Western publications on the history of Asian arts may give the reader the erroneous impression that the arts of the country known as Korea are in fact non-existent. A tiny chapter on Korea usually huddles like an orphan between authoritative essays devoted to China and Japan, as if the country were but a bridge between the two great cultures. The underestimation of Korean arts stems from the inauspicious course of events that occurred in East Asia during the 20th century. The First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 over the control of Korea was fought on the Korean peninsula, followed in 1910 by Japan’s annexation of Korea, an attempt to assimilate the Korean people which lasted thirty-five years. Finally, when Korea regained its lost independence after World War II, it was artificially divided along the 38th parallel and once again devastated in the disastrous Korean War of 1950–53. For more than fifty-four years, North Korea and South Korea – divided between the spheres of influence of the former Soviet Union and the United States – have been living in diametrically opposite conditions and in a tense armistice. Currently, South Korea (which calls itself Hanguk, literally, “Han Country”) is seeking a peaceful course that would result in the reintegration of one of the last divided nations in the world.
Museums around the globe house very few Korean art collections. The arts of Korea can therefore be appreciated only through exhibitions brought directly from South Korea. In the 20th century, one large metropolitan National Museum and five regional National Museums were established in South Korea, where national cultural treasures were fortunately preserved, with no major losses. However, due to the country’s military occupation and the ensuing war, these artefacts remained inaccessible to the outside world. For example, the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, founded in 1908, was forced to relocate seven times throughout the 20th century, so that the museum’s curatorial staff spent most of their lives packing, unpacking and recounting the institution’s extensive art holdings. Over the past twenty-five years, South Korea has been coming to the forefront on the European scene as well, and world’s prominent museums (Cologne, London, Berlin, Vienna, Tokyo, Paris, San Francisco) have held exhibitions of Korean art.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF KOREA
The National Museum of Korea opened to the public on October 28, 2005. Following eight years of construction, the new building of truly monumental size now houses an ideal modern arts museum. Every museologist’s dream, the entire compound occupies over 300,000 square meters of space open to visitors. It is located in Yongsan, a district of Seoul, on the southern slope of Namsan Mountain, near the Han River. The museum grounds’ garden area, including a large lake that mirrors the museum’s architecture, is conceived as an open-air museum featuring Korean architectural and sculptural monuments. NMK art collections amount to 150,000 artefacts of traditional Korean art, out of which astonishing quantity about 10 000 pieces are on permanent display. The institution’s promotion and publication policy is on a similarly superior level. The museum publishes a monthly bulletin in Korean with news on its activities and a quarterly that appears in four languages, with scholarly texts that discuss the most valuable pieces in its holdings. Alongside exquisite books on its permanent installations, the museum also publishes beautifully designed and exquisitely printed multi-language catalogues on temporary exhibitions. The Koreans themselves define the National Museum of Korea in Seoul as “the place where we commit the national spirit to posterity.”
Soon after the new premises were opened, the National Museum of Korea decided that its first presentation abroad would be a loan exhibition of Korean art to be shown in the Czech Republic. Given Korea’s protective approach to its artistic tradition and immense pride in it, the National Gallery in Prague is very appreciative that the National Museum’s management selected Prague as the exhibition’s venue in Central Europe. In their character and size, the collections housed in the National Museum of Korea in Seoul bring to mind the historical holdings of the Czech Republic’s National Museum. As an institution specializing in the classic fine arts, the National Gallery in Prague has decided to place the Korean art exhibition with its permanent installations of Asian art at the Zbraslav Chateau. There, Korean and other Asian cultures are explored through examples of the fine arts and the decorative arts presented together.
THE ART OF KOREA
The long-term exhibition named The Art of Korea comprises ninety artefacts, which will be on public view for a period of two years. Displayed in two halls on the second floor of the Zbraslav Chateau, the exhibition features seventy archaeological, artistic and ethnographic objects on loan from South Korea, supplemented by twenty Korean works from the National Gallery’s own Korean art holdings. The Koreans adopted stoneware and porcelain production methods from China, but they imbued their ceramic wares with distinctly Korean aesthetics of spontaneity and vigour, in which they achieved unparalleled mastery. Although some types of ceramics have assumed a world reputation as Chinese or Japanese ware, their origins may be sought in Korea’s many ceramic kilns. This is especially true of greenish stoneware jewels celadons dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries. With other kinds of ceramic ware, the Koreans were able to preserve the secrets of production for themselves. In terms of quality and beauty, buncheong ware, which is typically decorated with incised designs, inlaid or painted patterns in brownish iron-oxides, is a creative accomplishment unmatched in the world. The austere and plain beauty of white baekja porcelain reflects the refined tastes of Confucian-minded aristocracy of the late Joseon period. All these types of pottery can be admired in the exhibition room designed to resemble the Korean peninsula.
The second hall examines the spiritual world of the Korean people. In the medieval Goryeo period (which gave Korea its name), Korea was under the sway of the profound Buddhist faith and subsequently, during the Joseon era, under the influence of orthodox Neo-Confucianism. The ritual bronze objects on display attest to Buddhism’s enormous impact on the peninsula: there are three mirrors and a bell dating from the 11th century, a Buddhist statue dating from the 8th century, as well as Buddhist ritual vessels and a large coloured painting of Buddhist icons. During the five-hundred-year reign of the Joseon dynasty, the lofty ideals of Confucianism were pursued by the sizeable social class, the yangban. The world in which these state officials lived is presented to visitors through their official attire and examples of the writing utensils and furnishings typically found in their studies. This section of the exhibition is therefore largely devoted to artefacts made of metals, textiles, wood and paper. All paintings on view come from the National Gallery’s own collections.
The catalogue is essentially the first Czech publication on Korean art. The book includes reproductions of a variety of Korean National Treasures, which could not be presented in Prague either because Korean laws forbid their travel outside Korea, or simply because the objects are stationary or fixed within the permanent installations of the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. The catalogue’s introductory essay on Korean history was written by Jiří Janoš, a Czech expert on Korea, while the texts on art and the plates were selected and annotated by the curator of the National Museum of Korea, the Chief of the Conservation Department, Lee Neogg. The artworks captions for the exhibition and the catalogue were written by the twelve-member team of Korean curators of the National Museum of Korea under the leadership of Choi Eungchon, the Head of Special Exhibition Team. The names of Korean curators are listed in abbreviated form at the bottom of every illustration in the catalogue, and in full in the book’s colophon.
The Art of Korea exhibition is accompanied by a number of lectures, film projections, photography exhibitions, workshops etc. prepared by the Education Department of the National Gallery in Prague in cooperation with the Czech-Korean Society.
Director of the Collection of Oriental Art
National Gallery in Prague
EDUCATION DEPARTMENT PROGRAM AND EXHIBITIONS
The Art of Korea permanent collection is accompanied by a number of lectures, film projections, exhibition of photography Ancient Faces from Namsan Mountain – Kim Taeshik and Corean Ceramics – Please-Touch Exhibition, workshops etc. prepared by the Education Department of the Collection of Oriental Art of the National Gallery in Prague in cooperation with the Czech-Korean Society.
The historical relics found in the vicinity of Gyeongju, in the southeastern region of the Korean peninsula were placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000. For over a millennium, the region was the centre of the Silla Kingdom (1st century B.C. – 10th century A.D.) The Namsan Mountain abounds in historical monuments. All relics are associated with Buddhist art and culture, which flourished during the period of the Kingdom of Silla. These treasures therefore include a great many Buddhist sculptures, temple foundations, pagodas and lanterns. According to the catalogue published by the Gyeongju National Museum, there are 122 foundations of Buddhist shrines, 53 statues of Buddha, 64 pagodas, lanterns and other Buddhist artefacts. Owing to the host of artworks, Gyeongju and Namsan Mountain are considered today to be an open-air museum.
The exhibition of photographs Ancient Faces from Namsan Mountain explores the facial expression of the statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas carved into stone. Aimed at featuring the nobleness of Buddha, particular rules governed the execution of Buddhist sculptures, such as the thirty-two and eighty special “signs of grace“. The manner in which Buddha was depicted varied according to region and the period of execution. The best known statues at Namsan Mountain are found in the Seokguram Grotto. They are generally viewed as masterful renditions of Buddhist iconography, display both Indian and Chinese features. Not all the Buddhist relics at the Namsan Mountain are modelled on this ideal, however. The images of Buddha displayed around the mountain are greatly varied, reflecting the aesthetics of the artists and craftsmen of the time. Some statues may be considered neither beautiful nor harmonious, some may even be contemplated with a smile for their naiveté. Still other Buddha carvings have faces reminiscent of good-natured Korean peasants, with their wide-open eyes and fleshy lips, or half-closed eyes and a serene countenance. There are even Buddha statues that seem to appear irritated. All the Buddha and Bodhisattva sculptures at Namsan Mountain were created without pressure to observe the canonical rules, which makes them so diversified. The facial features of the carved Buddhas reflect the aesthetics and likenesses of ancient Silla inhabitants. The central Buddha statue in the Seokguram Grotto has an aristocratic expression, whereas other statues around the mountain resemble ordinary local peasants. In a sense, the statues scattered all over the area is a record of sorts of the ancient Silla population and may seem familiar to visitors today.
COREAN CERAMICS – PLEASE-TOUCH EXHIBITION
The tactile exhibition “Korean Ceramics – Please-Touch Exhibition“ accompanies the newly-opened display “The Art of Korea“. The collection of more than seventy artefacts have been
loaned on a long-term basis from the National Museum of Korea. This small selection of ceramic replicas created by the South Korean artist ceramist Woo Kang mae represents various historical periods and styles of pottery produced on the Korean peninsula from the 12th to the 15th century. Featured as well is the contemporary work of this artist who has sought inspiration in the ornamental technique whereby designs are cut into the slip coating. The ceramic replicas have been made larger than the originals in order to facilitate visually-impaired visitors’ easier examination of the vessels’ shapes and decorations. Our experience with organizing tactile exhibitions have convinced us that persons with impaired vision have difficulties learning about the arts of remote cultures. We therefore intend to increase the number of please-touch exhibitions and accompanying programmes, offering the visitors new possibilites of appreciating art, as well as their further integration and understanding of material culture.