This Friday the world turns its eyes to the mountains of South Korea, where the Winter Olympics are getting underway in the town of Pyeongchang: small, bustling and by all accounts, bitterly cold.
No mountain in the Taebaek range is more august than Mount Kumgang, also called the “Diamond Mountains”: a stunning expanse of jagged granite peaks and coursing waterfalls, praised by poets and painters, Koreans and foreigners, Buddhists and neo-Confucianists, for more than a millennium.
“I wish that I had been born in Korea,” 11th-century Chinese poet Su Shi is said to have wept, “so that I could see the Diamond Mountains in person!”
This month’s visitors to Pyeongchang will not be able to see them either. Mount Kumgang, just 90 miles as the crow flies from the Olympic Stadium, lies in North Korea — and, except during the years of Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy, it has been impossible to travel there from the South (or, indeed, from almost anywhere). The mountains, central to the cultural history of both countries, have become a misty mirage in the South Korean imagination.
“Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art,” a melancholy beauty of a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, reveals the indelible influence of this mountain range on Korean painting from the 18th century to today. Even before the peninsula’s division, Mount Kumgang inspired not just awe but also longing, wistfulness, regret. For artists of the late Joseon dynasty, for those living under Japanese occupation, and now for contemporary South Korean painters, the mountains have always constituted a thick tangle of natural beauty, historical legend and political symbolism.
You will find no photographs of the mountains in this show, nor in the insightful catalog. The museum relied on the South Korean government to assist with loans, so contemporary depictions of the North would have been touchy. But even now, when anyone can fly over Kumgang’s peaks with Google Earth, these paintings offer a more complete view of the Korean landscape — where individual histories and national memories inform and reflect each other.
“Diamond Mountains” is organized by the Met curator Soyoung Lee, who also mounted the museum’s 2013 exhibition of art from the earlier Silla dynasty. She has obtained some flabbergasting loans of works from the National Museum of Korea and other institutions, most of which have never been shown in this country — as well as a suite of paintings that have never been publicly exhibited anywhere. Among the choicest loans is a collection of works on silk by Jeong Seon, an 18th-century artist who revolutionized Korean painting by depicting real local landscapes, rather than Chinese vistas or idealized visions.
If Korean painting has a golden age, it’s the 18th and early 19th century, and if the golden age has a pre-eminent painter, it’s Jeong. His paintings of the Diamond Mountains from 1711 are his earliest surviving works, and the suite alternates between painstaking depictions of specific mountain features and sweeping general views. In the album’s first painting, he captures the dramatic sight of the dense, sparkling granite, whose peaks are as sharp as canine teeth, afloat in the negative space of the bronze silk ground.
A subsequent painting in the album, of Buljeongdae Rock, a stark outcropping in the middle of Kumgang, sees Jeong render the white peaks in ink that fades from the top of the composition to the bottom, making the mountain range deliquesce as if in fog.
In this album, as well as in later, brasher landscapes and in a scroll from later in the 18th century, Jeong made use of precise downward strokes for the mountain ridges, rather than gentle contours. For the vegetation on the peaks, he speckled the lines with countless perpendicular hyphens, each one a clear-cut act.
Jeong traveled to the Diamond Mountains at least three times, and his “true-view landscapes” (jingyeong sansuhwa, in Korean) had a particular resonance in the 18th century, when Korean elites grew more passionate about their own country’s sights, and when new roads and better maps made visits to the mountains easier.
You can see Jeong’s influence in a scroll painting from a century later, acquired by the Met last year and in the same case as his long Diamond Mountain landscape. Painter Sin Hakgwon, who never visited the site, drew on Jeong’s example as he juxtaposed tree-flecked hillocks in the foreground with spiky, linear peaks in the back. (They are not called Diamond Mountains for nothing: the tightly packed spikes resemble geodes more than slalom-ready slopes.)
By the 19th century, representations of the Diamond Mountains had extended past elite artists and the literati to folk figures, and a market for images of the peaks had taken hold. One of the surprises of this show is a folk painting, lent from Seoul’s Leeum Samsung Museum of Art and nicknamed “Fireworks Kumgang,” that forgoes the precision of Jeong’s and Sin’s visions for bizarrely isolated views arrayed with no regard for spatial hierarchies. The gray, crenelated clumps look little like mountains and more like elephants on fire.
The Japanese occupation of Korea, from 1910-1945, made visits to the Diamond Mountains more difficult. In 1918, former court painter Jo Seokjin traveled to Kumgang and painted a 10-panel screen, whose more saturated passages of ink reflect western and Chinese artistic influences. The screen’s most notable panel depicts the Nine-Dragon Falls, whose V-shaped valley gives onto a ripping white waterfall. He was not the only artist of the era enraptured by Nine-Dragon Falls.
In 1921, Elizabeth Keith, a Scotswoman who was one of the very rare westerners to visit Japanese-occupied Korea, made a woodblock print of the gorge, whose rich greens and blues sharply contrast with the Korean grisailles. She took the name a bit too literally, adding in the nonet of dragons at swim in the pool of the waterfall and slithering through the trees on either side.
With the division of the Korean Peninsula after World War II, Mount Kumgang receded into the imagination for artists from the South. Painter Lee Ungno never saw the mountains, but his expansive panorama of Kumgang (perhaps painted after he moved to Paris in 1958) offers a modern take on an old tradition. Dark principal strokes overlay sensitive passages of mauve and light blue, and while Lee favored far blotchier brushwork than in classical Korean painting, the vista is one that Jeong Seon would quickly recognize.
Between 1999 and 2008, South Koreans could visit the Diamond Mountains on special cruises approved by the North. (The program ended after North Korean soldiers shot a South Korean tourist dead, supposedly after she wandered off the trail.) This show closes with three contemporary paintings by South Korean artists who traveled to Kumgang in that brief window. The most distinguished of them is a nearly 6-foot-tall painting from 2004 by Park Dae-sung, who portrays Nine-Dragon Falls as a blackout of thick ink, interrupted by a slash of white with the force of a Barnett Newman zip.
On Friday the two Koreas are set to march together into the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, under the flag of a united peninsula. Yet it remains to be seen whether a new generation of Korean artists will ever paint the Diamond Mountains from sight. Last weekend, a joint pre-Olympic cultural performance was due to take place at a long-abandoned resort in Mount Kumgang — but the North canceled it at the last minute, citing provocations in the South Korean media. Who visits these mountains, and who decides on the terms, remains a matter more fraught than art or sport.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.