Until 12th January, in National Museum in Warsaw you can see an exhibition “Splendour and Finesse. Spirit and Substance in Korean Art” (prepared in partnership with the National Museum of Korea in Seoul). I visited it last weekend and it impressed me, so I decided to share my impressions.
The exhibition presents artifacts from different eras – from prehistoric times to the late nineteenth century.
There are few objects from the earliest times. Paleolithic handaxes or bronze horse-shaped buckles…
… are only a foretaste of what is next.
Stoneware tiles decorated with motifs of lotus or monstrous faces are proof of the increase in craftsmanship in the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C. – 676 A.D.).
From the 4th to the 14th century, Buddhism was the official religion of all Three Kingdoms, and then the united Goryeo, from which the word Korea is derived. This strongly influenced art, as exemplified by this Buddha Triad from the 7th century…
bronze Buddhist bell with a carved dragon figure…
14th century illustrated manuscript of Lotus Sutra…
or bronze mirrors decorated with motifs of plants and Buddhist temples.
I was most impressed by the film depicting the temple in the Seokguram Grotto – both the perfection of the structure itself and the way it is presented.
Over time, however, the wealth and privileges of the Buddhist clergy became uncomfortable for some, and after the takeover of power by the Yi dynasty and the establishment of the Joseon state (1392-1897), neo-Confucianism took the place of Buddhism as the official religion. The ideals of this religion were reflected in more modest forms than in the previous era, as exemplified by these 15th-century stoneware bottles decorated with motifs of fish and flowers…
or a 17th-century scroll depicting magpies and cats under a willow tree.
Modesty, however, did not concern Joseon kings, an example of which is the silk folding screen behind the throne. It depicts five mountain peaks symbolizing the elements (earth, fire, water, wood and metal) and the sun and moon, representing the cosmic forces of yin and yang. When the ruler sat on the throne in front of the screen, he symbolically became the center of the universe.
One of these humble rulers, King Sejong the Great, commissioned the development of an accessible Korean alphabet, because until his time the members of the Korean upper class used mainly Chinese script. Hangeul, a new phonetic alphabet, consisting of only 40 letters, was created in 1446. The elite recognized it as a threat to the power given to them through knowledge of countless Chinese ideograms. As a result, hangeul was mainly used for private correspondence by female aristocrats who did not have access to Confucian education. An example is the following letter from Madam Kim to King Yeongjo from 1727:
The previously mentioned screen can be seen (with great effort) on one of the panels of the giant painting from 1848 depicting the birthday banquet for Former Queen Mother Sumwon. The throne and screen are located at the top of the panel, and below you can see, among others, many musicians and officials (one of them was responsible for delivering panegyrics to the king).
Like China, Korea has developed a group of well-educated officials called literati. In addition to administrative duties, they dealt with literature, calligraphy, philosophy and contemplation of art. I feel a kind of spiritual kinship with them. Below you can see a portrait of one of them, Song Si-Yeol.
A few years ago there was a temporary exhibition devoted to Chinese literati in the same Museum – let me know if you are interested in my impressions from this one as well.
I encourage you to visit the exhibition, this post shows only a small part of the artifacts!