When the director of Seoul's Emileh Museum bought a painting a few years ago, he was riveted by its wrapping paper, depicting a toothy, smiling tiger with leopard spots. "I couldn't throw it away," says Dr. Horay Zozayong, so he framed the Magpie-Tiger. The other painting is but a footnote, while the cat has "walked his way to the top of folk art in Korea. He's been used on a postcard, on book covers in France, even on a T-shirt. Now he's being considered as the logo for our 1988 Olympics," Zozayong says.
With his dangling tongue and rolling eyeballs, this strange breed of cat continues his winning ways at Meridian House International as one of 107 "Treasures of the Emileh Museum: Traditional Art of Korea."
It's not all salvaged giftwrap, but there are surprises in this relatively unknown art form. When he started his collection in the Sixties, Zozayong found no book on the subject. Now he's written several himself, after turning up "many hundreds of truckloads of paintings from hidden family treasures." The paintings, screens and sculpture are from the 16th through 19th centuries, although several craft items date to the sixth century B.C. They include works by court artists as well as peasants, nearly all unsigned. (Many were collaborative efforts: dragon, rock and tree experts were called upon to execute their specialties.)
Color is one surprise: In clothing, house interiors, fancy porcelain and even food, Korea's color scheme was typically white. In dress as in rice cakes, colors were reserved for joyful occasions. Similarly, vivid hues were saved for a happy art form. The folk art paintings are rich in mineral colors mixed with glue and thickly applied.
Clearly, this is more than art for art's sake. Symbolism runs through each painting and craft piece, a compound of beliefs from Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism and Shamanism. Four good-luck symbols -- dragon (sometimes a dragon-tiger), phoenix, turtle and unicorn -- turn up in various combinations. Traditionally, the blue dragon invites good fortune while the white tiger repels evil; they were hung on the front door, never in the bedroom for fear of frightening the forces of fertility. And 10 symbols of long life -- turtle, crane, deer, pine, bamboo, stone, water, cloud, sun and a mushroom-like "fungus of immortality" -- recur; (all 10 symbols are present in two works). They adorned graveyards as well as homes to insure longevity even in eternity.
Jumping carp are part of the magic. An old Chinese legend says that every spring, all the world's old carp gather in the Yellow River under the Dragon Gate to compete at jumping into the sky. The one that jumps highest is said to become a dragon. Metamorphosing fish swish dragon tails in several paintings. The belief still swims in the collective unconscious: Even today, Zozayong says, dreams of carp or dragons are interpreted as prophecies of success.
The folk beliefs that inspired such playful works also kept them from Western eyes until now. Superstition held that a household's good luck would move away if family treasures were shown to outsiders. As luck would have it, the heirlooms are on view through November 9. TRADITIONAL ART OF KOREA -- At Meridian House International, 1630 Crescent Place NW. Monday through Friday, 10 to 5; weekends, 1 to 5. Tours by appointment; call 667-6800.