All Things Entertaining and Cultural

Treasures from Korea: Art and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty — Philadelphia Museum of Art

Korea cover 1 “Treasures from Korea,” the current featured exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, can be appreciated on so many levels, it’s difficult to decide which to emphasize. The blend of colorful yet symbolic screens, decorative paintings, portraits, religious objects, historical scrolls, furniture, household items, jewelry, and ceramics combines so perfectly to offer a complete and varied sense of a specific place, Korea, in a specific time, the Joseon dynasty that reigned from 1392 to 1910, PMA’s overview brings an entire culture to vivid and complex life while maintaining the simple orderliness in display that is a signature trait of that culture.

‘Treasures from Korea” is a lovely show. Though containing hundreds of individual pieces ranging from ceremonial robes to delicate figures in gold and porcelain, the exhibition creates a compact, intimate atmosphere, one that gives the PMA galleries that house it a sense of tranquility that seems to go hand in hand which the Joseon (pronounced Cho-sun) way of life. Maybe that’s because for all of its volume — There is much to see and examine. — the show gives the impression of being a tasteful selection of thoughtfully related material rather than a massive presentation that overwhelms as it delights.

History and the spirituality of Joseon culture remain redolent throughout the “Treasures from Korea” show, but your eye is drawn to the opulent screens depicting scenes from nature, the hangings that laud Buddhism, the gorgeous garments in bold color patterns, and the various pots and figurines that are spread with a true decorator’s touch among PMA’s ground floor galleries. Modern technology makes its mark in the exhibition as scenes from screens and scrolls are animated in a way that lifts from the page and turns them into a charming, and well-drawn, cartoon. Other computer posts delineate the ten symbols of longevity that can be found painted on a traditional screen that artistically incorporates the tenets of Confucianism with beauty in its own right.

That’s one of the most rewarding parts of the “Treasures from Korea” exhibition, how ingenuously the symbolic and the beautiful exist side-by-side in elegant harmony. You don’t have to know anything about Korean history or culture to appreciate how wonderfully conceived and executed the works of art on display are. The art speaks for itself and generates its own admiration apart from any association with a given culture or tradition. The connection to a time and place, and the feeling the PMA exhibition evokes of that time and place, only makes the “Korea” show richer.

Today it’s almost a death knell to say that an art exhibition is as educational as it is elegant and absorbing. Neither PMA nor any of its partners at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, or National Museum of Korea in Seoul is responsible for how little American know of Korean history or culture, but among them, they found a way to introduce interest in those subjects while assembling a feast for the eye and mind. Thank goodness these institutions, and their curators — Hyunsoo Woo from Philadelphia, Virginia Moon from L.A., Christine Starkman from Houston, and various experts from Seoul — proceeded with their effort and brought forward such a textured and captivating show.

From the time you enter, Woo, Moon, Starkman, and their colleagues find ways to charm you, enlightenment being a byproduct of seeing magnificent art in clever, involving display.

The first gallery, in addition to inaugurating a policy of giving information about the Joseon dynasty and its various social strata and religious rituals by imprinting text over colorful photos of important Korean landscapes, features a marvelous video that animates a large scroll filled with figures you will see in a subsequent gallery, “Illustrations of the Record of King Jeongjo’s Visit to His Father’s Tomb,” a neatly organized scroll that depicts small figures in watercolor  that represent the various people in Korean society during Jeongjo’s reign, which lasts from 1776 to 1800, also seminal years in United States history.

The animator simulates the opening of a handsome bound book and  lets you see the scroll in its usual two-dimensional format before having soldier rise and go on the march in three dimensions. Horse brigades follow. The king is shown being carried in a sedan chair. You see the queen, Jeongson, following her husband and wearing a veil. Various cadres of soldiers are in uniform with bayoneted muskets over their shoulders. A picture that is charming when you see the artist’s sense of order and organization is made vibrant and impressive in its video rendering. Two eras of art are mingled to provide two occasions of delight.

Korea cover 4Other scrolls in the style of “King Jeongjo’s Visit” are prominent in the “Treasures” show. These include the many scrolls it requires to depict the “Royal Palanquin Procession,” which  a long line of people, en route to a wedding, in mirror form, the bottom of screen showing citizens on foot and horseback while the top portion of the screen depicting the same scene upside down.  This treatment goes on for scroll after scroll and is fascinating  not only in its detail but in how meticulously the rightside-up nand upside-down figures match in form, costume, color, etc. The Joseon visual chroniclers obviously knew how to have fun while being masters of their craft.

Protocol is primary to Joseon order in the years parallel to the births of the U.S. and a new government in France. Several screen and drawing in textbooks illustrate the care that was taken to make sure each member of a procession, wedding party, or other ceremony, was in his or her proper place and accounted for in what could come to be official records.

Examples of such drawings are “The Royal Protocol for the State Funeral of King Sukjong,” drawn in bound books and depicting the king lying in state on a colorfully covered catafalque, a group of men carrying lanterns,  others carrying torches, and soldiers on horseback; “The Royal Protocol for the Wedding of King Yeongjo and Queen Jeongsun,” which is in four blocks as if it is primed to be bound in book form; “The Royal Banquet in the Year of Gichuk, which shows in detail how groups of people were gathered and entertained;  a picture “Celebrating the Birth of the Crown Prince,” that shows a parade of sorts inside a palace enclosure where the child will be presented to his parents on a throne;  and a “Royal Banquet in the Year of Musin.” All of these pictures are drawn on silk, now browned a bit to a café au lait shade, with red and green being dominant colors and depictions showing the deftness which artists can articulate the features of the smallest person or object.

Commemorative screens chronicle the history of the 18th century Joseon royalty. Decorative screens, and screens that represent symbols of Confucianism, are just as meticulous in their design and painting but are much more vivid in color and expressive representation of nature. A landscape that also shows the 10 Confucian symbols of longevity, and a scene showing “Sun, Moon,” and Five Peaks” are glorious to behold and show mastery of both artistry and discipline. The regularity of images, in addition to their sometimes fanciful, sometimes traditional manner of being drawn is entertaining in addition to being flat-out beautiful. A ten-fold screen of “Peonies” is exquisite in both its composition and the absolute loveliness of the flowers from their petals, accompanying leaves, and vases. Taking up entire walls of the “Treasures of Korea” exhibition, these multi-paneled screens are literally breathtaking. Their scope, order, and beauty make you gasp.

The screens on which the colorful panels are mounted are also worth a look. They are carved or embossed with a delicate pattern that repeats screen-to-screen and make a fitting housing for the scrolls of peonies.

The “Ten Longevity Symbols” are also spread over 10 screens that combine to make one felicitous painting filled with images and depicting a sumptuous landscape in which all exists in peaceful harmony.

The longevity symbols are the sun, clouds, mountains, water, mushrooms, pine trees, bamboo, deer, cranes, and tortoises, which, along with elephants, happen to be one of my symbols.

The incorporation of these elements into one painting is an artistic triumph. As water laps over rocks in the lower left corner of the painting, tortoises gather on the shore and snap at the bright red sun above and at some deer that are looking at them from a plateau. Pairs of deer are peacefully walking or resting all along the bottom portion of the painting. Pine trees, leafier than the variety with which were familiar, and bamboo rise at regular intervals and form a framework for the painting, one that gives it discipline but never imposes. The mushroom are cartoonish red and light brown plantings in the foreground along the entire bottom of the screens. Cranes, elegantly drawn, fly or roost majestically in the top portion of the panels. Green mountains give perspective in the distance. The picture is so happily composed, with its waterfall and peaceful fauna, that you enjoy it as whole while having extra fun playing a scavenger game of sorts by picking out the longevity symbols.

Another panel, also called “Ten Longevity Symbols” was listed as “Peaches” in my notes before I learned the actual title. It ups the ante by depicting 13 symbols delicately places among peach trees with the sun looked maroonish as it pools above, and cranes are shown in more variety as they fly over mountains and trees.

PMA chose “Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks” as its logo of sorts for the ‘Treasures of Korea” exhibition. What a rich and elegant selection!

The painting, on six panels of colors on silk, excites what seems like a landscape in motion. The curves of the peaks, with their rounded tops made from swirling lines, and the expressionist approach to showing the levels of various stands of trees, animates the picture while endowing it with tranquility. The red sun to the right, and the white moon to the left, illuminate the landscape equally. Twin waterfalls and two trees serve to balance the painting and give it the order we’ve come to expect from Korean art of this era, the late 19th and early 20th century. Smaller foliage is shown in rolling tufts with splashes of roiling water seen poking through in regular intervals. The same words apply — felicitous and lovely.

An eight-panel screen with embroidered flowers and birds earn those words again. It is so carefully designed while being splendid in its elegance and witty in its depiction of some of the birds.

Scrolls inscribed with rules for society, protocols of the royal palace, and other matters are found throughout the exhibition, including being adjacent to some of the painted scrolls mentioned earlier. The writing on the scrolls is traditional Chinese, the Hangeul script with we in 2014 are familiar, not having had popular usage until after World War II. One of the first examples of calligraphy we see is  by King Jeongjo. The fabric on which it is painted, an elegant white-on-white, is luxuriant and is painted with flowers and dragons.

Korea -- interior 2Although later paintings in the “Treasures” exhibition show figures in Victorian and Edwardian dress, even some in the 20th century dressed in traditional Asian garb. This was certainly true in the Joseon period on which the PMA show focuses the closest. Several ceremonial, and even some everyday, clothing is on display. The garments worn for special occasions is splendid in its simplicity and creative use of color. Most robes are of one shade, but sleeves may be adorned with cloth of another color or two. A red robe may have a blue or yellow piece that would serve as a kind of skirt that would show under or beneath the main garment. In one case, a robe is intricately patterned on the back with the honors of the man who is to wear it.

A courtier’s robe, called a jabok, is bright red in the area that will fit around the torso, with wide red sleeves with black trim on their edge (just as there is black trim along the neck, while a cobalt blue skirt flares underneath. On the back is a lovely design of eight cranes in flight. They are embroidered in several colors that go well with the red that dominates the garment.  The back piece is surrounded on three sides, the top, left, and right, with a ribbon of gold bordered in black.

Another robe, listed as a military outer robe is black, like a choir or graduation gown, in the torso and flaring skirt while its wide sleeves have a triangle of yellow next to the black leading to a long piece of red fabric as the main section of the sleeve.

A gentleman’s overcoat, seen near the opening of the exhibition, is an iridescent pearl green in a lovely brocade pattern. It wide sleeves are consistent in color and texture with the coat.

A woman’s upper garment is more decorative, the green silk decorated with embroidered gold characters in traditional Chinese. Red bows add to the decoration.

Portraits in 18th and 19th century Korea were more like the impressionistic pictures the West found in vogue closer to the 20th century. Faces are done with great care, but clothing is neatly sketched in, letting outlines more than detail define one’s garb. “Treasures from Korea” features more than a dozen such portraits of kings, military leaders, and others. Later pictures show some men in modern Western dress, although most depict their subjects in traditional Asian robes.

Other painting is of natural subjects, tigers being a favorite. In one picture, “Tiger and Magpies,” the way the markings are painted on the cat’s haunches makes it look as if he swallowed a man whole. Not intentionally, I’m sure, and I may be the only one who sees this.

Korea -- interior 3The decorative arts are consistent with the screens and the clothing by being simple in design by exquisite to see.

Porcelain, massaged into perfect smoothness, and glazed with luster, is shaped into many forms that have practical, ceremonial, and decorative uses. The various objects in the PMA show are mostly displayed in groups, with more intricately painted or larger pieces standing separately to garner their own attention.

The first pottery you see are a set of handsome pieces that are used as placenta or burial jars. The placenta of royalty was saved in a small container that would be buried with the prince’s corpse when his life ended, the hope being the time between the events would be long. Extracted viscera would also be placed in jars before burial but interred with the deceased.

Many ceramic pieces are smooth and get their distinction from their shape, e.g. a wide, almost oblong bowl that tapers to a spout, with itself is fluted and given a floral border.

Vessels in the form of animals were excellently designed and rendered while being fun to see. Elephants are a favorite figure, and elephant forms are used for ritual vessels, as are figures that look like possums or anteaters.

Urns are other vessels are often adorned with subtle designs, a pattern carved into the clay or an extra piece added to make a handle or provide decoration that makes the piece distinct. Burial vessels are particularly handsome.

Ritual dishes are beautifully shaped, particularly one that has facets that make it look octagonal.

Among pieces I thought to be especially handsome are a ritual cup and saucer, with the saucer being exaggerated  by having its sides lengthened, made more oval, and rising a bit to looked like the upturned brim of a cowboy hat, only elegant.

A square ritual dish has a square platform beveled in the corners, so the sides of the plate rise, atop a rounded piece. An incense burner is carved in a witty way in which I see multiple faces.  (I like designed that form into a face.)

A display of burial goods is particularly eye-catching, as small pieces are places in two groups in front of larger pieces. The smaller cups and plates look as if they on the march towards the larger objects that look like sugar bowls. They remind me of the ranks of Chinese soldiers uncovered in an ancient burial ground.

Larger pieces included the inscribed placenta jars, an sensuously shaped jar that expands as it nears its top opening and has a lid with a Hershey kiss-shaped cap on it. A bottle with a rope design shows the simplicity with which a porcelain vessel, white with a slight green tone, can be elegantly adorned. A moon jar is practically spherical as it rises from its small round base. I am particularly fond of a jar with the design of bamboo and plum trees. Just gorgeous.

The craftsmen of the Joseon era were as adept with gold as they are with porcelain, and “Treasures of Korea” offers a wonderful display of the metal formed in the shapes of animals  or hammered into decorative vessels, some used for rituals . I particularly enjoyed seeing a seal made for King Yeongjo is the form of a large gold turtle  sitting upon a square golden base with a red ribbon attached to it, the ribbon ending in a tassel.

Practical pieces designed in wood for household use include some marvelous pieces. One is a long document chest with four drawers. Like most pieces used for business, this is low to the ground. It looks like a bureau for a well-heeled and tasteful dachshund. Other furnishings, such as a letter holder and inkstone table are also remarkable for their compact elegance and smoothness of the wood. A paper scroll holder, a document box, and an armrest also impress, not to mention some gold-trimmed or inlaid pieces used by the king.

One candlestick is ingenious in its design. A woman’s mirror stand, several chests of drawers, and comb box deserve special attention. Perhaps my favorite piece of all was table, inlaid with mother of pearl, that sits low to the ground but has an exquisite design on its surface and on its legs. A box with ox horn decorations also appeals.

Korea interior 1Wood is also the material from which large religious pieces were made. Two that appealed greatly were a karma mirror and stand that has a mirror resting on the back of what looks like a foo dog, and drum on a stand that sits on the back of an ornamental creature that also resembles a dog.

Jewelry is represented by several choice examples of the craft. Various hairpins show how design and practical need can combine, particularly a gold one with three oranges adorning it. Decorative garments, such as an ornament with triple pendants are dazzlingly lovely, as is a pouch made with five cardinal colors.

Although the Korean court was Confucian, many of its subject were Buddhist. “Treasures of Korea” features a major section devoted to Buddhist art, painting, and decorative pieces. These include some large and happy looking representations of a Buddhist. One Buddhist hanging now graces the back wall at the top of PMA’s grand staircase. It seems a fitting and attention-getting substitute for the Diana statue while it is going through some restoration.

“Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910” runs through Monday, May 26 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, in Philadelphia. The exhibition was made possible via the generosity of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and the Korea Foundation in addition to the Korea Times, Hmart, the Korean Tourism Organization,  eight other foundations, and 62 individuals. Galleries are open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. Admission to PMA is $20 which includes access to “Treasures from Korea.” Please call 215-763-8100 or go online to for more information.

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