Much Oriental art looks like highly serious stuff, but not the old Korean paintings now on view at Meridian House, 1630 Crescent Place NW. They seem designed for giggles.
Their colors are as brash as those of Tom and Jerry, and their drawing is as crude. Their roosters tend to strut, their many turtles spit. The suns that light their skies look like bright red circles. The show is full of tigers. They resemble pussycats more than they do monsters. When irritating magpies nag them from the trees, the tigers bare their yellow fangs. But they do not snarl, they smile.
Yet these colorful, and comforting, cartoon-simple images are much more than friendly jokes.
They are objects of great power, capable of summoning ancient guardian spirits, long life, needed rain, good fortune, male children. When placed on the front door, they repel evil spirits. The hex signs that are painted on Pennsylvania barns, and the horseshoes on the wall, are their Western cousins. So is the cross beside the bed that keeps vampires at bay.
These old Korean charms, most of them anonymous and made for common folk, are more subtle than they look.
The animals within them relate ancient tales and counter ancient fears. Woven into each of them are threads from Chinese Taoism, and from Confucian piety, and from the shamanistic linkages that pervade Korean thought.
That turtle, for example, is no common reptile. Of all the old Korean symbols of longevity -- the crane, the deer, the pine, the bamboo, the fungus of immortality, rock, water, cloud and sun -- the turtle is the only one that lives 10,000 years. It is the messenger to man of the spirit of the waters. To the sailor fearing shipwreck, or the farmer seeking rain, the turtle is a friend. It is the guardian of the north as well. It also is the bearer of the eight primary trigrams, and the hexagons upon its shell suggest divination. If you want to read the future, put a turtle shell in fire, and then analyze the cracks.
None of the animals portrayed, not the duck, the tiger, the crane, the leaping carp, conveys one meaning only. The white tiger guards the west and the happiness of man. The duck suggests the loyalty of man and wife. And if a pregnant woman dreams of leaping carp, she is sure to bear a son. And the carp that leaps the highest will turn into a dragon, and not just any dragon, but one whose body bears 81 scales, nine times nine, Yang times Yang, a number of the heavens. The rock forms in these pictures are even more complex.
A Korean who could learn his fate from studying the hexagrams in clouds could see as much in rocks. Two powerful ideograms -- "Su," which means longevity, and "Bok," which means good fortune -- appear in countless different forms in old Korean folk painting. A single painting here displays 100 Su and Bok, no two quite the same. The Bok means far more than good luck. There is not one Bok, but five -- health, wealth, glory, fertility and peace -- and since the Bok presents itself in so many guises, it may be seen in nature, too, in rocks or tangled branches or the wind patterns on pools.
Each of the 100 objects here suggests a cycle of old myths, an ordering of powers, an antique metaphysics. The show is called "Guardians of Happiness." Its images are keys with which to read the world.
Those on view were borrowed from the Emileh Museum in Songni-san. Horay Zozayong, who collected them and founded that museum, wrote the exhibition's catalogue. The show, like most at Meridian House, is haphazardly installed. It closes Nov. 9.