Korean art is a mystery to most Americans. But there's nothing intrinsically enigmatic about Korean painting, sculpture or decorative arts. The explanation is much more mundane.
American museums tend to have small collections drawn from this Asian peninsula, and substantive exhibitions are downright rare. In any case, our modern artistic values don't necessarily conform to the traditional achievements in Korea -- where, for example, ceramics especially have been prized. We lack familiarity and experience.
Remarkably, it wasn't until 1989 that a major art museum in the United States employed a full-time curator of Korean art. (In fact, no art museum outside Korea did.)
That pioneering institution was the Asian Art Museum, then awkwardly housed in Golden Gate Park as a separate wing of the de Young Museum. The unique curatorial appointment made sense. Ten years earlier the Asian Art Museum had co-organized the traveling survey "5,000 Years of Korean Art" with the National Museum in Seoul -- the first such exhibition attempted.
When the Asian Art Museum relocated last spring to a refurbished former library in San Francisco's civic center, the opening festivities rightly gave center stage to the museum's large and extraordinary permanent collections. The converted galleries, laid out along a linear path on two floors, are somewhat awkward as spaces for display. Aesthetically, though, the holdings make this the richest and most important local art museum in town, surpassing significant European, American and modern art collections elsewhere in the city. The initial focus on this sterling collection was apt.
So was the decision to inaugurate its temporary exhibitions program with an unprecedented show of Korean art. In October the museum opened "Goryeo Dynasty: Korea's Age of Enlightenment, 938-1392" (it continues through Jan. 11). The show is modest in size, but huge in impact.
How does it measure up in terms of quality and significance for Korean art? Transpose its content into more familiar territory. Think of this show as something along the lines of "Renaissance Masterpieces of the Medici Age" or "Paris and the Birth of Modern Art," and you'll have some idea.
Now, add the fact that relatively few objects from the era have survived the brutish history of the region, and the show's singular importance kicks up another notch.
Curator Kumja Paik Kim, working with colleagues at the National Museum of Korea and the Nara National Museum in Japan, has selected 113 objects from the historical period that gave the country its name. Four years ago, Korea's Ministry of Culture and Tourism adopted a Romanization of the language that changed the spelling of that founding dynasty from Koryo to Goryeo. Loosely translated, the word Goryeo means "high or refined elegance." See this show -- which will not travel -- and you won't forget that.
A thousand years ago, the convergence of civil government and Buddhism as a state religion resulted in an efflorescence of aristocratic patronage. The exhibition brings together painting, sculpture, calligraphy, metalwork, lacquer ware and ceramics -- especially celadon, the stoneware glazed in shades of pale blue-green that perhaps is the best known of all Korean art.
This is cosmopolitan art produced for aristocrats, scholars and monks, and such spiritual devotion fused with worldly erudition yielded some breathtaking results. An enlightened Buddhist may well know that the world he perceives is a permeable place, because everything in it arises from the mind. But these exquisite objects demonstrate that the mind has gotten a good deal of help from the hand.
The gallery is ringed by 24 paintings mostly showing bodhisattvas -- enlightened beings who, out of compassion, forgo nirvana in order to save others. A remarkable assembly, given that just 120 Goryeo-era paintings are known; the hanging scrolls are characterized by strict hierarchy and formal precision.
Figures often are wrapped in gauzy fabrics. Linear drawing and flat or transparent color give an ethereal effect. Gold paint, even on silk scrolls that have faded some with age, reflects a gentle light.
Yet, for all their attenuated otherworldliness, these graceful figures seem almost magically lighted from within, quietly throbbing with life. With uncanny skill the unknown painters split the difference between divinity and mortality.
They did it with a technique that couldn't be more different from the traditional illusionistic arsenal of Western painters. Westerners use tricks of the trade such as perspective and tonal gradation to dematerialize the recalcitrant surface of the picture plane. By contrast, these Korean artists started by exploiting the material properties of the silk on which they would paint. Using a blend of red and yellow dyes, which also helpfully preserves the fabric from incursions by pesky insects, they suffused the material with a subtle, peachy glow. With paint applied on both the front and back, the hue could be coaxed into suggestions of flesh-like warmth.
This emphasis on artistic knowledge born of the material capacities of paint and fabric extends to the other art forms here, particularly the mind-bending quality of the justly famous celadon ceramics.
The three dozen examples, which include more than one national treasure rarely seen outside Korea, encompass a wide range of green and blue-green shades as well as techniques. Inlaid designs in some of the stoneware is deftly linked to inlay methods in vastly different materials -- silver clouds and dragons in a bronze basin, for example, or a lacquered wood box entwined with inlaid mother-of-pearl.
Korean culture has long been deeply influenced by the country's proximity to China, and Chinese aesthetic preferences sometimes set a standard on the peninsula. A Chinese proverb says, "There is a price for gold, but no price for jade," a telling reference to the status afforded the rare and precious stone, coveted for its hardness and luminous color. In effect, with the virtuosic development of celadon, savvy Korean ceramicists found miraculous ways to make their own priceless jade -- from scratch.
One of the virtues of the "Goryeo Dynasty" exhibition is its installation. The objects are loosely grouped by medium, so it's possible to follow distinct traditions. At the same time, the openness of the installation means that sculptures are not isolated from lacquers, nor metal works from celadon or block-printed text. Cross-referencing yields insights.
Some museums lard exhibitions with ostensible help in the form of endless labels, video screens, squawking headphones and other diversions, confused in their naive belief that they are providing context for a fuller understanding of art. Not this one. In the "Goryeo Dynasty" galleries, concise and judiciously placed wall texts do offer helpful background. But it also is clearly understood that the truest, most profound context an art museum might provide -- that which no other institution has the capacity to put forward -- is the careful arrangement and display of other works of art.
In the lengthy time I spent in this marvelous exhibition, I was struck by something one doesn't often encounter in big museum shows these days: silence. Amid a steady stream of visitors, you could practically hear a pin drop. That's because the works of art were busily talking to one another, and visitors were intently listening in.
Several of the paintings in the show will be rotated with others after Nov. 30, because of their fragility. Among them is a monumental 14th century bodhisattva; nearly 17 feet tall, it makes an awestruck viewer feel as small and wide-eyed as the child-size pilgrim who gazes up from the lower right-hand corner. At the end of the month the painting returns to the Kagami Shrine in Japan, which has never lent the work in the United States before.
'Goryeo Dynasty: Korea's Age of Enlightenment, 938-1392'
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Thursdays, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Ends: Jan. 11
Price: $10; seniors, $7; children, $6; under 12, free
Contact: (415) 581-3500