Monday, December 12, 2011

Exhibition reinstates beauty of Joseon paper flowers

What is a rose without fragrance? Artificial flowers are widely regarded as substitutes that can never fully replace real blossoms, but traditional Korean paper creations — “jihwa” — were appreciated for aesthetic values and cultural symbolism of their very own.

Fine art photographer Koo Bohnchang and jihwa researcher Kim Tae-yeon have teamed up for an exhibition that sheds new light on the Joseon craft — and a time-honored culture — that has slipped into oblivion.

Though mostly forgotten today and occasionally mentioned as a genre of “hanji” (traditional paper) crafts, jihwa have held important symbolic meanings in Korean culture, according to Kim.

During the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), various types of jihwa were part of royal protocols as well as Buddhist and local shamanist rituals. The papers eventually took on more than just stately or religious meanings and became central to the everyday lives of not only the nobility but also laymen.

During a time when it was difficult to procure flowers off-season, jihwa served as versatile decorations and centerpieces of which the color and form could be tailored for different occasions. As such a wide variety of jihwa and production methods were developed, and the Joseon Kingdom saw the emergence of “jangin,” or master crafters.

“As the country underwent rapid economic development and industrialization, however, jihwa were eventually replaced by a plastic, mass-manufactured equivalent. They were no longer considered artful creations but an export item, and drifted further away from our everyday culture,” said Kim.

The showcase, which opened Friday at the Kokdu Museum in Seoul, displays some 10 paper crafts by Kim. Kim, who has been creating traditional jihwa from ancient pictures and texts, shares works that were used for diverse purposes, from religious ceremonies to banquets. Many of the paper petals look so real that they could easily be mistaken for actual flowers, while others possess strikingly modern, conceptualized forms that inspire awe at the fact that the designs are centuries-old.

The displays are accompanied by six of Koo’s never-before-seen photos that capture the unique beauty of jihwa.

“I learned about the existence of jihwa by chance and became acquainted with Professor Kim. I paid her a visit and was able to see a large collection of jihwa. I was able to discover shades of color I’d never seen before, and I was inspired to work on a photography project because the colored palettes were so beautiful,” Koo said.

Moreover, the series of works, which include images of jihwa placed inside “baekja” (Korean white porcelain), points to a continuation of the photographer’s 2006 “Vessel” series.

The esteemed artist, who is currently photographing the Joseon baekja collection at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum, demonstrates his knack for a restrained sense of beauty in the photos; featured flower arrangements are far from fancy and vibrant but emanate a subtle simplicity and grace.

“As is the case for my ‘Vessels’ series and many of my pieces, I wanted to breathe life into non-living objects, to give them (the weight of) existence. Jiwha may not be real flowers but I hope they can gain a life and spirit through my photos and that many people can appreciate their beauty.”

During the exhibition period through Jan. 29, visitors can take part in a hands-on experience making paper lotus pop-up cards. “Jihwa” is being held at the Kokdu Museum, which is located on the second floor of Dongsoong Art Center, near Hyehwa Station on subway line 4. For more information, visit or call (02) 766-3315.

To learn more about Koo, visit; visit for more on Kim and the art of jihwa.


  1. Paper flowers are a paper craft for kids and adults alike, and they last longer than real flowers! Learn how to make several kinds of paper flowers.

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