• cc icon

    The purpose of the present article is to demonstrate that Sŏkkuram attained its status as a work of art through Japanese and Korean intellectuals’ efforts to invent or elevate the East and that the eulogy of its art was involved in the self-legitimizing and self-aggrandizing culture of imperial Japan. The sculptures of the grotto were not dis-connected from the context of Buddhist ceremonies and practices and discussed in terms of art until they became the object of Japanese critical discourse accommodating western notions of art. Yanagi Muneyoshi, the author of the first critical essay ever written on Sŏkkuram as a work of art, tried to explain its formal features and their significance from a viewpoint of romantic and Blakean art and assumed as its character-izing and inclusive category an Eastern art which had held its unifying ground in Buddhism. His analysis of Sŏkkuram was in line with attempts to invent Buddhist art in correspondence to Christian art and, ultimately, the East to the West. In his “Sunset,” a short-story set against Kyŏngju, Yi T’ae-jun was interested in capturing what he himself had called “Eastern sentiment” evoked by the historic remains in the old capital city of Silla and located its consummation in the sublimity of Sŏkkuram. Compared to the eleven-faced-Kwanŭm bodhisattva in the text, the heroine T’aok is not just an em-bodiment of compassion toward all mortal beings, but also a symbol of a new East that was the dominant theme of Japanese wartime ideology. As Japan’s war intensified, and as the culture of imperial Japan took a fascist turn, the aesthetic of Sŏkkuram became ir-revocably politicized. Buddhism, the source of elevating representations of the grotto, served in the war effort in the form of Imperial-Way Buddhism. The aesthetic of Oriental sublime was thus inseparably entangled with Japanese imperialist fantasies.


    S?kkuram , Ky?ngju , Silla , Chos?n Art Exhibition , the sublime , Asianism , Orientalism , imperialism , colonialism , Buddhism , bodhisattva


    Korea provided the Japanese during their age of empire with not just a territory for their political, economic and military activities, but also resources for their aesthetic pleasure. For Japanese settlers, travelers, and administrators, the land of Korea often became separated from the idea of a place for residence and labor and was transformed into nature as an object of appreciation, in other words, into landscape. The Japanese could not but have been foreigners to Korea as a historical land, but their otherness positioned them advantageously to find Korea’s unique landscapes. In particular, when aesthetically trained Japanese looked at Korea’s natural world they projected their familiar notions or experience of landscape and represented or reshaped the world so that it came close to what they understood forms of landscape to be. For example, Kawai Gyokudo, a major figure in Japanese painting who was on the selection committee for the first Chosŏn Art Exhibition hosted by the government general in 1922, gave a lecture afterwards in which he confessed he had been moved by the things and scenes in Korea and expressed his high expectations for the paintings that could be produced thanks to the exhibition system being set up in the beautiful site of local custom.

    According to Kawai, Korean paintings would differ from their historical precedents because they would be created under the influence of Western and Japanese culture, and they would differ from their Japanese counterparts because the exhibitions would take place in the civilization of traditional Korea. Kawai found Korean paintings to have been destined to produce their own “local color” and called upon Korean painters to produce “works corresponding to their land.” He entrusted Korean painters with the task of transforming their land into landscape. Oriental-style painting (tongyanghwa), the category for which Kawai was a committee member was, of course, an art of creating such landscapes. He praised Hŏ Paeng-nyŏn’s second prize winning work, saying that it presented Korea’s local color, which could not be seen in the southern-style painting of China or Japan.1 It should be noted that the government-general-sponsored exhibition encouraged the production of Korea’s local color from its beginning. W. J. T. Mitchell famously argued that the concept of landscape and the practice of landscape painting arose as a medium with which imperialism emancipated and unified the world for its own purposes, in other words, as a “dreamwork of imperialism,” and this seems to hold true of Korean landscape aesthetics under Japanese imperialism.2

    The dreamwork of imperialism is aimed at creating “a utopian fantasy of an empire’s perfect landscape” by incorporating foreign lands on its periphery into the styles, techniques and conventions of artistic representation cherished and circulated in its center. If it can be said that nineteenth-century European art realized a landscape aesthetics controlling colonial differences in its trends of orientalism, primitivism, and exoticism, a similar development occurred in the Korean local art movement led by Japanese. As a matter of fact, Korean things and scenes provided materials useful in demonstrating pictorial techniques from the early stage of modern Japanese art. Hana kago [A flower basket], a masterpiece painted by Fujishima Takeji, who undertook a research tour of Korea in 1913 as a leading proponent of Western-style painting, featured a Korean woman in her traditional clothing as its subject matter. It is considered representative of a Japanese impressionist school known as “external-light academicism.” [Plate 1] Fujishima was so moved by the beauty of Korea’s natural scenery as to write that while Japan’s landscape compares with that of Switzerland, Korea’s landscape would be a match for that of Italy.”3

    Painters who sent their works to the Chosŏn Art Exhibition were acquainted with the representational conventions of both the Western and Oriental painting styles developed by the Japanese, and employed them to serve the utopian fantasy of Japanese imperialism. Objects for painting tended to be confined to what were generally believed to be Korea’s local particularities, such as tile-roofed or thatched houses, pastoral peasant villages, and old folks, women and children in their traditional costumes, and they were often fixed as images of the Other in relation to a civilized, urbanized, mature and masculine Japan.4 Images of a premodern Other to the modern Japanese self are conspicuous among the pictorial representations of Korean land. It is very easy to find instances of Korean landscape imbued with projections of Japanese imperialist fantasy; a typical one is Yi In-sŏng’s Keishū no tanima nite [In a mountain valley of Kyŏngju], winner of the Ch’angdŏk Palace prize in the 1935 exhibition.

    Around the time Yi In-sŏng presented his oil painting saturated by a local aesthetic sense, Kyŏngju was among the tourist attractions on the Korean peninsula. Kyŏngju’s colonial development concentrated on the excavation and management of its historical remains, transforming it from a Confucian Korean town into the old capital of Silla representative of a glorious antiquity in Korea. The mountain valley depicted by Yi shows a combination of images that Japanese and Koreans both thought of as being unique to Korea.5 [Plate 2] First of all, there are the blue sky and yellow earth that deeply impressed all foreigners who paid attention to the natural beauty of the country during the early twentieth century. Yi divides the picture horizontally into the sky and the earth and paints the colors in stark contrast. Arranged at both sides are two small, round-headed, and dark-skinned boys, who, looking like children of nature, are also reminiscent of a distinct and agricultural Korea. In particular, the boy with a baby on his back was, like the small-statured girl carrying a child in a similar posture in Yi Yŏng-il’s Nōson no kodomo [Children in a farm village]—winner of the special com-mendation prize in 1929—a typical visual cliché of the Korean landscape that produced a number of imitations. The valley in Kyŏngju depicted by Yi In-sŏng seems to represent a Korean landscape in all its naturalness, primitiveness, and destituteness.

    What distinguishes Yi’s Kyŏngju is its invocation of a Korean antiquity. The boy on the left of the picture turns his face toward Ch’ŏmsŏngdae, an astronomical observatory that towers in the background. The boy on the right side casts his eyes upon some fragments of roofing tiles lying scattered in the foreground. These objects call to mind the ups and downs of the ancient kingdom that built its capital city there. In looking at the face of the boy, who holds something like a flute in his left hand, and who seems as if he were sunk in meditation with his long slanted eyes, one might think of the face of a stone Buddha image abandoned in the wilderness of a mountain, or that of the principal Buddha figure within Sŏkkuram on Mt. T’oham.6 The Kyŏngju valley in the painting constitutes a primitive landscape with no trace of historical development. It presumably gives intensity to the aspect of the city that put Japanese visitors like Tayama Katai under the illusion of entering “scroll paintings from the Fujiwara and Heian dynasties.”7

    It was primarily Japanese interest in Silla that turned Kyŏngju into an ancient landscape. According to Japanese historical records such as the section on Empress Jingū in Nihon shoki (The chronicles of Japan) Silla belonged to the southern part of the peninsula conquered in the ancient time by the Japanese court, and, therefore, the survey and preservation of Silla’s historical remains served Japan’s imperial purposes. Such archaeological work helped the Japanese ground their colonial expansion historically and demonstrated their authority as rulers of the peninsula. The repair work on Sŏkkuram conducted for some two years from 1913 on the instruction of Governor-General Terauchi Masatake is representative of this. In the past the grotto temple had been a poetic object as well as a scenic spot for yangban aristocratic literati and also a site of prayer and picnics for commoners, but as it was rescued from its ruined state under the planning and control of a Japanese engineer employed by the colonial government it took on a new function.8 The temple established an irreplaceable basis for the notion of Silla as a kingdom of ancient art and contributed to the construction of a geo-cultural sphere that would guarantee the hegemonic power of the Japanese empire.

    In his poem-like essay on a visit he paid in 1921, Asakawa Noritaka, known for his research on and collection of Korean porcelain, wrote that the grotto awakened a strong sense of Tōyō (the Orient or the East). In the minds of the Silla people who had built Sŏkkuram on the top of Mt. T’oham Asakawa detected an invocation of the Buddha’s protection for travel by sea between Silla and Nara Japan and saw traces of the “unilinear flow of beauty” created by Tang China, Silla, Paekche and Nara Japan. The existence of Sŏkkuram called for the revival of a great Orient, as Asakawa wrote, “Eternal Sŏkkuram, you who speak the words of God/ May the people of the Orient return to their homeland deep in your heart.”9 The Orient in its Japanese and Korean senses was conceptually invented, as a result of the conflict between Asian countries brought about by the impact of the West and in Japan’s efforts to resolve the conflict by expanding its regional power. However, it was also an identity whose origin returned to an Asian past, but which was constructed along the lines of a modern understanding of that past.10 It was a fantasy as well as a concept, a landscape as well as a territory. What I would like to argue is that Sŏkkuram as understood and cherished in colonial Korea was fundamentally constitutive of a fantastic and aestheticized Orient and provided a major source of inspiration for an orientalist aesthetics bound up with Japanese imperialist fantasies. Any in-depth discussion of the aesthetic effect of the stone temple cannot avoid also exploring its involvement with Japanese fascism.

    1Kawai Gyokudō (1922), p. 8, 12, 13.  2W. J. T. Mitchell (2002), pp. 10–13.  3Fujishima Takeji (1982), p. 248.  4Much examination has been made of the localism as expressed in the works presented to the Chosŏn Art Exhibition. Pak Kye-ri (1996) and Kimu He-shin (2005) are still useful among others.  5Among those who are said to have led Yi In-sŏng’s interest to Kyŏngju was Shiraga Jukichi, the principal of Kyŏngbuk Women’s High School, whose passion included collecting and studying old Korean artworks. It was also he who opened the way for Yi to study abroad in Japan after Yi was awarded the special recommendation prize at the 1931 Chosŏn Art Exhibition with his oil painting “Seibo gairo [A street scene at a year’s end],” a portrayal of the main street of his hometown Taegu. (Sin Su-gyŏng, 2006, p. 50, 95.) Some results have recently come out of research on Japanese colonials who had an influence on the understanding of Kyŏngju. Kim Hyŏn-suk (2007) deals with the Society for the Preservation of Historic Remains in Kyŏngju, Chŏng In-sŏng (2009) with the same association and Moroga Hideo, one of the Japanese directors of Kyŏngju Museum, and Hwang Jongyon (2010) with Kimura Shizuo, the first Japanese administrator of Kyŏngju, and Ōsaka Kintarō, a principal of Kyŏngju Elementary School and a director of Kyŏngju Museum.  6It was argued during the colonial period that the primary Buddha image reminded its viewers of a child’s face. See Chosŏn ch’ongdokbu (2004), p. 42.  7Tayama Rokui [Katai] (1924), p. 456.  8One of the good examples of poems by yangban literati concerning Sŏkkuram is “Sŏkkul [A stone cave]” which Ōsaka Kintarō selected for his anthology from Yi Kwan-o’s (1740–1815) collected works. See Kogo misul tong’in (1962). The habit of worshipping the Buddha statue in Sŏkkuram among the Korean community of Kyŏngju was briefly mentioned by Nakamura Ryōhei in his book on the grotto. (Nakamura Ryōhei, 1929, p. 31) It is a far-fetched, Japan-centric idea found in books like Chōsen bijutsu taikan (A comprehensive view of Korean art, 1910) that the temple was discovered by the Japanese and, in particular, by Sōne Arasuke, then Vice-Resident-General who made a tour of Kyŏngju. Some historical records and drawings that belie the claim made by the Japanese colonials are discussed by South Korean scholars. See Kim Sang-hyŏn (1991) and Kang Hŭi-chŏng (2012), pp. 136–151.  9Asakawa Noritaka (1923), p. 134.  10See Yonetani Masafumi (2006), especially the first part (pp. 1–73).


    After it was brought to public attention by the colonial government, Sŏkkuram gained as much significance for Koreans as it had for Japanese, in fact, probably far more for Koreans than Japanese. Beginning with Tokyo Imperial University Professor Sekino Tadashi and other authorities on historic remains on the peninsula, the ruling class of colonial society recognized the artistic values of the grotto and the high level of Silla civilization, and this meant to contemporary Koreans that they were authenticated as the descendants of a great people. On September 20, 1923, about a month after repair work on Sŏkkuram had been completed, the Maeil sinbo [Maeil daily] carried an article entitled “Historic remains in the old city of Silla” with a picture of the grotto, which was appraised as a “collection of incomparable flowers of Oriental art.” The Tong’a ilbo [Dong-A daily], which dealt with Sŏkkuram on June 30, the same year, in its first installment of “Miracles of the world,” encouraged Koreans’ sense of nationhood by commending the Buddha figure as “the greatest of the oldest artworks in Asia.” However, around the time Sŏkkuram emerged in the Korean-language public sphere, it was not common to refer to Buddhist ruins as being within the category of “yesul” (art). It was during the late years of Meiji, i.e. around 1905, when geijutsu, the Japanese source of yesul, began to take on a meaning corresponding to that of art in Western languages. In the early Meiji period when Western concepts were being enthusiastically introduced, it was bijutsu rather than geijutsu that was most widely used to designate a Western concept of art. Bijutsu appeared first as a translation of the English “fine arts” and the German “schöne Kunst,” and carried the meaning of art in its earliest usages that included music, painting, sculpture, poetry, etc.11

    More important is the process whereby figurative items such as Buddha images that had traditionally been made for the purpose of Buddhist rituals came to be recognized as artworks. According to a Japanese art historian, after Japanese came across sculptures in museums and official residences on their visits to the capital cities of Western countries, they began to think of Buddha figures as their traditional equivalent of Western sculptural works. Shortly after Western-style institutions such as exhibitions and art schools were introduced, preeminent artisans of Buddhist icons were hired as college professors, and when a hall for Japan was arranged at the Vienna World Exhibition of 1873 a large Buddha image from Kamakura was put on display.12 In sum, it was as a result of the introduction of the Western concept of art into Korean through Japanese that remarks on Sŏkkuram as a great work of art emerged in Ko