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Portraits in translation

November 11, 2011

Faces are special.  “The human visual system appears to devote specialized neural resources for face perception.”  Portrait galleries commissioned by national governments are established in Australia (Canberra), Canada (Ottawa), England (London, Denbighshire, Deberbyshire, Somerset), Scotland (Edinburgh), and the United States (Washington DC).  Faces matter to us.  We can recognize faces even in degraded images:






(Michael Jordan, Woody Allen, Goldie Hawn, Bill Clinton, Tom Hanks, Saddam Hussein, Elvis Presley, Jay Leno, Dustin Hoffman, Prince Charles, Cher, Richard Nixon) or stretched:


And yet, despite the universality of the importance of faces to humans, there are very distinct national styles in portrait making.

The point came forcefully to me in reading Sunmie Cho’s Great Korean Portraits:  Immortal Images of the Noble and Brave, published by Dolbegae in December 2010.  This book examines 50 Korean figures and their portraits, from the 13th century to 1914.  (The original Korean edition apparently had 74 figures, but the English edition, which still measures in at over 350 pages, is abridged.)  

The publisher Dolbegae is well known in Korea for its art books, and this is a beautifully illustrated volume, with at least one picture (and usually more) on every single page spread.  (In fact, I was so attracted by this publisher’s volumes that I even bought one of their untranslated volumes, on Korean uigwe visual records of Joeson Dynasty state ceremonies, just to look at the pictures.)

The volume was translated by Kyonghee Lee, former editor-in-chief of the leading English language Korean newspaper, and has relatively elegant English, particularly compared with most Korean English-language publications.

The Korean Herald review of this volume reproduces two images from the book (but without the high quality images of the book or blow-up of details:


This portrait of Gyewolhyang was only discovered in Kyoto in 2008.   The inscription reads:

In the imjin year under the Wanli emperor [1591], when the city of Pyongyang fell to Japanese forces, Gyewolhyang, a gisaeng [courtesan] affiliated to the local government, helped General Kim Gyeoong-seo enter the enemy camp so he beheaded the Japanese deputy commander.  Hence people have regarded her to be righteous until today.  In the summer of the fourth eulhae year since the Chongzhen emperor [1815], her portrait was painted and hung at Janghyanggak pavilion to be worshiped in memorial rites once every year.

Another portrait is perhaps the most famous portrait image in the history of Korean painting, the self-portrait of Duseo Yun:


Duseo Yun was famous for declining to paint anyone he did not like, and his sharp imagery is regarded as the start of Korean realistic painting.  Yun’s friend Hagon Yi wrote a poem to match this painting, contained in his book An Aescetic’s Drafts (Dutacho):

With his body less than six feet,
He attempts to cross the four seas.
With the fluttering long beard,
A face with reddish sheen,
Is he a guru, or a swordsman?
His truthful and humble airs shun
All shame for being called a gentleman.
Already I have compared his love for art,
To that of Gu Debui, the Jade Mountain,
And his excellent artistic prowess
To that of Zhao Mengfu, the master.
Anyone who truly hopes to know him
A thousand years from now would never
Need to look for ink and color again.

It is particularly illuminating to compare Yun’s self-portrait with Albrecht Dürer’s 1500 self-portrait:  both have a full-frontal view, direct symmetry and realistic likeness.  But while Dürer highlighted his face and body against a dark background through gradations of light and shade, Yun raises tension by focusing straightforwardly on his face in an adroit harmony of lines and light ink:


Both paintings are realistic, but there is no mistaking which is Korean and which is German.  The “accent” of portraiture is clear even in a casual glance at the image.

Cho’s thesis is that Korean portraiture is distinct even from its closer Chinese and Japanese counterparts.  “While Chinese portraits emphasized the subject’s social position or status and Japanese portraits tended to stress or distort the subject’s personal traits, Joseon [a Korean dynasty] portraits surpassed their contemporary counterparts in terms of realistic representation.”  Further, she states that the empty background is also a distinctive feature of Joseon portraits. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese practice of adding servant boys or maids in the background of a portrait to reveal the subject’s wealth, power, and dignity, Joseon painters used no such device to reflect the person’s social status, refinement, or tastes.

This is an absolutely terrific art book, but it also hides a number of philosophical puzzles on representation.  The book may require a bit of digging to order outside the United States, but it is worth it.   I have found one US dealer, and you may be able to find others (the ISBN is 9788971994191).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 12, 2011 5:13 am

    Love this post!

  2. November 12, 2011 8:11 am

    Me too! I love this post!

    Makes me think of David Bellos’ helpful picture of translations as portraits in oils. In his book on translation, he writes:

    A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils. The artist may add a pearl earring, give an extra flush to the cheek, or miss out the gray hairs in the sideburns—and still give us a good likeness. It’s hard to say just what it is that allows viewers to agree that a portrait captures the important things—the overall shape as well as that special look in the eye. The mysterious abilities we have for recognizing good matches in the visual sphere lie near to what it takes to judge that a translation is good. But the users of a translation, unlike the friends of a portraitist’s sitter, don’t have full access to the model (they would barely need the translation if they did). That’s probably why translation raises such passionate responses. There’s no choice but to trust the translator.

    Also — I’ve noticed how handwriting (even just writing in English as a second language but much more handwriting in one’s own first language) has national characteristics. That is, if you’re from the USA, you tend to pen cursive or even block letters a certain general way. If you’re from Indonesia, there’s a whole different look. If you’re from France or Holland or Germany, different still respectively. If you’re from Vietnam, then quite different shapes on the letters and the lines of words handwritten. Has anyone else seen this too? Wonder if it’s been studied? And wonder if portraiture is correlated in any way to handwritten lettering? Hmmm?

  3. November 12, 2011 9:22 pm

    RiverUnderWater, Kurk, thanks for your kind words.

    Kurk, I have also noticed national styles with handwriting, and there is even at least one scientific article that appears to address the subject. Unfortunately, the article is from 1971, but the online archive I use only has the Journal of Forensic Sciences back to 1972. I am away from the library right now so I cannot check hard copy, and thus I can only imagine what it might say.

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