Revisiting, reviving Korean culture


In 1443, a Korean ruler named King Sejong reinvented language as a more democratic medium. He issued a royal edict establishing a new alphabet to help Korean commoners read and write more easily, while conveying what was especially Korean in a society deeply influenced by China.

“The sounds of our language differ from those of Chinese,” Sejong wrote of the new linguistic system his experts created, called hangeul. He hoped “the people will learn [the 28 letters] easily and use them conveniently in their daily life.”

A new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, called “Art of the Korean Renaissance, 1400-1600,” has multi-paneled scrolls, sculptural yet practical ceramics and dreamlike ink drawings. The idealism of Sejong’s alphabet frames it all.


Soyoung Lee, an assistant curator who organized the show, spoke of the “very fundamental” role that textural artifacts on exhibit -- picture books and scrolls with lettering on them in Chinese and hangeul -- played for a cultural nobility striving for a more civil society against the darker currents of war and occupation that shaped Korean history.

The show, the museum’s first exhibition of internationally gathered Korean work in decades, opens a season of learning about Korea for museum-goers on both coasts. On June 28, a week after the Met show closes, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will open an exhibition of work by 12 contemporary Korean artists. And before that closes, LACMA plans to open its reinstalled Korean galleries in a location far more prominent than before: directly across the plaza from Wilshire Boulevard.

Meanwhile, the Met’s show represents what Thomas P. Campbell, the museum’s new director, calls “a significant new phase in the museum’s Korean art program,” the first of several exhibits exploring periods of Korean art.

The current show posed a special challenge, organizers say, because relatively little work remains of the so- called early Joseon Dynasty period, known for its cultural awakening and a military consolidation of the Korean peninsula.

Then came invasion, followed by a later Joseon rule, which stretched until 1910, and invasion again. The 21st century retains its own legacy of division. The backward look to a period of relative peace gives this show a context both melancholy and hopeful.

It is a restorative gathering of Korea’s far-flung cultural inheritance. What Lee found had to be brought from Japan and elsewhere.

This compact exhibit -- in a single divided room that normally displays the Met’s Korean permanent collection -- is the hub of a wide wheel: 45 works drawn from 17 international lenders.

A falcon newly reattributed to Yi Am, the great-great-grandson of King Sejong, is a vivid example of Korean rediscovery. The bird, seen from the back, shows one side of its face, one eye noticing something beyond the scroll’s edge. It’s a regal hunter concentrating itself in a flash of intelligence. Lee, the curator, explains that the falcon (from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston) was long thought to be the work of a 14th century Chinese painter named Xu Ze. Then seals on the work -- the equivalent of an artist’s signature -- were found to belong to Yi Am.

The show makes a fresh Korean contribution to a global dialogue with the first-time exhibit here of a full Korean version -- across the traditional eight scrolls -- of the classic Chinese motif of the place where the Xiao and Xiang rivers meet. One can visit the Met’s standing Chinese and Japanese exhibits to see how their sets on the Xiao-Xiang landscape compare; the Korean is more intimate.

Viewers familiar with modern American ceramic art -- including the pottery explosion of the 1950s and ‘60s that has roots in Southern California -- will find parts of this show are like going home. One piece was brushed with slip and etched while wet with a stick or hard brush, with such abstract and free utterance that it could have been done five minutes ago in a studio near Lincoln Boulevard.

Throughout the show, there’s a balance between competing sensations: call them cool and warm, formal and exuberant. Behind them is a philosophical approach that, even to many Americans who relate to other versions of the Asian past, is unfamiliar.

Part of the reason is the American connection to Buddhism. Many Americans are drawn to Buddhism, while Confucianism gets little notice.

The early Joseon state was Neo-Confucianist, referring not to contemporary newness but to Korean interpretations of original Confucian teachings dating back hundreds of years in China. The Met’s exhibit also shows how Neo-Confucianism and Buddhism overlapped in Joseon Korea.

One text in the show is the “Illustrated Guide to the Three Bonds,” meaning the three bonds emphasized by Confucians and Neo-Confucians: the bonds between ruler and minister, father and son, husband and wife. Yet reading the bonds could yield the stereotypical image of Confucian influences as authoritarian.

That would be simplistic.

Neo-Confucianism is increasingly understood as a sensitive philosophical outlook about how one conducts oneself in daily life. Confucianism was dominated by an elite of sages. Neo-Confucianism is egalitarian in that every individual has the right or responsibility to get an education, to become sage-like.

Key pieces in the show are the group portraits of administrators quietly celebrating having passed civil service and military examinations. These may give the clearest picture of how Neo-Confucian values embodied in Sejong’s alphabet trickled into the society.

The writing on these images is mostly in Chinese; hangeul was absorbed only slowly. But Rachel E. Chung, a scholar of the early Joseon period at Columbia University who toured the Met’s show, paused in front of a scroll from 1580 titled “Banquet for Successful Candidates of the State Examination.”

“The idea that society was essentially a meritocracy did trickle down to the society at large,” Chung said. “Does this mean that every farmer put down his plow and engaged in education? Probably not. Did it erase poverty and the class system? No. But there was a new awareness of a better direction society was taking and people wanted to participate.”