[KS] Treasures at a Korean Crossroad (New York Times and IHT review of MM exhibition)

Afostercarter at aol.com Afostercarter at aol.com
Thu Mar 26 07:35:42 EDT 2009

Dear friends and colleagues, 
Those in the US may already have seen this heartening NYT  review
- and perhaps indeed the exhibition itself; you lucky  people.
It was also the lead article on the back page of  yesterday's 
International Herald Tribune, thereby reaching a global audience.
While specialists may quibble here and there, I did like  the tone.
It remains a rarity for mainstream media in the West  to devote
substantial articles to Korean themes of any kind; let  alone with
this degree of enthusiasm.
May I also take this opportunity to wish  everyone Chicago-bound
a happy and fuitful AAS Annual Meeting.
Spring greetings,
Aidan FC
Aidan  Foster-Carter 
Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology  & Modern Korea, Leeds 
Flat 1, 40  Magdalen Road, Exeter, EX2 4TE, UK 
T: (+44, no  0)    07970 741307  (mobile);   01392 257753   (home) 
E: _afostercarter at aol.com_ (mailto:afostercarter at aol.com)     W: 
_www.aidanfc.net_ (http://www.aidanfc.net/) 
Art Review | 'Art of the Korean Renaissance'  
Treasures at a Korean Crossroad 

Published: March 19, 2009 
The Korean art gallery at the Metropolitan Museum is a trim, tall,  
well-proportioned box of light. But it’s just one room, and a smallish one at  that, 
reflecting the museum’s modest holdings in art from this region and the  still 
scant attention paid to it by Western scholars.  
_Enlarge This Image_ 
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Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka
A flask-shaped bottle made of Buncheong stoneware  from the early 16th 
century. _More Photos »_ 
_Slide  Show _ 
_Korean Renaissance Art_ 

_A Podcast on the Exhibit, from the Metropolitan  Museum_ 
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Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul, South  Korea
"Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600," at the  Metropolitan Museum of 
Art features a 15th-century epitaph tablet. _More Photos >_ 

So no surprise that the expansive-sounding exhibition called “Art of the  
Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600” is, by Met standards, a small thing too, with  
four dozen objects. Most of them — ceramic jars, lacquer boxes, scroll paintings  
— are compact enough to be stashed in a closet. 
What the show lacks in grandeur, though, it makes up in fineness, and in  
rarity. All of the art dates from a period of cultural efflorescence and  
innovation in Korea. Experimental art was on the boil; utopian ideas were in the  
air. Yet much of what was produced then was lost in the series of invasions and  
occupations that began at the end of the 16th century. 
In short, while the number of objects gathered here, more than half on loan  
from Korean museums, isn’t large, it’s a lot of what survives. And anyway, it 
 makes for a comfortable display, ideal if you’re in the mood for some close  
looking rather than a drive-through blockbuster sweep. 
Change was the essence of the Choson dynasty, which was founded in 1392,  
around the time the Renaissance began in Europe, and lasted for more than five  
centuries. Choson means “fresh dawn,” and the dynasty perceived itself as a  
broom sweeping the country clean of tired old ways, which in its early phase it 
The end of the 14th century was a heady time in East Asia. In 1368 China  
finally rid itself of Mongol occupiers and established the Ming dynasty. In the  
process it revived neglected art traditions and asserted neo-Confucian 
thinking,  with its concepts of philosopher-kings, government by scholar-officials 
and a  code of ethics based on loyalty to state, community and family. 
Three decades later a similar shift happened in Korea. An old governing  
aristocracy was pushed aside to make way for a state-trained bureaucratic elite  
known collectively as yangban. Institutional Buddhism, a political and 
spiritual  force for the better part of a millennium, was officially suppressed in 
favor of  Confucian secularism. As in China, traditional art forms were revived 
and  revamped to convey new meaning. 
But history is rarely cut and dried. As often as not, it’s a story of  
coexistence, not replacement; of retreat, not defeat. So it was in Korea.  Buddhism 
didn’t go away. Like a pilot light on a stove, it may have been hard to  see, 
but it kept burning, its flame sustained primarily by the ruling elite that  
had banned it.  
And it is Buddhist art of the early Choson that gives the exhibition its  
flashes of color and spectacle. A large hanging scroll painting of the Healing  
Buddha, his skin gold, his robes purple, his throne wreathed by a tangle of  
celestial bodyguards, is especially magnetic. It looks both old and new.  
Prototypes for it go back centuries in China and Korea, but details of the  
Buddha’s persimmon-shaped face — the tiny slit eyes, the beanlike mouth — 
blend  Choson and Ming styles, making the painting very much of its 16th-century 
time.  It was of its time too in being both illegal and a royal commission, 
paid for by  an avidly Buddhist dowager queen whose son was a neo-Confucian king. 
It was China, rather than Buddhism per se, that provided Korean artists with  
an aesthetic template. Sometimes cultural differences are all but impossible 
to  discern. A magnificent picture of a falcon, long attributed to the 
14th-century  Chinese animal painter Xu Ze, has recently been reattributed to the 
16th-century  Korean painter Yi Am, partly on the basis of a seal stamped on the 
picture’s  surface. 
In a set of Korean hanging scrolls titled “Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang  
Rivers,” the seasonal theme, the ink medium, even the landscapes are all  
classically Chinese. But the painter’s elevated perspective, as if seeing the  
world from a balcony in the clouds, is not.  
Drawn as it was to China, the early Choson dynasty was also intent on  
defining and promoting Korean-ness. In 1443, in the reign of King Sejong, a  
committee of court scholars invented and made public, for the first time, a  Korean 
phonetic alphabet and script called Hangul, ending the country’s long  
dependence on Chinese as a written language.  
>From that point, fulfilling a neo-Confucian ideal of universal education,  
reading and writing became common. An industry of books in Hangul flourished. In 
 a beautiful painting of a Buddhist narrative in the show, lines of 
white-painted  Hangul script trickle down like curtains of soft rain. 
The tale depicted seems to be one invented in Korea, and certain forms of art 
 are specifically Korean in content or style too. One type of painting — 
there  are three examples in the show — is the equivalent of a class-reunion 
photograph  of government bureaucrats who had taken their rigorous civil-service 
exams in  the same year.  
In each picture the men, often elderly, attending the reunion are portrayed  
enjoying one another’s company in breezy pavilions, with their names,  
biographical updates and occasional sentiments (I’m still working hard, I miss  
so-and-so, old age is hell) written below in Chinese. Many identical paintings  
were made so that each scholar could carry home a souvenir.  
The most distinctively Korean art forms were developed in ceramics,  
specifically in the stoneware now called buncheong. At the start of the Choson  era 
buncheong was the luxury ware favored by an elite clientele. Its novel  
refinements are evident in the show in a set of funerary dishes, replete with an  
inscribed memorial tablet, covered with feathery white crosshatch patterns  
stamped on a gray-brown background. On loan from the Samsung Museum of Art in  
Seoul, South Korea, the set is, for obvious reasons, registered as a national  
After a few decades court-controlled kilns began to turn out a rival product, 
 an exquisite white porcelain that quickly became, in aristocratic circles, 
the  thing to have. Buncheong, its prestige diminished, passed into the general 
Maybe because of its release from the restraints of class decorum, this  
stoneware became the fantastically zany art that it is. Based on squat everyday  
items like water flasks and baskets, buncheong forms tend to look squashed and  
bashed, their glazes slathered and spattered on, their surfaces dug-into and  
scarred with abstract scribbles like those in a Cy Twombly painting.  
Buncheong was a hit, but by the end of the 16th century it had more or less  
ceased production. A lot of art started to disappear. In 1592 a Japanese army  
attacked Korea and stayed to loot and pillage; Buncheong potters were shipped 
 back to Japan to make tea-ceremony wares. Some 30 years later the Manchus  
invaded Korea for the first time on their way to conquering the Ming dynasty in 
 China and setting up one of their own, the Qing.  
For practical reasons the Choson court declared fealty to the Qing. At the  
same time Korean artists and scholars pondered, more intently than before, the  
lineaments of Korean culture — what it was, had been, could be — and turned  
their hands to advancing a national art. 
The story of the later Choson exceeds the compass of the show but will likely 
 be tackled later. The Met plans to mount a series of exhibitions over the 
next  10 to 15 years on the history of Korean art. Each show will be about the 
size of  this one and accompanied by a catalog, the first of which — solid, 
slender and  edited by the present show’s organizer, Soyoung Lee, an assistant 
curator in the  department of Asian art — has appeared.  
Exhibitions of this scale could become a new norm for the Met in the years  
ahead. If so, great. When they are well done, small shows deliver everything a  
memorable art experience needs: beauty, history, unfamiliarity, deep research 
 and fresh ideas. And they do something bigger shows cannot: turn major 
cultural  encounters into intimate conversations. 
“Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600” remains at the Metropolitan 
Museum  of Art through June 21; metmuseum.org.

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