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NEWSLETTER

00707012
2013.01
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KOREAN

Shed New Light on the Global Standard of Korean Beauty / New Gallery for the Korean Collection at MFA Boston / Korean Gallery at MFA Boston

The Korean Gallery at MFA Boston was established in 1982 to celebrate the century of diplomatic relations between U.S. and Korea in 1882. The Gallery was already 30 years old by 2012, so its renovation and redesign, thanks to the support of the Korea Foundation, has been timely.

KF Day to Open Renovated Korean Gallery

KF Day to Open Renovated Korean GalleryIn the new gallery, we have installed Goppion display cases from Italy and a touch screen to illustrate ceramic techniques. We are also displaying a variety of paintings and panel screens as well as contemporary ceramics for the first time. The paintings and screens will be rotated every nine months, so there will always be something new for visitors to see.

The contemporary ceramics greet visitors as they enter the gallery and show how today's Korean artists are engaging with their past tradition. the MFA's collection is particularly strong in ceramics, thanks to the Hoyt collection, and Buddhist paintings, many of which were collected in Japan in the last 19th century. To supplement the renovated Korean Gallery, we have also installed in the neighboring gallery a temporary exhibition of a selection of the MFA's fine Joseon Dynasty Buddhist paintings, which have remained in storage for many years.

To celebrate the opening of the renovated gallery, the MFA jointly staged a Korea Foundation Day, which included a lecture on the collection, an artist's talk session with Kang Ik-joong, two rousing performances by Gong Myoung, and a drawing activity for visitors in the galleries, as well as a splendid buffet dinner for invited guests.

Collectors of Korean Beauty

MFA Boston was founded in 1870, and from early on Asian art became one of its strengths, which made it a leader in this field. Some of the more interesting items in our Korean collection include a group of 60 photographs taken in 1882-83 by a local Bostonian, Percival Lowell. In December 1883, Lowell was invited to Korea by Emperor Gojong. There are numerous scenes of old Seoul captured by Lowell, providing a window of Lowell's time while serving as a confidant of Emperor Gojong, of whom he was uniquely allowed to take photographs sitting in Gyeongbok Palace. Lowell spent a decade in Asia and wrote "Choson, the Land of the Morning Calm" in 1886.

Collectors of Korean BeautyAmong the first Korean artworks to enter the MFA were Buddhist paintings collected in Japan, between 1878 and 1889, by Buddhist devotees William Sturgis Bigelow and Ernest Francisco Fenollosa. These paintings had been taken to Japan at some point and preserved for hundreds of years at Buddhist temples. Bigelow and Fenollosa went a zoologist who arrived there in 1877. Morse developed an interest in pottery, and his collection was eventually purchased by the MFA in 1892. This collection included a group of 112 early Korean ceramics, which he had possibly acquired from Pierre Louis Jouy, another zoologist and Morse acquaintance. Morse wrote in the catalogue of his collection: "A small collection of Korean pottery has been brought together to show in a measure what the Japanese realy owe to Korea."

Thirty-one pieces of Korean art came to the MFA through Bigelow, who collected the items during the seven years he spent in Japan. Some of the most notable Korean works donated by Bigelow include the 14th century ''Perfect Enlightenment Sutra Illumination," the 13th century lacquer sutra box inlaid with mother-of-pearl, one of only eight known remaining in the world, and the painting of a falcon (originally thought to be Chinese when it came to the MFA but recently reattributed to Yi Am).

Fenollosa's "Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art," published in 1913 after his death, provides a ground-breaking history of East Asian art, based on the Western art historical model. Of note, he makes reference to the high quality of early Buddhist art and is much more positive than Morse about the "debt" that Japan owed to Korea. Fenollosa's collection was purchased and donated to the MFA. Twenty-one of these works are Korean, including 'The Descent of Tejaprabha Buddha," a Goryeo painting.

One of Fenollosa's students, Okakura, served as advisor and curator at the MFA, from 1904 to 1913. Okakura established a Special Korean Pottery Fund at the MFA, with which he purchased celadon works and bronze mirrors. And, as testimony to his discerning taste, one of the most important works in the Korean collection belonged to Okakura personally - an exceptional eighth-century gilt-bronze Medicine Buddha, which was donated to the MFA after his death by Edward Jackson Holmes.

Another major donor was Denman Waldo Ross. He served as an MFA Trustee for over 40 years, from 1895 to 1934, and donated 39 Korean pieces, some jointly with Bigelow. These included two noteworthy Joseon Dynasty Kings of Hell paintings. In 1919, a pair of Silla earrings was donated from the collection of Hervey Edward Wetzel, a friend and traveling companion of Denman Waldo Ross.

In the 1930s, under the curatorship of Tomita Kojiro, two extraordinary pieces of Goryeo metalwork were purchased by MFA. And in 1935, MFA purchased a gilt silver wine ewer and warming basin surmounted by a phoenix standing on lotus flowers, surely a royal piece (this work was loaned to the National Museum of Korea for its centenary exhibition in 2009). The MFA also acquired by exchange a gilt silver Buddhist reliquary in the shape of a stupa, sitting on a lotus flower. Within the reliquary are five small hexagonal containers, two of which contain symbolic relics of Naong and Jigong, two distinguished Goryeo Buddhist monks. The MFA has recently made a 3D scan of this reliquary and provided it free of charge to the Hoeamsa Temple Museum, which intends to make a replica on the basis of the scanned image.

Another notable collection of Korean art came to the MFA in 1950 as a bequest from Charles Bain Hoyt, which consists mainly of ceramics but also includes various metalwork items. Hoyt not only left his collection to the MFA but also established an acquisition fund from which the Museum continues to benefit. The Hoyt collection of nearly 300 pieces has remained relatively unknown, partly because of the restriction he imposed, which stipulated that the works should not be lent out. The celadon works are unparalleled in the United States, and perhaps only rivaled in the West by the Gompertz Collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, England.

In more recent years, Jan Fontein, a prominent Asian art scholar who worked at the MFA from 1968 to 1987, acquired 253 works of Korean art and archaeology for the Museum. He also organized the traveling loan exhibition from entitled ''5,000 Years of Korean Art" in 1980, and opened the original Korean Gallery in 1982.

Space for Coexistence of the Past and Present

Today, the MFA continues to collect Korean at through purchase and donation, in order to keep the collection abreast of the times and to reflect present-day Korea as well as Korea's past. in the past four years, we have acquired 20 works, mainly Joseon Dynasty screens and contemporary ceramics, along with a North Korean propaganda poster, as a record for future generations of the present regime in that half of the Korean Peninsula.

In 2003, the Korean National Research Institute for Cultural Heritage carried out a survey of the MFA's Korean collection and as a result there are digital photographs of the entire collection on the Museum’s web site, making them accessible to a worldwide audience at: www.mfa.org/search/collections. Thanks to the Korea Foundation, the MFA is now able open a renovated and redesigned Korean Gallery, which will enable new generations to see and appreciate the beauty of Korean art, both past and present, and the efforts of those early scholars, travelers, and collectors.

Space for Coexistence of the Past and Present

Jane Portal, Curator Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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