Korean art – two millennia of globalisation

by Philip Gowman on 19 November, 2010

in Art history, British Museum, Conference reports, Event reports and reviews, Koryo Dynasty, Silla Dynasty

“Why did it have to end so early?” asked a member of the audience at the conclusion of the British Museum’s study morning “Korea at the Crossroads” last weekend, 13 November. Strictly, the event had overrun by about five minutes, but you knew what she meant. More to the point would have been the question “why did it have to start so late?” because the talks started half an hour after the billed start time. Two hours for three learned scholars to deliver their talks, with Q&A, is impossibly ambitious. And sure enough, when the first speaker predictably overran by 10-15 minutes, and the second had to skip some material to keep to time, the third speaker – the only one who is not regularly seen in London – was forced to cut her talk short. This was particularly a shame as in her overview of Korean art in the 20th Century she had to stop just before she got to the art of the minjung movement. Is there an establishment conspiracy to keep that art out of the public eye? Hardly ever talked about, even less frequently exhibited, it seems the 1980s is the forgotten period in Korean art.

Silla dynasty crown

Gold Crown, Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. - 668 A.D)

Despite her overrun, Pak Young-sook’s lecture (Ancient Korea and the Silk Road) which started the morning was more pithy and focused than the talks she has done at the Cultural Centre. Her slide show demonstrated how early Korean arts, crafts and customs did not develop in isolation. And the influence was often not from China but from much further afield – from points along the Silk Road. From Koguryo tombs with their triangular- cantilevered lantern ceilings (an architectural style to be found in 3rd-4th century Afghanistan) to the famous Silla dynasty gold crowns which echo the regalia found even earlier in 2nd Century Tillya Tepe (again, northern Afghanistan) there can be no doubt that taste, craftsmanship and even the craftsmen themselves travelled the whole length of the Asian landmass and ended up in Korea to be absorbed, adopted, reinterpreted and often brought to a new level. Professor Pak speculated that the craftsmen who brought the techniques for making the golden earrings, with their delicate granule and filligree work, migrated into the Korean peninsula once the end of the Han dynasty (220CE) deprived them of employment. Almost identical earrings to those found in Silla royal tombs have been found in Middle Eastern sites dating to the 3rd or 4th centuries.

And paintings found in Koguryo tombs (themselves containing images such as flying horses found further west in Asia) suggest that entertainments and sports which subsequently became part of Korean (and Japanese) tradition also originate in foreign lands: in particular there are some distinctly foreign-looking wrestlers providing entertainment. People did not just move from West to East. Korean buddhist monks visited India and brought home the inspiration for the rock carvings to be found in the Kyongju area, and Korean envoys have been found depicted in a wall painting in Samarkand.

Tillya Tepe crown

A golden crown from Tillya Tepe Tomb VI, Afghanistan, 1st century CE

Of course, objects as well as people travelled the Silk Road, and many precious items from distant lands ended up in Korea. Glass ewers and beakers, possibly made in Cologne and Syria and also seen in Central Asia in the 5th and 6th centuries, have been found in the Silla royal tombs in Kyongju. While at present there is no evidence of Silla or Kogoryo artefacts making their way westward at the time, it was in the 1880s that Korean artefacts started to make their way into the British Museum, and in 2000 the Korea Foundation gallery was established there. This conference was celebrating its 10th anniversary.

While Professor Pak focused on the Koguryo and Silla dynasties, Charlotte Horlyck (Art, Antiques and Collectibles in the Koryŏ period) focused on the Koryo dynasty. There is a tale that Koryo dynasty founder King Taejo on his deathbed said that there was no need for Koreans to slavishly follow Chinese tastes. And as if to make sure, during the Koryo dynasty the court established sumptuary laws which regulated what luxuries or ornaments each social class could own or wear. Even down to the size and level of decoration on mirrors it seems that there were guidelines. Workshops in the capital Kaesong were regulated and their products proudly displayed a “Made in Koryo” stamp. But the designs on some of these luxury goods, for example the ornate vine decoration on those mirrors, bore a remarkable resemblance to those found in China.

Despite Taejo’s deathbed injunction, ceramics from the Northern Song dynasty were valued by the upper echelons of Koryo society, and have been found in some numbers around Kaesong. Soon, though, Koryo celadon came to surpass the blue Ru ware of the Northern Song. And the Chinese idea of gilding celadon with gold leaf was transformed in Korea by the use of gold powder painted onto the glaze – a practice which gave greater design possibilities. So while the Koryo dynasty might have seen a growth in national confidence, arts in the peninsula contributed to and were enriched by arts in China.

Joan Kee’s all-too-short talk (The Unlikeliest Century: Korean Art After 1900) covered the emergence of Korean art during the 20th century, absorbing and reacting against foreign genres of photography, graphic design, oil painting, abstractionism and more. She really needs to be invited back to give a longer and more leisurely session, enabling her to go much more slowly and also advance into the 1980s and beyond.

Photo credit for Afghan Crown: the Art & History blog.

The morning seminar (which was supported by the Anglo-Korean Society) and unfortunately scheduled to clash with an Asian art history study day at Asia House, was followed by family oriented events in the afternoon: a Korean painting and calligraphy workshop with a talk from BM Korea Gallery curator Sasha Priewe, and a digital workshop enabling families to play with Photoshop to create images of some of the objects in the Korea gallery. I’m sure they had been advertised somewhere, maybe in the Korean press or on the Museum website, but no mention was included in the advance publicity for the seminar.

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