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|art and seoul
by Fred Stern
Happiness and pride were abundant at the recent opening of the Metropolitan Museum's new Korean gallery, which was unveiled with an installation of some 100 Korean art works and artifacts. Among the items on display are 22 "national treasures" on loan from Korea and many items from leading public and private collections, including the Met's own holdings. Much more is expected to be shown in rotating thematic presentations following the close next Jan. 24 of this premiere exhibition.
Needless to say, the assumption that Korean art is little more than an adjunct to Chinese art is incorrect. The Koreans are descendants of Mongolian and Siberian tribal groups who from the very beginning were artistically innovative. "Influenced by Chinese culture no doubt," says the eminent scholar and historian G. St. G. M. Gompertz, "but ... the Korean artistic expression is quite distinct and unique."
For this reason the opening of the pristine new gallery of Korean art at the Met is highly welcome. Doubly so, since the gallery serves as the keystone to the completion of the Met's 30 year plan for new Asian art galleries.
The earliest pottery found in Korea dates from the Neolithic period, about 7000 BCE. Unusually large, hand-coiled clay containers were fired in open or half-open kilns. Unglazed and porous, they sport a unique comb pattern design. The pots were probably used for grain storage, and have been found throughout the peninsula.
Earthenware changed over the centuries with an ever increasing variety of wine cups and ceremonial wares produced throughout the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE-668 CE).
But the crowning glory of the Korean potter was celadon ware. Production of the beautiful jade-green glazes began in the 10th century, with quality reaching a peak in the 12th century AD. The notably special colors and their clarity far outdistanced Chinese work in this area. The achievements of the Korean celadon potters led Taiping Laoren, an important Chinese author, to note, "as for the secret color of celadons, the secret color of Koryo is first under Heaven. Although other potters imitate them, none can achieve their quality."
By no means limited to celadons, Korean potters also invented and perfected punch'ong (powder-green) ware in the 15th century. Spectacular gold ornaments, from elaborate crowns to delicate earrings, have been discovered in Three Kingdoms tombs. These pieces, which often feature jade inlays, indicate the sumptuous lifestyle of the royals. It was also believed that gold and jade prevent the decay of the body.
Buddhism made rapid inroads in the fourth century and flourished throughout the Unified Silla era (668-935 CE) and Koryo Dynasty (to 1392). Among the treasures from this period shown in the exhibition is a Koryo dynasty portable shrine. The gilt bronze interior features the Buddhist pantheon seated on lotus thrones. The raised, richly ornamented interior doors are mounted in silver and wood.
A seated Maitreya or Buddha (6th century) is one of Korea's most famous sculptures. It is listed as National Treasure #78 and is on loan from the National Museum in Seoul. Characteristic of Korean Buddhist sculpture, is this statue's serene expression and well proportioned beauty, and of course the elegance of its hands.
The royalty and aristocracy of the Koryo dynasty, especially in the 10th and 11th centuries, created some of the most impressive sculptures of the age. An iron head of Buddha probably crowned an imposing statue and is the best surviving example of Buddha images from that period. Between its eyebrows is a large cavity that likely held a precious stone, a "third eye" symbolizing the divine ability to see other worlds, the past as well as the future.
A hanging scroll from the Horim Art Museum in Seoul (13th century) depicts Chijang (savior of beings in hell) and the ten kings of hell. The kings of hell were portrayed as government officials who examined the karmic records of the dead before determining the deceased's' fate in the next lifetime. Popular during mourning periods, such hangings were a backdrop for worship and the good deeds of mourners, assuring the deceased's soul an easier time on its journey to a favorable rebirth.
A superb 14th century hanging scroll in silk in fabulous, vibrant color is from the Met's own collection. The treatment of the elegant figure of the boddhisattva has strong affinities with the Tang dynasty. Shown with a crystal rosary and a willow branch symbolizing healing, he is surrounded by a retinue of supernatural beings and officials offering him precious gifts while he rests clad in sumptuous green and gold on his lotus throne.
An illustrated manuscript of the Lotus Sutra (ca. 1340) in gold and silver on indigo-dyed mulberry paper is also from the Met's collection. One of the most frequently copied sutras of Mahayama Buddhism, this manuscript stuns with its lavish illustrations and breathtaking calligraphy.
In the Choson Dynasty (1392-1912) Confucianism became the state religion. A new class came to dominate society, monopolizing civil and military positions in the government through inherited privilege. While both Confucianism and Buddhism co-existed, more attention was beginning to be paid to the more mundane arts.
During this period highly stylized landscape paintings produce an intense, almost modern feeling. This is seen especially in the work of Chong Son (1676-1759) whose Pure Breeze Valley is deliberately undramatic in its presentation, yet creates an atmosphere of tension and deep monumentality.
While the new Korean gallery at the Met is modest in size compared with the galleries allocated to the museum's holdings in Chinese and Japanese art, it holds a wealth of esthetic pleasures.
"Arts of Korea," June 9, 1998-Jan. 24, 1999, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
FRED STERN writes on art and antiques.