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In Session: Empathy Seen in Korean Visual Art in the Time of Crisis
1: On Board the Dragon Boat of Wisdom: Picturing Salvation in Modern Korean Buddhist Paintings
Wednesday, March 24, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Republic of Korea
Bearing souls from “this shore” to “the other shore,” a dragon boat is a well-established metaphor for Buddhist enlightenment and salvation in East Asia. In this iconographic motif, called the “dragon boat of wisdom” or “salvific dragon boat” in modern scholarship, Buddha Amitabha receives deceased souls and ferries them to his Western Paradise. Although the motif dates back to the late thirteenth century, it appears to have received heightened interest in the 1940s with the onset of the Pacific War (1941–1945). This paper explores a modern transformation of the motif through a close reading of two works—Nectar Ritual (Kamno, lit. Sweet Dew) and Amitabha Preaching in the Western Paradise—produced in wartime Korea under colonial rule. The compositions were created by Kŭmyong Ilsŏp (1900-1975), one of the leading monk-painters who, in many respects, bridged “Chosŏn” Buddhist painting with contemporary art practices. This paper aims to reveal how the painter reinterpreted the well-established motif at a time when the need to deliver the deceased and solace the living was most urgent.