Korea Asserts Its Place in Asian Art

A major exhibition in Washington celebrates 18th-century elegance and simplicity

AT the entrance of the exhibit ``Splendor & Simplicity: Korean Art of the Eighteenth Century,'' a striking self-portrait perhaps best represents this period of Korean history, a time of introspection and self-awareness. To render it, the artist Yun Duso must have looked unblinkingly at himself, memorizing the details of his own face, his eyes clear, open, and straightforward. This unusual painting - self-portraits were uncommon at that time - is emblematic of Korea's first real look at itself and its celebration of indigenous culture.

The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution is hosting this exhibition of 120 paintings, examples of furniture, calligraphy, and ceramics until April 15. Pieces were collected mainly from private sources and include over a dozen Korean national treasures.

``Splendor & Simplicity'' is the first major exhibition of Korean art in the United States in a decade, and the first to examine such a specific period.

The collection chronicles the artistic blossoming of Korea as a nation no longer looking to China for guidance. During that time, subtle changes began to separate Korea culturally from China.

``In the popular Western imagination, Korea is often seen as an intermediary between the East Asian cultures of China and Japan. This has led to a certain lack of knowledge about and interest in the arts of the Korean peninsula in the United States,'' writes Vishakha Desai, director of galleries at the Asia Society, which organized the exhibit.

During the 18th century, Korea experienced an era of prosperity and peace. As the country recovered from Chinese and Japanese invasions, Korea developed its own artistic style, distinguishing itself from Chinese art, which had dominated for centuries.

This was also a time of rebuilding temples and art collections that had been wiped out by Japanese conquerors in the late 16th century.

New schools of thought

After the fall of the Ming dynasty and conquest of China by the Manchus in the 17th century, Korea came to see itself as the inheritor of Confucian civilization. Art began to reflect Korea's new self-confident role. Landscapes no longer were of idealized Chinese scenery, but of Korea and its people.

The first section of the exhibit is devoted to the arts of the yangban, Korea's upper class. Painting, as well as writing poetry and calligraphy, was considered an important feature of a scholar's activities. Carefully chosen furnishings were a ``reflection of the pure pursuit of scholarship,'' and the designs were simple and undecorated to show restraint, says Chee-yun Kwon, curator of the exhibit. Women, who lived in separate quarters, produced exquisite embroidery and sewing, but were not considered scholar-artists.

New schools of thought emphasized art that reflected self and society.

Chong Son pioneered ``true-view'' landscape painting, depicting famous Korean sites such as many-peaked Mount Kumgang in a realistic manner as he experienced it.

The same period saw the rise of genre painting, depicting commoners such as fishermen, farmers, and courtesans. In ``Women on Dano Day'' by Sin Yunbok, semi-nude women celebrate this June festival, taking outdoor baths and herbal shampoos.

One of his paintings of a courtesan bears the inscription, ``Predecessors thus far have not shown such a class as this, this could be considered quite new and unique.'' (Sin Yunbok's ``erotic'' themes led to his expulsion from the Bureau of Painting).

Kim Hongdo, another prominent genre artist, illustrates men at work (``Roof Tiling'') and fishing in a rural setting (``Landscape with Fishermen''). In these paintings, the figures are casual and unposed in natural settings.

The middle section of the Sackler exhibit includes royal artwork used either in the palace or during rituals.

The two main rulers during the 18th century, King Yongjo (who reigned from 1724-76) and King Chongjo (1776-1800) of the Choson dynasty, viewed the arts as an integral part of establishing Korea's new role. They were also patrons of artists who developed the true-view and genre landscapes. During their era, Korean calligraphy was further developed and used in place of Chinese characters.

Art in palaces

These theocratic rulers were seen as mediators between heaven and earth; art was to help ``transform the royal palace into a sacred land of immortality'' and establish legitimacy of rule in the court. Artwork used in the palaces and for rituals was laden with symbols, such as the richly colorful four-fold screen ``Sun, Moon, and Immortal Peaches.''

Screens were placed behind thrones and used at weddings and ancestral-worship ceremonies. The sun and moon with the mountains and ocean represented the equilibrium of opposing forces, symbols of harmony that rulers appropriated to establish their roles as the link between the people and the cosmos.

The sun, moon, and five peaks were also a favorite theme for screens placed behind the throne, visually placing the ruler at the center of the universe.

The final section of the exhibit includes religious objects used in rituals. Though Confucianism was the official religion and practiced publicly, many scholars and aristocratic and royal women privately practiced Buddhism. The religion had been dominant in the preceding dynasty and was still the ``religion of the people,'' and it thrived especially among women and commoners, Ms. Kwon says. Buddhism incorporated Korean folk and shamanistic practices and afforded women a higher status.

In both religions, art was an important part of worship and reverence. As Buddhist temples were rebuilt in the 18th century, portraits of priests and banners depicting the complex Nectar Ritual were produced. Buddhist painters also began to use Korean landscapes.

Confucianism emphasized ancestral worship as part of daily life, and as the source of virtue. Daily rituals took place in ancestral shrines, where portraits were hung and spirit tablets (epitaphs) were kept. Special white porcelain vessels and ritual dishes were used in these memorial services.

This rare collection of treasures is only part of a small number of existing artworks, and is difficult to see even in Korea, Kwon says. The exhibition took more than five years to organize, and will be shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art from June 16 to Aug. 28.

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