LACMA presents a fuller image of Korea

In May 1965, two months after the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened its doors on Wilshire Boulevard, Yook Young-soo, the wife of Park Chung-hee, president of the Republic of Korea, paid a visit. She was so disappointed with the paltry display of Korean art that she decided to take action. In February 1966, Korea’s first couple gave the fledgling institution 23 ceramic works covering 1,000 years of Korean art history.

The donation launched a collection that has grown, in fits and starts, to one of the world’s most comprehensive holdings outside Korea. Joining broad holdings of Japanese and Chinese art, the Korean collection comprises about 500 paintings, sculptures, ceramics and textiles, and an 850-piece trove of historic pottery shards. But that’s one of the little-known facts about LACMA, partly because the museum has a global agenda and partly because Korean art hasn’t occupied much space there.

The museum opened its first long-term installation of Korean material in 1999 on the lower level of the Ahmanson building and closed it a couple of years ago, amid an ongoing reorganization of its permanent collection galleries. But something notable is happening now.

The big summer show at LACMA’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum is “Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea,” a splashy multimedia exhibition of recently made work that runs through Sept. 20. And just a few days ago, the museum reopened its Korean galleries in a larger, more prominent location. The 6,600-square-foot showcase, on the plaza level of the Hammer building, debuted with 101 objects, including three loans from the National Museum of Korea -- one designated as a National Treasure -- and 23 pieces from the Amorepacific Museum of Art, established by a cosmetics company near Seoul.

Visitors find paintings on screens and scrolls, sculptures of wood and metal, a wide range of ceramics and objects used in religious ceremonies and daily life. Text panels, a map and multimedia presentations on small screens provide a cultural context for the works and explain artistic processes. A large room adjacent to the gallery complex offers hands-on art experiences -- initially, instruction in traditional painting techniques.


This is an auspicious occasion, says Jaewon Kim, director of L.A.'s Korean Cultural Center. “I’m very happy and proud. My hope is that the galleries will provide great accessibility to the museum and Korean art for the Korean community and Los Angelenos in general. When the first Korean galleries opened at LACMA, their collection was not so full-scale. This time, not only is the space greater, but the collection is richer. I also hope, through the development of the relationship between LACMA and the Korean National Museum, there will be other treasures coming and going.”

Kwang-shik Choe, the National Museum of Korea’s director, said the new galleries “will be at the center of an intercultural exchange and collaboration between Korea and the United States,” in a statement sent by e-mail. The National Treasure lent to LACMA, a Buddhist sculpture popularly known as the “Pensive Bodhisattva,” embodies the highest level of artistic form and craftsmanship, he said, “and its aesthetic presence extends beyond borders.”

The inauguration of the galleries is a sort of debut for Hyonjeong Kim Han, a specialist in Korean painting who arrived at LACMA from Seoul’s National University and Research Institute of Korean Painting in 2006 as associate curator of Chinese and Korean art. She spent many months evaluating the collection and soon started working on an installation that changed in size and location as plans evolved.

The finished product begins with an introduction to “a mountainous peninsula located in northeast Asia between China and Japan” that has “played a pivotal role in East Asian culture,” as a text panel states. Subject to many outside influences, sometimes through the force of invasions, Korea has nonetheless forged a distinctive artistic culture.

The Three Kingdoms Period (57 BC to 668 AD) produced fine metalwork, stoneware and painting. Buddhism’s arrival in the 4th century brought new imagery and refinement, reaching its peak in the sculpture, painting and celadon-glazed ceramics of the Goryeo period (918 to 1392). The Neo-Confucian Joseon period (1392 to 1910) left a legacy of stoneware and white porcelain pottery, landscape and genre painting, among other art forms that appealed to scholarly rulers and a rising middle class.

The first artwork to be seen in the new galleries is National Treasure No. 78, a late 6th century gilt bronze sculpture of Maitreya, a Bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be. At LACMA for three months, it occupies a room of its own, just behind a large screened window in the lobby.

“We wanted visitors to see it through the screen, notice its beauty, then walk through the galleries and encounter it,” Kim says. “In Korean architecture, it’s important to have layers on layers, rooms within rooms. You can see from afar, but you have to walk through. It’s a process.”

The new space is primarily intended to display works from LACMA’s collection, on a rotating basis. But one small gallery also will be used for temporary exhibitions, including Korean contemporary art, Kim says.

For the initial installation she has organized five thematic sections. A gallery of paintings, focusing on modes of expression and representation, includes startlingly realistic portraits -- every hair accounted for -- on large hanging scrolls. Another gallery explores the art of gentlemen scholars, or literati, who became highly accomplished painters, poets and calligraphers in a Neo-Confucian society.

In the same room, the curator also grapples with a typically overlooked topic: the lives and artistic accomplishments of Korean women. A 12-foot-wide court screen commemorates the 60th birthday of the Dowager Queen Sinjeong, whose life spanned most of the 19th century. Depicting three scenes from ceremonies held over several days, the unknown artist offers a bird’s-eye view of a spectacle created by legions of tiny dancers and musicians.

Other galleries examine the effect of Buddhism on Korean culture. Founded in India, Buddhism entered Korea through China and eventually adopted Korean folk gods. Carved wood figures of youthful altar attendants, about 18 inches tall, are charming statues made for public places of worship and meant to appeal to the masses. A recently conserved painting, “The Three Kings of Hell,” on view at LACMA for the first time, represents Buddhist leaders who judge the souls of the dead.

Ceramics fill an entire room with objects such as a simply elegant “moon jar,” a dish with an incised floral pattern, seen through a translucent green glaze, and a blue and white jar decorated with a dragon and fluffy clouds. A wall in another area, near the exit, offers a sampling of the 850-piece shard collection.

A strangely fascinating trove, it’s part of a larger collection gathered at kiln sites all over the Korean peninsula in the 1910s and ‘20s by Noritaka and Takumi Asakawa. The Japanese brothers lived in Korea during the Japanese colonial period and, as a personal research project, collected ceramic fragments to compile a record of regional production.

The collection eventually landed in six institutions, including one in Korea and four in Japan. LACMA’s portion, the only one in the West, was a gift from Gregory Henderson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea, and his wife, Maria. As Korea has been industrialized and divided, many historic kiln sites have been destroyed or become off limits to outside scholars, increasing the value of the well-documented fragments.

The Hendersons made their gift, representing 300 kiln sites, in 1986. Many other objects have joined the museum’s Korean holding over the years, but by far the biggest boost was LACMA’s purchase, in 1999, of nearly 250 paintings, sculptures, textiles and other objects from Robert W. Moore, a Los Angeles resident reputed to have compiled the most comprehensive private collection of Korean art in the West.

That addition inspired the museum’s first “permanent” installation of Korean art. Now there’s a new one, sponsored by Amorepacific Corp., the Korea Foundation, the Korea Times-Hankook Ilbo, Korean Air, governmental agencies and individual donors who live in Los Angeles, the largest Korean community outside the homeland.

But it’s not just the display of Korea’s cultural heritage that pleases Jaewon Kim. “We also have at LACMA a contemporary exhibition, ‘Your Bright Future,’ ” he says. “We want to be known to have both traditional and contemporary art -- and a future.”