The art that learned discretion at an early age

With typical American insularity, few of us before 1945 had any idea where Korea was located, or knew anything about its history. Even now, despite close ties with the Republic of Korea, our knowledge of its past is dim and apt to be confused with what little we know of the history of China and Japan.

Our insight into its art is even more limited. We have trouble enough most of the time distinguishing Japanese painting, sculpture, or ceramics from those of China, let alone understanding what sets Korean art apart from the art of these countries. Except for the distinctive Korean costumes portrayed in them, I doubt if one out of 100,000 of us could distinguish a genre painting from that country from one painted in China during the same period.

Obviously, a major survey of Korean art has long been overdue -- a situation fortunately now being rectified by the impressive travelling exhibition "5,000 Years of Korean Art" which has just opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here.

Its 354 works of art, on loan from Korean museums and private collections, were assembled by the National Museum of Korea and constitute the most comprehensive exhibition of that country's art ever shown in the United States.

But it is too easy, when confronted by Korean art, to compare it to what the Chinese and Japanese were producing during the same periods, and to automatically assume that whatever is Korean was first Chinese or Japanese.

That just isn't true. Korean art has an identity and a character entirely its own, something which is obvious enough if we open our eyes and try to see it on its own terms and not as something generically "Oriental." Chinese influences upon Korea were certainly enormous. It could not have been otherwise, considering China's proximity and power. And Japan, only a few miles away, was also a powerful and persistent neighbor.

As a result, Korea, caught in the middle, learned very quickly how to absorb foreign influences while at the same time developing its unique cultural identity and retaining its national integrity. Because of this, it would be a serious mistake to assume that Korean sculpture, ceramics, painting, etc., speaks modestly because it has little to say, when the fact of the matter is that it does so because it learned discretion and formal containment at an early age.

What impressed me most about the art in this exhibition is its remarkable sense of balance, composure, tact, and wit -- all necessary traits in a nation surrounded by powerful neighbors. These qualities are reflected not only in individual pieces, but in the exhibition as a whole, and are at the heart of what one might call the Korean aesthetic.

Some might find an art representing these qualities dull and boring and lacking in the excitement and drama of more self-assertive work. But such persons would also probably find Vermeer boring next to Rubens, and Cezanne dull in the company of Picasso.

An art is what it has to be. Its quality does not depend on its size or how loudly it shouts. Both these statements are particularly apt in relation to Korean art. If we keep them in mind as we walk through this exhibition, we will be able to understand and to appreciate a great deal more about Korean art than we have to date.

Korean prehistory remains particularly dim. Although a few Paleolithic sites -- some going as far back as 20,000 to 30,000 years -- have recently been uncovered, they tell us nothing about their occupants other than that they probably survived by hunting and fishing and by eating berries.

It wasn't until roughly 5,000 years ago, after the inhabitants of the Korean peninsula developed primitive stoneworking and pottery skills, that they were able to create objects which could change their way of life and enable them to establish more stable social units. Chief among these objects were tools and weapons -- and a low- fired form of pottery known as "comb-pattern." An example of the latter, a jar dating to about 3000 BC, is the oldest piece in the exhibition.

With the discovery of bronze metallurgy, probably as early as 600 BC, a major technical revolution was under way. Bronze became the main material for everything from swords and scabbards to belt buckles and remained in use even after iron came upon the scene. A small selection of these early bronzes, dating from the third to first centuries BC, are included in the exhibition.

But it is gold, fashioned during the fifth and sixth centuries into crowns, jewelry, cups, etc., which first captures our full attention. The crowns in particular are impressive pieces, although the craftsmanship in even the humbler bowls and ornaments is as superb as that of any similar work produced elsewhere in the world at that time.

With gold as our proper introduction, we easily move along into the rest of Korean art history, stopping most particularly to see the Buddhist sculptures, including their representative masterpiece, the gilt-bronze Maitreya, seated Buddha of the future, and the distinctive Chongja or blue celadon from the Koryo dynasty, and the white porcelains from the Yi dynasty. There is the small household and temple objects from various periods, and the paintings -- especially the early landscapes and the somewhat later animal studies.

Although a number of critics hold that latter-day Korean painting reflects a general state of decadence in the art, I cannot entirely agree. While it's true that Korean painting from the 18th century on is not always as robust as we might wish, there are enough fine examples to prove that it remained a lively and viable art from even into our century. "A Tiger" and "A Plantain Tree and Rock" (both from the 18th century), and the 19th century "Swimming Ducks" certainly show no loss of vigor. And Yi Sang Bom's recent "Landscape" shows considerable creative ingenuity in bringing an age-old painting tradition into the 20th century without in any way compromising that tradition.

After its closing on March 15, this exhibition travels to Kansas City (April 17 - June 14), and to National Museum of Natural History of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

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