When the Department of Far Eastern Art was established at the Metropolitan in the summer of 1915, the Museum possessed only sixty-five Korean works. Some were mistakenly catalogued as Chinese or Japanese. Dubbed the "hermit kingdom," Korea was then little known to the Western world. Today, its traditional arts, as well as pop music, film, and drama, are celebrated markers of global culture. The Museum's collection of Korean art, too, has been significantly transformed and continues to evolve. It now encompasses ceramics, paintings, sculpture, metalwork, lacquer ware, and textiles from the late Bronze Age to the present.
Works on view include important recent gifts to the Museum from the Mary Griggs Burke Collection and Florence and Irving Collection—including a rare sixteenth-century Buddhist painting of royal commission, a striking mid-seventeenth-century gilt-wood statue of a Bodhisattva, and exquisite mother-of-pearl inlaid lacquer boxes from the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). The stories behind the objects in this exhibition capture the individuals and trends that shaped the Met's distinctive collection, sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally. This presentation also reveals the modern Western imagination of Korea, and the many ways Korean art came to be viewed and appreciated in America.
The exhibition is made possible by Samsung.
The buncheong dish shown below, at left, is the first work of Korean art acquired by the Metropolitan Museum. It was part of a gift of nearly 250 Asian objects, mostly Japanese ceramics, donated by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Colman in 1893. An American painter and interior designer who collaborated with Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), Samuel Colman (1832–1920) was also an avid collector of Asian decorative arts. It is unclear whether he knew this piece to be Korean.
The gold and red lacquer repairs along the rim indicate that though this dish was originally intended as domestic ware, at some point prior to the Colmans' acquisition, it was transferred to Japan and treasured as a tea bowl—as was historically the case with many buncheong pieces.
The tea bowl on the right was given to the Met in 1936 by Howard Mansfield (1849–1938) as part of a gift of over one thousand objects, primarily from Japan. At the time of the donation, this piece was thought to be Japanese. Mansfield also collected prints by American artist James Whistler (1834–1903) as well as paintings, prints, and decorative arts from Japan.
The subtle green color, simple yet elegant shapes, and playful decoration of Korean celadon ware appealed to the tastes of Japanese and Western collectors at the turn of the twentieth century. Ceramics comprise nearly half of the Metropolitan's holdings of Korean art. Goryeo celadon, renowned in East Asia at the time it was produced, forms the core.
The majority of the celadon ware entered the Met's collection in the first half of the twentieth century, and the best examples are highlighted below. Among the early donors were Yamanaka Sadajirō (1866–1936), an influential dealer of Asian art who helped shape the collections of major museums and private individuals in the West, Samuel T. Peters, a New York–based coal dealer and trustee of the Metropolitan, and Macy & Co., which by 1930s was owned by the Straus brothers, Nathan (1848–1931) and Isidor (1845–1912).
In 1927, Sigisbert Chrétien Bosch Reitz (1860–1938), the first curator of the Met's Far Eastern Department from 1915 to 1927, purchased a significant group of Goryeo celadon from the estate of Desmond Fitzgerald (1846–1926), an engineer and art patron from Brookline, Massachusetts.
Celadon was the main type of ceramic produced during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). The grayish green color of this exquisite ware owes much to the raw materials from which it was made—iron in the clay and iron oxide, manganese oxide, and quartz particles in the glaze—and to the reduction atmosphere created at a certain stage of firing by dramatically reducing the level of oxygen inside the kiln.
Initially, Goryeo potters gained much of their technical expertise from the celadon traditions of Song-dynasty (960–1279) China, particularly from Yue, Yaozhou, and Ru wares. By the early twelfth century, Goryeo potters and patrons began to articulate native tastes, a shift that coincided with the consolidation of major celadon industries near the southwestern coast of the peninsula, in Buan and Gangjin, Jeolla Province. The latter remains the center of modern celadon production and of revivals of Goryeo traditions.
The culmination of Goryeo ceramics can be seen in inlaid (sanggam) celadon, a distinctively Korean phenomenon. This technique involves carving motifs into the partially dry clay body and then filling the crevices with white and/or black slip (a mixture of clay and water), after which the translucent glaze is applied. The best Goryeo inlaid celadon is breathtaking for its clean form, vibrant design, and subtle yet alluring color combination of white, black, and green.
Based on the life and teachings of Indian Prince Siddhartha, who would later become the Buddha, or Enlightened One, Buddhism developed following his death around 400 b.c. and eventually spread throughout Asia. It arrived on the Korean peninsula by way of China in the late fourth century during the Three Kingdoms period (57 b.c.–a.d. 668). It was through Korea that Buddhism was introduced in 552 to Japan, where the religion played a decisive role in the formation of early Japanese art and culture.
Buddhism remained the official state religion on the Korean peninsula until the end of the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Devotees of the faith included all levels of class, from royalty to commoner, evidence of the powerful and ubiquitous reach of the religion in every aspect of social and cultural life. They worshipped a multitude of deities, depending on the particular type of salvation associated with specific Buddhas or on the trends of the times. Followers sought to achieve the ultimate goal of nirvana—complete enlightenment and hence release from the mortal world and the cycle of reincarnation.
All forms of Buddhist art, including sculpture, reliquaries, decorative arts, paintings, and architecture, were created in Korea. Particularly famous are the gilt-bronze statues from the sixth through the eighth century and the exquisite paintings from the Goryeo period. With the establishment of the staunchly neo-Confucian state of Joseon in 1392, Buddhism was officially banned. Yet the religion and its art endured and at times flourished throughout the five hundred years of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), even creating new artistic styles.
All the objects shown below were acquired by the Museum before 1965. Sigisbert Chrétien Bosch Reitz and Alan Priest, who served as the first two curators of the Asian Art Department from 1915 to 1927 and 1928 to 1963, respectively, oversaw most of these acquisitions. Many were purchased either during the curators' travels to Korea and Japan or from dealers based in North America, including Yamanaka & Co.
Interestingly, not all of these objects were initially attributed as Korean. The exquisite trefoil-shaped lacquer box, for example, was purchased in Kyoto and thought to be Japanese. This is not surprising given the limited knowledge of Korean culture in the West at the time. Nonetheless, the objects displayed here demonstrate the importance of a curator's discerning eye in identifying works of artistic value.
The two Buddhist paintings (the Water-moon Avalokiteshvara and Kshitigarbha), the arhat celadon statuette, and the Kashyapa wood statue, along with the large painting of the Brahma with attendants and musicians, represent some of the most important and unique works given to the Museum during the first half of the twentieth century.
A ceramic distinguished by its inventive use of white slip (a mixture of clay and water) and imaginative surface decoration, buncheong is a uniquely Korean phenomenon. Sensuous, whimsical, earthy, and masterful, this new genre of stoneware emerged at the end of the fourteenth century, evolving from the inlaid celadon of the late Goryeo period (918–1392). If Goryeo celadon embodies classical elegance, buncheong ware represents the spirit of experimentation.
Along with white porcelain from China, it was one of two major ceramic arts during the first two centuries of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Ultimately eclipsed by the overwhelming demand for and widespread manufacture of white porcelain, buncheong ceased to be produced in Korea from the second half of the sixteenth century until its modern revival. From the seventeenth century, select kilns in Japan produced ceramics inspired by Korean buncheong ware.
The term buncheong, shortened from bunjang hoecheong sagi (gray-green stoneware decorated in white), was coined in the twentieth century. The key decorative modes of buncheong include inlay, stamp-patterning, incision or carving (including carving away the surface area around the design, a process known as sgraffito), painting with iron-oxide pigment over slip, and brushing on or dipping in white slip. Although some of these decorative techniques, such as sgraffito and iron-painting over white slip, can also be found on Cizhou ware from China, there is no evidence of direct transmission, and the overall aesthetic and types of motifs are dissimilar.
Porcelain is made from highly refined white clays (usually including kaolin), from which it achieves its color. The earliest porcelain was made in China; in Korea, production of "soft" porcelain began during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Imports of Ming-dynasty (1368–1644) porcelain spurred the production of white ware in Joseon Korea (1392–1910). A group of kilns known as Bunwon, catering to and managed by the royal court, was operating near the capital of Hanyang (present-day Seoul) by at least the 1460s, and continued to be the official center of production until the second half of the nineteenth century. By the sixteenth century, however, the demand for and supply of porcelain had expanded beyond both the capital and the Joseon elite. What began in the early decades of the dynasty as a luxury item for the royal court eventually became everyday tableware for nearly all households.
Colorfully enameled porcelain flourished in China and Japan and influenced European wares. Such multihued ceramics did not gain popularity in Joseon Korea, where images painted in cobalt blue, copper red, or iron brown were favored. Among these, porcelain with underglaze cobalt painting—also known as blue-and-white ware—was the most coveted type. Undecorated porcelain, pure in form and color, embodied the neo-Confucian ideals of purity, restraint, and simplicity espoused by the Joseon elite.
Between 1979 and 1981 the landmark exhibition 5,000 Years of Korean Art, organized by the National Museum of Korea and supported by the South Korean government, toured seven major museums in the United States, including the Metropolitan. An eye-opener for the American public, this show helped change the perception of Korean art. In the 1990s galleries dedicated to Korean art were established at various American and European museums. The Metropolitan's Arts of Korea gallery opened in June 1998 and has since presented the country's rich artistic traditions through its expanding permanent collection, more than half of which are ceramics.
In addition to acquiring select key examples of Goryeo celadon to enhance the Museum's collection, the Met has also acquired, since the 1970s, works of other major ceramic traditions underrepresented in its collection. These include high-fired, nonglazed stoneware preceding the Goryeo celadon (5th–9th century); distinctive buncheong ware decorated with white slip (15th–16th century); and porcelain from the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). More examples of Joseon ceramics are on display in the cases on the other side of the partition wall in this gallery.
Florence and Herbert Irving began collecting Asian art in the 1970s. What began as a passion for garden design and the arts of Japan expanded over the next few decades into serious collecting of a range of art forms, including lacquer, sculpture, ceramics, and painting from East, South, and Southeast Asia. Longtime residents of New York City and patrons of the Metropolitan Museum—Mrs. Irving was elected a trustee in 1990 and a trustee emerita in 1996—the Irvings generously lent selections from their collection over many years. In March 2015 they formally presented the Museum with a gift of almost 1,300 works of art.
The selection of Korean lacquer on view is a strong suit of their collection. These objects date to the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) and demonstrate some of the highest craftsmanship of the genre as well as the changing aesthetics over five centuries. On display are superb examples of two main traditions of Korean lacquer: mother-of-pearl inlay, with or without additional decorative material (such as tortoiseshell and ray skin, as in the case of the box with a dragon design); and painted ox-horn inlay.
Mary Griggs Burke (1916–2012), known primarily for her premier collection of Japanese art, also appreciated and collected the arts of China and Korea. In March 2015 the Metropolitan Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Art were two major recipients of exceptional bequests from the Burke Collection. The four stellar works of Korean art on display—three paintings and one sculpture—form part of that gift to the Met. They exemplify the highest standards of religious and secular art of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) and the early twentieth century, and are arguably among the most significant works of Korean art found in Western collections. The Japanese works from the Burke Collection bequest are on view in the Arts of Japan galleries.
Born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, Mary Griggs Burke spent much of her life in New York City. Her discerning eye and intuitive appreciation, along with advice from scholars and dealers, guided her selections. She shared her treasured art collection with generations of scholars and students over her long career as a collector. Mrs. Burke acted as a donor and advisor to the Metropolitan Museum, serving as a trustee from 1976 and as a trustee emerita from 1995 until her death.