Depictions of torture in hell, a graceful screen of mountains that feels contemporary and a snarling lion holding a mirror that reflects your misdeeds. The L.A. County Museum of Art's exhibition "Treasures From Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910" contains a bounty of incredible works — dozens of paintings, textiles, ceramics and more, from one of the most long-running Confucian dynasties in world history.
Curator Virginia Moon, who organized the exhibition, says the more than 500 years of continuous rule by 27 kings provided Korea with a "sense of stability bound by strict neo-Confucian principles."
The stability, however, didn't rule out creativity. "If you look at the art," she adds, "there was clearly still room for creativity and whimsy."
Think a palm-sized water-dropper, a tool for diluting ink, produced in the form of a downright charming curled-up lion.
The show contains more than 150 objects — a lot to take in. So I've narrowed things down a bit. (My colleague Christopher Knight totally dug the oddly shaped moon jar.) Herewith, five pieces that sucked me in with their beauty, their weirdness or their straight-up violence:
1. "Sun, Moon and Five Peaks"
Five green-blue peaks emerge from a watery landscape overseen by a perfectly spherical sun and moon in this six-fold screen made out of silk (see image at top). It is more than 100 years old at this point, made at the turn of the 20th century, but it nonetheless packs a potent graphic-design punch, with stylized waves and outlined peaks. Although the screen would have represented the king of the neo-Confucian state (it was placed behind the throne), it also bears traces of Korea's older animist and Taoist traditions, Moon says: "You have the red sun and the white moon which represent theories of yin and yang. The five mountain peaks represent the five elements. It is a representation of the universe in balance."
2. "Water Dropper in the Shape of a Lion"
What the Moleskine notebook is to today's literary set, the water dropper was to the well-read types in Joseon-era Korea: an object that had an important purpose (diluting ink) but could also serve as a signifier of status (check me out I'm a writer with social standing and cool gadgets!). "Water droppers were collected and traded and even given as gifts," Moon says. "They would have been traded among the literati since it was the literati who used them to paint and draw. The exhibition has a small collection, but there are so many different kinds and they're all very whimsical."
3. "Courtier's Official Robe"
There are a number of garments in the show, but none of them grab the eyeball quite like this one: a late 19th century blue- and red-silk robe that would have been worn by a government official for important ceremonies or meetings with the king. The robe's back features a delicately embroidered panel of eight cranes bursting into flight against a backdrop of colorful clouds — a design known as "su." The pattern indicates rank, says Moon. In this case, that of a high-level official of the first or second rank.
4. "Karma Mirror and Stand"
If you'd entered a Buddhist temple associated with the afterlife in 19th century Korea, you might have come across this somewhat ferocious-looking sculpture of a lion that bore a mirror on its back. This is no ordinary mirror, for it was intended to reflect your karma. "Literally, you looked in the mirror, and it reflected back your good and bad deeds," Moon says. "You look at yourself and you reflect on the good and bad that you've done."
5. "Three of the Ten Kings of Hell"
In Buddhism (specifically the Mahayana School of Buddhism), the Ten Kings of Hell were the bureaucrats who administered the underworld, determining what types of punishment the sinful would suffer.
"Like the religious paintings of the West," says Moon, "these served to scare the living crap out of people — to encourage them to follow the righteous path." Admire these myriad punishments and you too may find yourself scared straight.