DL sends me an Asian style painting on fabric glued to a backboard and framed in a mid 19th C. frame. The frame is from the mid-19th C. European, but the painting is mid-20th C Asian. But where in Asia? Interestingly my research led me to a little known area of Asian art. This is “Forgotten Art,” the kind of souvenir art produced in Korea during the darkest days of the Korean War.
It’s been 64 years since the Armistice Agreement; DL’s piece is at least that old; because of the non-traditional “traditional” subject matter, we see the meeting of an Asian aesthetic watered down for Western eyes. I draw information from a catalogue of a Smithsonian Institution Exhibition: “Undiscovered Art from the Korean War: Explorations in the Collection of Chester and Wanda Chang” of 2014. As artists “negotiated their own paths of production through the devastation of the war, many turned to the creation of souvenir crafts in order to support themselves and their families, (creating) a substantial body of art and craft work missing from mainstream Korean art history, misrepresented in museums,” says the Smithsonian. This is in contrast to the work of the great American photographers shooting that conflict; their art is well represented in the collections of the US Army, Navy and Air Force Museums.
Great figures of the American art world came out of that conflict; the head of the Asia Department of Art at the National Museum of Natural History was formerly the 1950’s U.S. Information Agency’s Chief Branch Officer in Seoul, Eugene I. Knez. U.S. Asian scholars were born from their service in the conflict. For example, Knez in 1950 assisted the Director of Korea’s Natural Museum in Seoul to transport innumerable treasures by train boxcars from Seoul to Busan, a Korean conflict “Monuments Men” story.
The Smithsonian maintains the Korean Heritage Project. The Korea Gallery opened in 2007, seen by millions each year. Yet the Smithsonian directors realized in 2014 that collectors of art like DL’s had a less distinguished “art historical” voice – they were G.I. collectors, buying souvenirs: art’s popularity as souvenir amongst visiting foreign troops led to, in some cases, mass production. I suspect The Smithsonian would be interested in DL’s piece had DL been able to trace its original owner. And she writes me that she has tried diligently.
The back of the frame reads “owned by Capt. John L. (last name torn away) 4114 E. 74th St., Cleveland, 5, Ohio.” DL’s is a diluted Asian scene on thin fabric (not typical for fine Asian works of art) with a limited palette (grays and whites) bearing no Asian character signature. The inscription on the back points to proud ownership by a US military man, the composition points to souvenir Asian art of the mid-20th C: “forgotten” Korean souvenir art.
DL should know that the Smithsonian has recorded Korean War vets who can be connected with their “Forgotten Art” to document specific dates and locations for their acquisition. This material culture sleuthing is an important part of their project. Says the Smithsonian: “We hope that one result of this (exhibit and catalogue) will be that Korean War veterans and their families (will) take part in this ongoing effort by facilitating the study of their own collections along with the associated documentation about where and when objects were obtained.”
A study in the creativity of an occupied land, DL’s lovely piece is part of the narrative of wartime art and craft. Much of the Smithsonian collection was donated by one Korean national, Dr. Chester Chang, whose father was First Korean Consular official in Los Angeles. Chang began life in the US but returned to Korea just as war broke out, attending high school with the now-renowned Korean artist Park Sang-ok, who sparked a life-long collecting passion in the young Chester. Dr. Chang eventually returned to take a Ph.D. in California, becoming a success in aviation.
Out of the turmoil of the Korean War, Korean artists created an “internal” export market, selling souvenir art to GI’s and UN personnel. Some of this art is valuable, executed by established master-artists, such as the work donated by Chang. Artists created new techniques and media to suit foreign troops’ tastes, even the lowest-brow of tastes. A great example: scenic wall plates in the mock-Asian style for a military wife back home to admire in her U.S. kitchen. The value of DL’s art is under $100. I suggest she share it with the Smithsonian.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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