The Korean art gallery at the Metropolitan Museum is a trim, tall, well-proportioned box of light. But it’s just one room, and a smallish one at that, reflecting the museum’s modest holdings in art from this region and the still scant attention paid to it by Western scholars.
So no surprise that the expansive-sounding exhibition called “Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600” is, by Met standards, a small thing too, with four dozen objects. Most of them — ceramic jars, lacquer boxes, scroll paintings — are compact enough to be stashed in a closet.
What the show lacks in grandeur, though, it makes up in fineness, and in rarity. All of the art dates from a period of cultural efflorescence and innovation in Korea. Experimental art was on the boil; utopian ideas were in the air. Yet much of what was produced then was lost in the series of invasions and occupations that began at the end of the 16th century.
In short, while the number of objects gathered here, more than half on loan from Korean museums, isn’t large, it’s a lot of what survives. And anyway, it makes for a comfortable display, ideal if you’re in the mood for some close looking rather than a drive-through blockbuster sweep.
Change was the essence of the Choson dynasty, which was founded in 1392, around the time the Renaissance began in Europe, and lasted for more than five centuries. Choson means “fresh dawn,” and the dynasty perceived itself as a broom sweeping the country clean of tired old ways, which in its early phase it did.
The end of the 14th century was a heady time in East Asia. In 1368 China finally rid itself of Mongol occupiers and established the Ming dynasty. In the process it revived neglected art traditions and asserted neo-Confucian thinking, with its concepts of philosopher-kings, government by scholar-officials and a code of ethics based on loyalty to state, community and family.
Three decades later a similar shift happened in Korea. An old governing aristocracy was pushed aside to make way for a state-trained bureaucratic elite known collectively as yangban. Institutional Buddhism, a political and spiritual force for the better part of a millennium, was officially suppressed in favor of Confucian secularism. As in China, traditional art forms were revived and revamped to convey new meaning.
But history is rarely cut and dried. As often as not, it’s a story of coexistence, not replacement; of retreat, not defeat. So it was in Korea. Buddhism didn’t go away. Like a pilot light on a stove, it may have been hard to see, but it kept burning, its flame sustained primarily by the ruling elite that had banned it.
And it is Buddhist art of the early Choson that gives the exhibition its flashes of color and spectacle. A large hanging scroll painting of the Healing Buddha, his skin gold, his robes purple, his throne wreathed by a tangle of celestial bodyguards, is especially magnetic. It looks both old and new.
Prototypes for it go back centuries in China and Korea, but details of the Buddha’s persimmon-shaped face — the tiny slit eyes, the beanlike mouth — blend Choson and Ming styles, making the painting very much of its 16th-century time. It was of its time too in being both illegal and a royal commission, paid for by an avidly Buddhist dowager queen whose son was a neo-Confucian king.
It was China, rather than Buddhism per se, that provided Korean artists with an aesthetic template. Sometimes cultural differences are all but impossible to discern. A magnificent picture of a falcon, long attributed to the 14th-century Chinese animal painter Xu Ze, has recently been reattributed to the 16th-century Korean painter Yi Am, partly on the basis of a seal stamped on the picture’s surface.
New York Times