Korean art of fine living

by Yoko Haruhara

In celebration of the upcoming 2002 World Cup soccer finals co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, the Hiroshima Prefectural Art Museum will hold an exhibition titled “Masterpieces of Korean Art from the Joseon Dynasty” from Feb. 19. The exhibition consists of 300 works of art of the Joseon, or Yi, Dynasty (1392-1910) including paintings, calligraphy, ceramics, costumes, jewelry — and especially furniture.

Most of the extant furniture from this period dates to the late Yi Dynasty (19th and early 20th centuries). Praised by collectors, this furniture is often referred to as richo-kagu in Japanese. The pieces on display, borrowed from the National Museum of Korea and set up as re-constructed Yi Dynasty rooms, include typical uppe-class men’s and women’s quarters of this period. The living quarters of Yi Dynasty men and women were kept separate, as the adoption of neoConfucianism as a state ideology resulted in rigid gender separation in Korean society. The furniture of the time reflects the prevailing aesthetic values, with men preferring simple furniture and women coveting highly embellished pieces.

The women’s private room, called anbang in Korean, was the center of the house and also served as the master bedroom at night. It contained the most luxurious pieces of furniture in the home, typically decorated with metal fittings or inlaid mother-of-pearl. The exhibition showcases one elaborate example: a 19th-century bi-level black lacquer wardrobe inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

This decorative inlay technique was used for may items used in women’s quarters, including tables, jewelry cases and sewing boxes, and the work required highly skilled craftsmanship. Mother-of-pearl comes from the inner surface of abalone shells and was cut into pieces to make intricate design motifs. One technique involved crushing the shell with a sharp knife prior to inlaying it, creating a cracked pattern that reflected light and enhanced the beauty of the design. Once the mother-of-pearl had been inlaid, the piece of furniture was covered in many coats of lacquer. Later, the piece was burnished until the shell design was flush with the surface. These painstaking techniques reached the height of their popularity in the 18th century.

Attesting to the richness of Korean traditional culture, the decorative motifs of women’s furniture include auspicious symbols of longevity, happiness, wealth and fecundity. The inlaid lacquer wardrobe in the exhibition portrays the 10 Korean symbols of long life — sip-jang-saeng in Korean — the crane, the tortoise, the deer, the sun, water, the clouds, pine trees, bamboo, rocks and mushrooms. Korean women still decorate their homes today with similarly designed inlaid shell furniture that is usually a part of their wedding dowries.

Besides women’s furniture, the exhibition boasts some excellent examples of men’s furniture. The men’s living room, called sarangbang in Korean, functioned as the study for the master of the home and a place to entertain male guests. Desks, bookcases, storage cases for documents and medicine chests were typically placed in these rooms.

One of the quintessential pieces of furniture is a kyongsang, an 18th-century writing desk with upturned ends, designed for male use. The term refers to a desk used for reading Buddhist scriptures. Like the Chinese and the Japanese, the Koreans used scrolls of paper to write calligraphy. The upturned ends had a practical purpose: They kept scrolls from falling off the edge of the desk. On the right side of the desk-top, there is a lid covering a compartment that contains an inkstone.

The furniture in the sarangbang was made of zelkova wood, paulownia or persimmon, and had simple, small metal fittings. The male aesthetic in furniture design called for an appreciation of the natural beauty of wood-grain patterns rather than elaborate ornamentation.

Whether spare and minimalist or ornate and lavish, these master works of Korean furniture design give us a rare glimpse of the vibrant interior decor of the Yi Dynasty. Co-hosting a major sports event provides a good opportunity to showcase the artistic accomplishments of Japan’s neighbor, and so bring both countries into closer cultural proximity.