Nam Gyeu (남계우) was a Korean painter from 1811 to 1888. He devoted his life to painting butterflies, so much so that his nickname was Nam Nabi (남나비) or ‘Butterfly Nam’. I personally love Nam Gyeu’s paintings because his paintings are always beautiful and graceful, and include butterflies innocently fluttering their wings while they hover around brightly colored flowers. Nam Gyeu is the master of painting butterflies. No one can paint them like he did, as the painting below shows.
How many butterflies can you spot in the painting on the left? There are five. Two are on towards the lower left side and three are towards the top. The two butterflies on the bottom may not have caught your attention because of the faded colors of their wings. That’s because Nam Gyeu intended the viewer’s eyes to look towards the upper part of the painting where the black and yellow butterflies are. There is so much detail and brush stroke in this painting. You can especially see it in the petals of the pink flowers.
One of the reasons why Nam Gyeu was obsessed with butterflies was because butterflies symbolized harmony in traditional Korean culture. If you look at Nam Gyeu’s paintings, the butterflies are always in a harmonious relationship with the flowers and shrubs in the painting. None of Nam Gyeu’s depiction of butterflies are ever attacked or eaten by predators. It’s as if his butterflies live in a celestial world where they live forever and are always beautiful.
This next painting was a part of a byeungpoong (병풍) or ‘folding screen’. A traditional folding screen contains several panels of hand drawn paintings that are placed behind the seat of the sitter. Can you imagine what this folding screen would have looked like in the mid 19th century? It would have drawn the viewer’s eyes upward, toward the sky where the prominent colored butterflies are. In Nam Gyeu’s perfect world, butterflies and humans never aged and lived in harmony with nature.
In a way Nam Gyeu allows viewers to attain immorality by imagining such a world, even if it’s only for a second.