Monthly Archives: February 2018

Olympics Special: The Korean Mountains We Don’t Get to See in Pyeongchang

Album of Mount Geumgang by Jeong Seon (artist name: Gyeomjae); ink and light color on silk (1711). From the new Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art.

Right now, the world’s cameras are focused on Pyeongchang (Go Chloe Kim!). But guess what? The hills of Pyeongchang are supposedly nothing compared to Korea’s most famous mountain range just 90 miles away —the Kumgang mountains. This stunning landscape of jagged granite peaks and crystalline waterfalls is the setting for many of Korea’s classic legends and has inspired artists for more than a millennium. The catch is, the Kumgang mountains (aka the Diamond Mountains) are located in North Korea, and it has been impossible for outsiders to visit there for the last decade.

Just a week ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened “Diamond Mountains: Travel and Nostalgia in Korean Art,” an exhibit dedicated to art inspired by the region, featuring about 30 works dating from the 18th century to present day. Honestly, I’ve grown up looking at Korean art all my life (the typical stuff: creaky painted screens, boring ceramics, etc) and I had never been the least bit interested in Korean paintings until seeing this show. The works, some of them never before shown in the U.S., have a fantastical quality that takes you out of time and place. They bring to mind Caspar David Friedrich and Thomas Cole — but also what Tina Fey’s daughter once said about fairyland (or whatever):

So I went back and found a picture book I bought my kids some years ago: The Tigers of the Kumgang Mountains (2005) by Kim So-un with illustrations by Jeong Kyoung-Sim, based on a Korean folktale.

It’s about a young man who journeys to the Kumgang mountains to hunt down the god-like tiger that killed his father. The young man first has to undergo a series of near-impossible tests to prove he is up to the challenge; once he finally confronts the tiger (who is, by the way, the size of a whale), the creature swallows him. Inside the tiger’s belly he meets the daughter of a king (remember this is a folk tale!) and they hatch a sneaky way to escape (involving a giant bear).

The story is pretty strange, even for a folk tale. But younger children willing to overlook the holes in logic will find it mesmerizing. And the illustrations, based on traditional Korean painting techniques, capture a lot of the magic and mystery of the Diamond Mountains. 

P.S. THANK YOU, CHLOE KIM!!! KOREAN-AMERICAN PRIDE!!!!

Another Reason to Love Daniel Day-Lewis: The Phantom Thread and The Tailor of Gloucester

I absolutely loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread. So controlled, so funny, so sumptuous, so mysterious. Paul Thomas Anderson was talking about it the other day on Fresh Air and when Terry Gross mentioned it had the feeling of a “fairy-tale” (think: magical gowns, good and bad “witches”) he said that he was inspired in part by the gothic Christmas horror stories of M.R. James and also … The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter.

Evidently, Daniel Day-Lewis used to read the book to his children every Christmas Eve. And then Anderson started doing the same with his own kids.

Frontispiece: The Tailor Mouse c.1902 Helen Beatrix Potter 1866-1943

If you don’t recall, this is the story about a poor tailor who has been hired to make an elaborate  coat for the mayor’s wedding. He falls extremely ill before it’s finished and isn’t able to finish the garment. But then, the little mice who live in his house come to the rescue: They finish sewing the suit, all while fending off the tailor’s cat, Simpkin, who is trying to eat them. And when the coat is finished, everybody marvels at the incredible craftsmanship of the buttonholes. (Such tiny stitches, “they looked as if they had been made by little mice!”)

When PTA mentioned the book, what immediately came to mind was the palette of the book’s illustrations. Just like in the movie, there are a lot of gorgeous pinks:

And also jewel-colored blues and greens. (Remember the wallpaper in the movie’s breakfast room? Unfortunately, I can’t find a photo of it.)

Aside from the visual aspects, there is a very PTA element of obsession in Potter’s story. Just like couturier Reynolds Woodcock, the tailor of Gloucester is an obsessed artist and perfectionist. In his fevered delirium the tailor keeps repeating: “No more twist! No more twist!” (As a kid reading the book, this stuck with me because I had never heard of twist — turns out it’s a special kind of silk thread for button holes.)

And of course there are those scenes of the feverish Daniel Day-Lewis lying in bed, just like Potter shows the tailor sick in his own bed:

Here’s the transcript from Fresh Air:

ANDERSON: “I don’t know if it’s a fairy tale, but there’s a great book by Beatrix Potter called “The Tale Of Gloucester.” Do you know that one?

TERRY GROSS: “I don’t.”

ANDERSON: “That is about a tailor who is meant to build a suit for the mayor in town. And the night before, he gets sick, and he can’t finish the suit. He’s so sick he can’t finish the suit. So all the mice come out to help finish the suit while fending off the cat that’s trying to kill them. And it’s a beautiful story. And Daniel always liked to read it to his kids Christmas Eve, and I’ve sort of started to do the same thing for a while and – yeah, there you go.”