote in Korea.”

Her book, “Pathways to Korean Culture: Paintings of the Chosŏn Dynasty,” is expected to be published some time in 2014.

For information about the “Looking East” exhibit at the Getty Museum, which runs through June 9, click here.

Prof. Jungmann’s first book, on 16th century Korean painting and its reception of the Chinese Zhe school, was published in Germany in 1992 (Steiner Verlag). Her second book,“Painters as Envoys—Korean Inspiration in Eighteenth-Century Japanese Nanga” (Princeton University Press 2004) explores Korean emissaries to Japan and their impact on Japanese literati painting. Jungmann recently co-edited “Shifting Paradigms in East Asian Visual Culture: A Festschrift for Lothar Ledderose” (Stuttgart 2012) and wrote the catalogue for “Life in Ceramics—Five Contemporary Korean Artists” (Fowler Museum 2010).

This article was originally published on March 15, 2013, and subsequently updated March 25, 2013.