Art: Korea's artistic legacy revealed
Despite being dominated by its more powerful neighbors and bifurcated by a Cold War schism since 1948, Korea has preserved a distinctive cultural patrimony that goes back at least two millennia.
Americans aren't exposed nearly as much to traditional Korea as they are to the comparable legacies of China and Japan, but that state of affairs appears to be changing.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently mounted a major exhibition of golden objects from Korea's first-millenium Silla Dynasty. Silla goldwork, along with celadon-glazed ceramics from the succeeding Goryeo Dynasty, are, for Americans, perhaps the most familiar examples of classical Korean art.
Now the Philadelphia Museum of Art is introducing us to the Joseon Dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, and to a contrasting Korean aesthetic.
Whereas previous rulers were guided by Buddhism, which entered Korea from China in the fourth century, the Joseon kings emphasized Confucian principles.
Derived from the teachings and sayings of the Chinese scholar-sage Confucius (551-479 B.C.), this compendium of ethical-philosophical precepts doesn't involve veneration of deities. It's a practical guide to living a virtuous life that involves ancestor worship, reverence for one's parents, cultivating harmony in thought and action, and recognizing defined social roles.
"Treasures From Korea," which the Art Museum organized with the National Museum of Korea and two other American museums, reveals an aesthetic of understatement - lean, refined, and exquisitely harmonious.
This shift is perhaps most noticeable in the ceramic vessels and containers of white porcelain, either plain - one can't get more minimalist - or sparely decorated.
A narrow-necked porcelain bottle represents the quintessence of the latter; it's adorned with the image of a "rope" drawn freehand in brown underglaze looped around the neck and sliding down the body. It's a striking gestural improvisation for a 16th-century vessel.
I had been hoping to see some celadons, the pale green, blue-green, or gray-green wares that are among the glories of world ceramics, but these belong to an earlier time.
The show does include a few examples of so-called Buncheong ware from the early 15th century, gray-green or brownish stoneware from the first few centuries of the Joseon period.
These more elaborately decorated pieces begin a transition to the ethereal white ware, typified by a small lidded jar dated to the 15th or 16th century. Its absolute purity of form and flawless surface define an ideal standard for ceramics that derive their appeal from those two qualities alone.
Enough ceramics. There are more than 150 objects in this magnificent exhibition - paintings, sculpture, furniture, calligraphy, illustrated books, costumes, metalwork (but only a pinch of gold, because the Confucians considered it ostentatious), and, in the final section, photographs.
Many of these are lent by the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, including a handful of objects designated as national treasures that have never before left the country.
One of these is the most spectacular object in the show, a monumental painting on jute (more than 39 by 25 feet) of the Buddha and attendants, made in 1653. Such paintings were used in outdoor ceremonies to celebrate the Buddha's birthday.
This example, one of about 100 that have survived, hangs majestically in the museum's Great Stair Hall, outside the show's entrance.
Although Confucian precepts guided the ruling elites during the Joseon period, Confucianism didn't completely supplant Buddhism.
The Art Museum's curator of Korean art, Hyunsoo Woo, leader of the curatorial team, devotes a section of the show to Buddhist paintings, sculptures, and ritual objects. Yet the predominant ethos is Confucian.
At the show's entrance, a mural-scale digital animation of a portion of an illustrated protocol used for the wedding of the 18th-century King Yeongjo and his queen, Jeongsun, immediately establishes the mood of ceremony, ritual, and aristocratic privilege that characterizes the show generally.
The lavishly detailed book itself is on view just inside the entrance. Next to it is a touch-screen digital display developed by Bluecadet design studio of Philadelphia that enables visitors to turn the pages virtually.
Bluecadet created a similar touch-screen program for one of the show's most impressive and delightful paintings, a 10-fold screen (colors on paper) titled Ten Longevity Symbols. The interactive program lets visitors find the symbols within the extensive landscape, explains them, and even sets them in motion, a nice touch.
Bluecadet also developed a program that allows visitors to translate their names into Korean using the 28-letter phonetic alphabet known as Hanguel, invented during the reign of King Sejong in the mid-15th century.
Two other paintings deserve mention. One is a portrait of the Confucian sage Yi Jae, painted on silk as a hanging scroll in the late 18th century. It's a powerfully direct likeness, the face modeled Western-style, in which the scholar wears a white robe and a black peaked cap.
The other is, for me, the most memorable object, an eight-fold screen called Sun, Moon and Five Peaks, an image that in East Asian cosmology symbolizes the universe in microcosm. It's a landscape, composed as mirrored halves and painted mainly in green and red, that expresses sublime harmony, tranquility and existential truth. If I hadn't proceeded beyond this painting, I would have felt that I had touched the core of this exhibition's philosophy.
"Treasures From Korea" is as much anthropology as art, and examines only the upper layers of a formally stratified society. Yet particularly in its initial stages - the show sags a bit in Joseon's final decades - it's a beautiful and illuminating examination of the culture once known as the Hermit Kingdom.
Treasures From Korea
Through May 26 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway. Admission: $20, $18 for seniors, $14 for students and teens. Pay what you wish on first Sundays and Wednesdays after 5 p.m. Information: 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org.
"Art" by Edward Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall appear in alternating weeks.