Syngman Rhee, the authoritarian president of South Korea throughout the 1950s, received his advanced degrees at Harvard and Princeton. But, in his youth (Rhee was born in 1875), he had a traditional Confucian education.
So it is no surprise that the future politician would practice the art of calligraphy — literally, “beautiful writing.” Calligraphy expressed Confucian beliefs of refined individual conduct in relation to society.
And undated sheet of Rhee’s calligraphy is on view in “Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing,” an absorbing overview of the complex and highly revered form that recently opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Let us go forward as much as we can,” reads the translation of Rhee’s concise text, “and build up the great nation again.”
The text is written in traditional Chinese characters, and it unfolds in a few blocks of cursive black script across an off-white sheet of paper 3 feet wide and just over a foot high. Even without knowing the language, the forthrightness of the brushwork — sober, considered, unfussy — telegraphs declarative resolve.
“Make Korea great again,” one might paraphrase this nationalist sentiment, written by a smart but deeply problematic political leader. His unshakeable philosophy was both consolation and affliction for a country battered by 20th century wars, incursions and occupations.
Calligraphy is regarded as a revealing expression of personal character, a core concern of Confucian ideas about an individual’s place in society. As such, it is art of the highest stature in Korea, just as it is in traditional Chinese culture, from which Korean calligraphy emerged.
Twitter, it is not.
According to the museum, “Beyond Line” is the first full survey of the subject ever organized in the U.S. (By far the largest Korean American population resides in Los Angeles.) If you know little about Korean calligraphy, it’s an essential introduction.
LACMA curators Stephen Little and Virginia Moon have brought together 121 objects, beginning in the 3rd century and continuing to the present. (Some are modern ink-rubbings of ancient calligraphy carved into stone for the ages — the oldest a monumental record of Neolithic petroglyphs found in a cliff-face along the southeast coast of the peninsula. Look for the school of whales.) The hefty catalog, featuring the scholarship of a dozen authors, is excellent — detailed for the aficionado, practical for the novice.
Included are examples of the calligrapher’s tools — brushes made with wood or bamboo handles and animal hair; ink sticks of soot mixed with animal glue; smooth rock and earthenware inkstones for grinding the ink stick and adding water; and, crucially, handmade paper, a refined material likewise of Chinese origin.
In a display case these materials seem ordinary, mundane — even when ornamented with a carved dragon or an abstract pattern. But, in practice, they are revered.
The tools are known as “the four treasures of the study,” crucial to calligraphy’s eloquence. The reverence is like that for liturgical objects, vessels for the transfer of a dynamic mystery.
Calligraphy turns up on scrolls (hanging and rolled), bound sheets of gold, delicate celadon vases, paintings, marble slabs, folding screens, wooden chests, embroidery, even branding irons — pretty much any surface imaginable, including contemporary digital prints. Third-century tomb bricks stamped with script along the edges are among the earliest known example of writing on the Korean peninsula, intended to send messages beyond the grave.
Among the most beautiful objects is a 3-foot-tall, slab-built rectangular vessel made from red clay, its mottled white slip-glaze hand-carved (using a nail) with calligraphy by contemporary ceramist Yoon Kwang-Cho. The vertical text wrapping all four sides of the rough-hewn but elegant 2001 vessel is the “heart sutra,” a short Buddhist scripture on the paradox of emptiness as pathway to the fullness of enlightenment.
“Visible matter is equivalent to emptiness,” it reads in part, “and emptiness equivalent to visible matter.”
Yoon’s work unfolds as a brilliant embodiment of the sutra’s meditation on emptiness. The vessel is a volumetric void, defined by clay walls. The scratched calligraphy is a linear void, legible through the removal of glaze at the sharp point of a nail. Ephemeral thought takes material form, an elusive abstraction is made manifest.
Two other recent works extend this sculptural example of Buddhist philosophy, a core of Korean calligraphy, to painting. The relationship between ink brushed on paper to create either words or a picture has ebbed and flowed over centuries. Sometimes it’s both at once.
Suh Se Ok’s “Person” is a big, bold, single character that equates painting and calligraphy with personhood. A loosely defined “figure” brushed in thinned black ink stains a sheet of soft paper nearly 5 feet square, becoming one with the support. The calligraphic suggestion of arms and legs splayed wide to reach to the four corners of the blank page surrounds a central void — a torso defined by bleeding ink at the hub of the nominal figure.
Kim Sun Wuk used gold ink (light-reflective) on black paper (light-absorbent) — an unusual but poetically revealing combination. His brushstrokes construct a rectangular enclosure. Quick vertical and horizontal lines are underscored by staccato stabs of the brush. Text-free, this is calligraphy as pure abstraction, as close to modern Western painting as it is to the traditional Korean art form.
The works by Yoon, Suh and Kim are in a contemporary section called “Beyond the Modern.” Some current works are rather dreary, like Kyungwoo Chun’s photograph of calligraphy drawn with a light pen in a dark room, which doesn’t add much to the gimmicky light-pen drawings that Picasso made in 1949 for a Life magazine photospread.
Others are more engaging — especially a 7-foot sheet of small, finely drawn and seemingly made-up and abstracted characters by Kim Jongweon. They cascade down the paper in expertly interwoven vertical rows.
From a distance the overall composition alludes to natural forms, such as the spill of a waterfall or the irregular bark of a tree. Primal Daoist reverence for nature emerges, while up close they evoke ancient pictograms of sprites, dancers, warriors and unexplained abstract signs.
The densely structured 2014 composition is also a descendant of mystical American Northwest School painting — especially Mark Tobey’s, itself born of Asian calligraphy — as well as Lee Mullican’s cosmic imagery of the 1940s and ’50s and Bruce Conner’s inkblot drawings, particularly in the 1990s. (Kim was born in 1954.) Links, whether intended or not, between West Coast and Korean art are self-evident.
The show is largely composed of work from the 17th through the 19th centuries — the second half of the Joseon Dynasty — but kicks into gear with a spectacular 8th century Buddhist text incised into hinged sheets of gold. Eleven feet wide, it was discovered inside a gold casket inside a bronze casket inside a stone pagoda — a layered, ritualized interment nearly as lavish as anything in ancient Egypt.
Thematic sections consider Buddhist calligraphy, which chronicles the Korean art’s underpinnings in Chinese traditions by way of the literate expertise of monks; royal calligraphy, in which skill at beautiful writing was claimed to reflect good government; the rise of the yangban, or elite scholar-official class, as disseminators of poetry and prose, sometimes mass-produced through innovations in printing technologies; and, the 15th century advent of hangeul — the distinctive, 24-character Korean phonetic script designed to replace several thousand Chinese ideograms.
Hangeul is a key to Korean calligraphy, although it isn’t necessary to know its 14 consonants and 10 vowels to understand why. Only male aristocrats had the leisure, means and authority to learn and use Chinese ideography. Simplified hangeul was devised to make literacy accessible to all. But user-friendliness also made it dangerous to the status quo, so centuries passed before the blocky script took hold.
Several times in the show I found myself unconsciously moving my wrist and hand while looking at the calligraphy, as if tracing the lines in space would be a way to know written languages I cannot read. I recommend the exercise, because empathy emerges as Korean calligraphy’s engine. Beautiful writing is powerful not only for what the characters say, but for the visceral, sometimes subtle interaction it wants to induce with absent calligraphers across time and space.
‘Beyond Line: The Art of Korean Writing’
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.
When: Through Sept. 29. Closed Wednesdays; open regular hours on July 4
Info: (323) 857-6000, lacma.org