[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.
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:
Art Review | 'Art of the Korean Renaissance'
Treasures at a Korean Crossroad
By _HOLLAND COTTER_
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_
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_
_Enlarge This Image_
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
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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