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Special Exhibition: Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400–1600

The dynamic works featured in the exhibition Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400–1600 provide a glimpse into the extraordinary artistic and cultural renaissance that took place in Korea during the early Joseon dynasty. Soyoung Lee, the exhibition's curator, narrates. The exhibition is on view from March 17 through June 21, 2009.


Soyoung Lee: My name is Soyoung Lee. I am assistant curator in the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum, and I'm the curator for the exhibition Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400–1600.

This exhibition focuses on the first two hundred years of the Joseon dynasty, which was the last dynasty of Korea, from the late fourteenth century into the beginning of the twentieth century.

But the first two hundred years is a really interesting and compelling period, partly because the seeds of cultural and social practices that are still current in modern or contemporary Korea were first planted during this period. And we titled the exhibition Art of the Korean Renaissance because, of course, what was going on in Korea was very different from what went on in Western Europe, the area that we're most familiar with when we think of the Renaissance. But there were comparable trends, such as the transition from a religion-based society, in the case of Korean Buddhism, to a secular society and secular culture, that is, Neo-Confucianism. Now, many people think of Confucianism or Neo-Confucianism as a religion, but in fact it was more a philosophical idea, a political phenomenon, and a way of life. And it really did bring on this incredible secular culture. This period was also in many ways a renaissance, or a rebirth, culturally, because the last century prior to the beginning of the Joseon dynasty was marred by foreign domination, specifically the Mongol empire, and a kind of deterioration internally—politically, culturally, and socially.

And so the early fifteenth century, with the rise of the Joseon dynasty, brought on a very significant cultural and artistic rebirth. Perhaps one of the most significant cultural achievements during this period was the creation of the Korean alphabet, known as hangeul.

In King Sejong's preface to Hunminjeongeum, which is the term that the Korean alphabet was known by at the time, he says: "The sounds of our language differ from those of Chinese and are not easily communicated by using Chinese graphs. Many among the ignorant, therefore, though they wish to express their sentiments in writing, have been unable to communicate. Considering the situation with compassion, I have newly devised twenty-eight letters." Modern written Korean, in fact, comprises twenty-four letters. But as you can see from King Sejong's preface, the creation of a native written system, or written language, had as much to do with education and reaching as great a number of the population as it did with creating a national identity.

Beyond creating the Korean alphabet and his role as a patron of literature, King Sejong was also a great patron of the arts, especially visual art, as were many of his sons and his descendants. And in fact, a number of important artists from the early Joseon period were direct descendants of King Sejong.

Much like the Renaissance in Western Europe, the art of what we are calling the period of the Korean Renaissance—from about 1400 to 1600—included art that were revivals or transformations of classical traditions. And when I say classical traditions, these are traditions not only within Korea but within the broader East Asian traditions. For example, landscapes from the earlier periods of around the tenth century to the twelfth century—that was broadly shared by both Korea and China. These were the kinds of landscapes that more or less as a tradition died out in China but were revived and completely transformed and made distinctly Korean during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Another significant aspect of the arts of this period, the Korean Renaissance, is the development of some novel contemporary trends, particularly in ceramics, such as porcelain. Porcelain, of course, was first developed in China, and Korea was participating in a broader sort of international revolution, in a sense—a revolution in ceramics, in which production of ceramics concentrated on white porcelain. What is distinctive about early Joseon porcelain, and in fact Korean porcelain of any period, is its emphasis on undecorated white porcelain. So whereas in other parts of the world—such as China, Japan, Europe—there were great emphases on enameled porcelain or very colorful, polychrome porcelain, and where there was active trade, Korean porcelains, particularly of the early Joseon, were much more restrained in aesthetic, concentrated on unembellished sort of whiteness, the purity of form and color. And for the most part, Korean porcelain during the Joseon period were made as domestic products rather than for export.

So in both its aesthetic and consumption pattern, Korean porcelain of the early Joseon is quite distinctive from porcelain made in the rest of the world.

In addition to white porcelain, Korea at this time also produced a very striking and unusual kind of ceramics, which were in fact only produced during the first two hundred years of the Joseon dynasty. They are known as buncheong ware and they are a group of stoneware that are embellished with white slip and sometimes with inlaid or stamped or painted designs that are much more, sort of, liberated and dynamic in design than those that you find on porcelain—not just Korean porcelain, but porcelain from any part of the world.

In addition to landscapes and ceramics, the exhibition also features other genres of art, particularly painting, that are very representative of this period, for example, what are known as paintings of literati gatherings, which are basically pictorial recordings of gatherings of men in government. These are very social gatherings. They get together basically to drink and recite poetry.

There are also paintings featuring lovable and majestic animals. One artist in particular—a great-great-grandson of King Sejong, known as Yi Am—is very well known for his paintings of adorable dogs and puppies, and one of his masterpieces, Mother Dog and Puppies, from the National Museum of Korea, is featured here. And another painting of a very regal falcon from the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had for a long time been attributed to a fourteenth-century Chinese painter but through recent scholarship by Korean scholars has been re-attributed as the work of the artist Yi Am. And, in fact, this exhibition is the first public forum in which this work is being presented as a Korean work.

Many of the works featured in this exhibition are on loan from institutions and private collections around the world, including Korea, Japan, Germany, and the United States. And this is a wonderful and rare opportunity to see these works, which are now dispersed in various collections around the world, in one place at one time. And many of the works in the exhibition have never been seen before in the United States.

We are presenting a captivating and dynamic sampling of an extraordinary artistic and cultural renaissance that took place in Korea between the years of 1400 and 1600, and we invite you to travel back in time and space to experience its wonder and significance. Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400–1600 will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum from March 17 through June 21, 2009.

The exhibition is made possible by the Korea Foundation and the Kun-Hee Lee Fund for Korean Art. Thank you.

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