From the hands of masters down the ages


The most impressive of the numerous art exhibitions taking place this summer to celebrate South Korea and Japan’s co-hosting of the World Cup soccer finals opened on Tuesday at Ueno’s Tokyo National Museum. “The Dynastic Heritage of Korea,” running June 11 to July 28, is the largest exhibition ever held outside Korea of the country’s dynastic treasures. Showcasing some 270 works of art dating from 3,000 B.C. to the 20th century, the display includes Buddhist sculptures, ceramics, paintings, textiles, furniture, jewelry and calligraphy.

The remarkable quality of the items on show is matched only by the historical breadth they span — the earliest pieces displayed are examples of earthenware dating back to the Neolithic Age, 5,000 years ago. The story of Korea’s history is told through its artifacts: ritual objects from the Bronze Age (1,000-300 B.C.), gold ornaments of the Three Kingdoms Period (313-668), Buddhist sculptures made during the Unified Silla Period (668-935), celadon ware dating from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) and paintings from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

One of the earliest great cultures of Korea was that of the Three Kingdoms Period, characterized by gold ornaments made to adorn its royalty. The dazzling items shown here — including crowns, belts, necklaces, bracelets and earrings — were excavated from royal tombs of each of the Three Kingdoms: Koguryo, Paekche, and Silla. These masterful pieces remind us of the supreme power of the early kings and also reveal the many cultural influences received and transmitted by the peoples of Korea.

One of the highlights is a fifth-century gold crown, excavated from the Kumkwanchong (Gold Crown Tomb) in the Silla Kingdom; its small spangles, attached with fine gold wire, testify to the skill of the craftsmen who made it. The crown bears in its center a three-branched tree, flanked by two golden antlers, motifs that indicate the likely origin of these crown designs among the nomadic peoples of southern Siberia and Central Asia, where similar diadems have been excavated.

Another beautiful example of decorative metalwork is a gold belt with 17 pendants. The shapes of these ornaments include a fish, a pair of tweezers and a medicine box, hinting at the ruler’s secondary role as a shaman. During the king’s lifetime, the bells attached to his belt would announce his arrival, the crown heightening his majestic presence. In death, the king was again dressed with a gold crown and belt in preparation for burial.

The artifacts of the Three Kingdoms Period also hint at Korea’s considerable cultural influence on Japan. One small but revealing indicator of this are the comma-shaped green jade jewels that typically decorate Korea’s royal crowns and belts (including the two examples mentioned above). These are, without doubt, precursors to the magatama beads found in Japanese imperial tumuli of the fifth and sixth centuries. But during this phase of Korean history, the country’s influence on Japan extended beyond art and ornamentation. Korea played a role in the introduction of Buddhism, scientific knowledge (including agricultural methods) and skills such as pottery-making and papermaking.

Cultural exchange ran in many directions, and evidence of the transmission of Chinese culture to Korea can be seen in artifacts of the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Among the techniques adopted from the Chinese were the use of climbing kilns to fire clay vessels and the use of celadon glazing. Korean potters set their stamp on these imported methods by creating a distinctive pottery inlaying technique known as sanggan, which reached its peak in the 12th century. Patterns would be carved into vessels, then white or black clay inlaid into the surface. High-temperature firing produced the characteristic pale-green color of celadon ware.

Celadon wares on show at the national museum include incense burners, flower vases and ewers, in the shapes of dragons, pomegranates and watermelons. One of the most splendid pieces is an incense burner in the form of intricately layered chrysanthemum petals and supported on the shoulders of three little rabbits. Smoke from incense burned inside the vessel would rise through the fancy openwork lid, this in the shape of flower blossoms, each with a white center of sanggan inlay.

The use of such luxurious incense burners was reserved for the aristocracy and for Buddhist priests, and much of Korea’s celadon ware was produced at designated royal kilns for these two privileged classes. The examples on display, all of which are national treasures dating from the Goryeo Dynasty, show the refinement of items produced for the highest echelons of society, as well as the influence of Buddhist motifs. Indeed, the two classes were intertwined: Since its introduction to Korea in the fourth century, Buddhism had played an important role in the dissemination of culture and the legitimization of authority, and the activities of temples and monasteries were sponsored by the royal families.

With the unification of Korea and the founding of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, however, Neo-Confucianism was adopted as the state ideology. The popularity of Buddhist art waned during this period, but “commoner” culture flourished. Instrumental in this cultural dissemination was the creation of the Korean hangul alphabet in 1443. The alphabet fostered the development of popular culture, including genres such as folk tales and songs. Court painters, whose subjects had previously been the life and pursuits of the aristocracy, turned instead to the lifestyles of the commoners, and genre painting was born.

Among the most refreshing artworks in this exhibition are the genre works of the master court painter Kim Hongdo. Kim took a humorous view of commoner life, infusing his paintings with irony. In one work, “Roof Tiling,” he portrays craftsmen building a house. Concentrating on the individual movements of each worker, Kim creates a snapshot of their day, showing the light-hearted tiler tossing a tile up in the air while a fellow worker, oblivious to his actions, hauls up a clay bundle from below.

This glimpse of Korean life is just one of many afforded by the some 70 Korean national treasures and cultural properties on show — many being exhibited abroad for the first time. Produced by master potters, painters, calligraphers and metalworkers down the centuries, these works reveal the innovation and refinement that characterized Korea’s pursuit of the arts.