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00707012
2012.09
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KOREAN

A Look Back at Korean Artworks in the U.S./KF and the National Museum Jointly Host Exhibition


The National Museum of Korea presented an exhibition of 86 Korean works of art from U.S. collections from June 5 to August 5, under the joint sponsorship with the Korea Foundation. The exhibition, titled “Korean Art from the United States,” was a rare occasion to recall how American individuals and museums became interested in collecting Korean artworks and how their collections have been maintained and exhibited.

Korean Art Collections at U.S. Museums

The exhibition consisted of three sections. The first section, titled “Collecting: The History of Korean Art Collections at U.S. Museums,” shed light on how Korean artworks made their way into private and institutional collections in the United States. Americans began to collect Korean artworks in the late 19th century, when Korea under the Joseon Dynasty opened its doors to foreign countries.

Among Korean art collectors at this time were individuals such as Edward Morse (1838-1925) who also collected Japanese and Chinese works of art, while foreign envoys visiting Korea and those invited to work for the royal household received Korean art objects as gifts (Plates 1, 2). They first showed a keen interest in ceramics, especially celadon works, and U.S. museums also highly valued celadon when they started to acquire Korean artworks in the late 19th century.

“Peach-shaped Water Dropper,” white porcelain, 19th century, Joseon Dynasty, H. 11.7cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Photograph: Seo Heun-kang)/“Lacquer box inlaid with mother-of-pearl and tortoise shell,” Goryeo Dynasty, 12th century, H. 4.1cm, L. 10.2cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art)However, Korean art collections and exhibitions met with setbacks in the mid-20th century. Following Japan’s defeat in World War II and Korea’s independence in 1945, the Korean War broke out in 1950 and Americans’ interest in collecting Korean art declined while some museums even moved their Korean exhibits into storage. On the other hand, U.S. military leaders and troops stationed in Korea came to appreciate Korean art and steadily broadened their interest to such areas as earthenware and white porcelain (Plate 3). Under these circumstances, the “Masterpieces of Korean Art” exhibition toured the United States for two years from 1957 to 1959, while Avery Brundage, then president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), donated his collection of Korean artworks to the City of San Francisco, providing a turning point for the recognition of Korean art among the U.S. public. Korean artworks thus began to emerge from storage and returned to exhibition rooms at U.S. museums in the 1960s.

Moreover, in the 1970s, a considerable number of artworks, previously thought to be Chinese or Japanese in origin, managed to recover their Korean identity. They included Buddhist paintings and lacquer ware inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the Goryeo Dynasty. All this was made possible due to an accumulation of research outcomes on Korean art history and the emergence of competent scholars in and outside of Korea (Plate 4). Another major exhibition, titled “5,000 Years of Korean Art” toured major cities in the United States, leading to the opening of Korean galleries at some prominent U.S. museums. These days, leading U.S. museums and art galleries are steadily building up their Korean art collections.

Exhibitions Reflect Korea’s Image in the U.S.

The second section, titled “Exhibiting: Artworks in the Korean Collections at U.S. Museums,” presented selected artworks from nine museums in the United States according to the year when their Korean galleries were founded. American museums began to collect Korean artworks in earnest around the late 19th century, but it was those museums which emphasized multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism, such as the Honolulu Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum, that displayed Korean artworks at independent spaces. In particular, the Honolulu Museum of Art has maintained a Korean Gallery since the time of its opening in 1927, which probably reflects the geographical and cultural characteristics of Hawaii where Korean immigration began in 1903. For the Seoul exhibition, the Hawaii museum contributed two objects: “Attendant” (Plate 5) and “Sakyamuni Preaching at Vulture Peak,” both exhibited in the Korean gallery when it opened in 1927. The museum had borrowed “Attendant” for one year before purchasing it. The wooden image provides a glimpse into how Koreans, or Asians, were perceived by Americans at the time.

“Attendant,” wooden sculpture, late Joseon Dynasty, H. 75.6cm, Honolulu Museum of Art. (Photograph © Honolulu Museum of Art)/“Standing Buddha,” gilt bronze, Unified Silla Kingdom, 8th century, H. 47.3cm, Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. (Photograph © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco)/“Bronze basin inlaid with silver wire,” Goryeo Dynasty, 13th-14th century, H. 17.0cm, D. 28.3cm (rim), Cleveland Museum of Art. (Photograph © The Cleveland Museum of Art)

In 1989, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco set up the first-ever Korean Art Department in the United States and appointed full-time Korean art curators, contributing greatly to the promotion of Korean art exhibitions and related research. Owing to the active support from the Korea Foundation and local community groups, this led to the establishment of Korean galleries and employment of curators specializing in Korean art at other leading U.S. museums in the 1990s and 2000s. In addition, the Philadelphia Museum of Art organized the Korean Heritage Group in 1992, giving a further boost to Korean art collections, exhibitions, and research projects in collaboration with local communities. Then in 1998, the Metropolitan Museum of Art installed its Korean Gallery, and began actively organizing Korean art exhibitions and outreach programs.

Some highlights of the exhibition at the National Museum in Seoul, which demonstrated refined techniques of traditional Korean art, were: “Sakyamuni Preaching at Vulture Peak,” a painting from the early Joseon period (Honolulu Museum of Art); a Goryeo celadon ewer with carved lotus petals (Brooklyn Museum); “Water Buffaloes in a Mountain Valley,” a Joseon period painting (Los Angeles County Museum of Art); a sutra box with mother-of-pearl inlay of chrysanthemum scrolls (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); a Goryeo celadon ewer and a standing Buddha image from the Unified Silla period (Asian Art Museum of San Francisco); a celadon maebyeong bottle with inlaid crane and cloud design, and a wooden image of attendant boy (Philadelphia Museum of Art); a celadon maebyeong bottle inlaid with crane and cloud design, and a lacquered box with mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell inlay, both dated to the Goryeo period (Metropolitan Museum of Art); a bronze bowl with silver inlay from the Goryeo period (Cleveland Museum of Art); and a cylindrical earthenware stand for a vessel (Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Harvard University).

The third section, “Highlighting: Special Exhibitions of Korean Art and the Korean Galleries of U.S. Museums,” spotlighted the activities of Korean galleries and the Korean art exhibitions held at U.S. museums. The exhibits included catalogues of Korean galleries and special exhibitions, and educational materials.

‘600 Years of Korean Ceramics’ at Sao Paulo Museum of Art

Over the past two decades, the Korea Foundation and the National Museum of Korea have cooperated to introduce Korean culture and art in the international community, remarkably contributing to the global prestige of Korean art. The two organizations have joined hands to organize another special exhibition this year, “The Diverse Spectrum: 600 Years of Korean Ceramics,” which is underway from August 16 to November 25, at the Sao Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil.

This first-ever Korean pottery exhibition in Latin America opened the Korea Festival in Brazil, organized by the Korea Foundation to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Korean immigration to the Latin American country. It features buncheong and white porcelain objects of the Joseon period from the collection of the National Museum of Korea as well as modern pottery works, totaling 96 pieces. I hope the two institutions will continue their cooperative endeavor to introduce the prestigious collection of the National Museum through the Korea Foundation’s expertise in organizing cultural events of global standards.

Shin So-yeon, Curator Department of Fine Art
National Museum of Korea

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