The Smart Museum of Art shows off its Korean art collection.
Richard Born tells TOC about “From the Land of the Morning Calm.”
It’s telling that the first object from Korea to enter the collection at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art was mistakenly lodged for decades with a group of Persian ceramics.
In 1916, when the U. of C. acquired the Joseon dynasty 17th-century stoneware bowl, the U.S. was in a “golden age” of collecting East Asian art, says senior curator Richard A. Born. But Korea was left in the shadow of China and Japan, as it would be for decades, due to its annexation by Japan from 1910–45 and the Korean War.
Born fell in love with Korean art in 1980, when a major exhibition organized by the National Museum of Korea traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago. “I walked in and it was one of those aha moments,” he recalls. Korea’s geographic location ensured that the peninsular nation absorbed and adapted artistic ideas and techniques from China and Japan, then saw those countries snap up its innovations: The misidentified 17th-century bowl was made for the Japanese tea-ceremony market.
The Smart Museum began developing its Korean art collection only about a decade ago, Born says, noting that it recently “hit critical mass.” He presents almost 50 objects from the collection in “From the Land of the Morning Calm,” which opens at the Smart Museum Thursday 5. Many have never been shown before; some were acquired as recently as April. Here are four of my favorite pieces from the exhibition, which spans the 5th or 6th century through the present.
Bowl with Cranes, Willow and Lotus Plant Decoration, Goryeo dynasty, 13th century. “The ceramic tradition of Korea is one of the great ceramic traditions of the world,” Born says. In the 12th century, visiting Chinese diplomats described Korean celadon ware such as this bowl as “first under heaven,” the curator adds.
Ridge Tile: Ogre (Gwimyeon) Mask, Unified Silla period, 8th–9th century. The Smart Museum devotes one section of the exhibition to Buddhist art. “This tile was produced during the first great flowering of Buddhism in Korea,” Born explains. “It looks like a horrifying monster, but it’s actually a benevolent being, a form of dragon. The element for dragons is mist, water or rain. They were put on largely wooden buildings to protect against fire.” This example probably adorned a temple.
Yi Mae Kye (also known as Ri Baikei), Poem: Modified Excerpt from Response to Mr. Xu Wurui’s “Whistles on the Horse” by Li Yi, no date. Despite his admiration for Korean ceramics, Born has sought out more paintings for the Smart Museum, in part to complement other Chicago collections. “This object exemplifies what I wanted in our Korean painting collection: a work that resonates [with] both China and Japan,” he says. “The calligraphy is in Chinese characters, and it’s actually an early Chinese poem…[that] says, ‘Deep in my cups, thinking of lost springtimes.’ Yi Mae Kye probably is ruefully thinking that his youth is gone and all that’s left is old age.” A Japanese artist, Maruyama Okyo, painted the calligraphy’s plum-blossom mount about 100 years later.
Yeesookyung, Translated Vases, 2007. The artist obtains her ceramic fragments from an elderly potter who has rediscovered many techniques from the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). “If pieces aren’t up to his standards of perfection and quality, he immediately smashes them,” Born says. Yeesookyung glues the fragments into the forms of traditional Joseon vessels, gilding the seam lines. “She’s very interested in this idea of damage and a new utility in things that have been broken,” the curator explains. “The potter was after complete symmetry, and unity of the shape and functional use.” Yeesookyung reassembles his work “into an irregular, expressive, nonfunctioning object. She’s somewhere, in this piece, between a conceptual artist, a performance artist and a ceramic artist.”