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In what are sometimes referred to as the “ceramic wars”, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a Japanese warrior-general, launched two invasions of the Korean peninsula in the last decade of the 16th century. Although both attacks were eventually repelled, partly thanks to a famous victory won by the Korean naval commander Yi Sun-shin, the Japanese armies took thousands of captives, many of them lashed together with ropes, and hauled them back to Japan.
Among the most prized were potters. The Ri brothers were taken to the castle town of Hagi in western Japan where they began firing a new style of stoneware with a milky white glaze. Their descendants are still producing the same, prized style of pottery in Hagi today. Other kidnapped Korean potters were taken to Arita and Satsuma where they established centres of porcelain. As with Hagi, they remain among Japan’s most famous kilns to this day. Such were the brutal origins of some of the world’s most exquisite tableware.
Japanese art, with its delicate refinement and often deceptively simple aesthetic, is fairly well known to western audiences. Less so is the Korean art and culture from which much of it derived. A lot of what we understand today as “Japanese” came originally from China and flowed through the Korean peninsula to western Japan. Confucianism, Buddhism, written characters and architectural design followed the same route. There is even scholarly speculation, once seemingly confirmed by Akihito, Japan’s current emperor, that country’s line of emperors traces not back to the sun goddess Amaterasu at the dawn of time but to a Korean mother in the sixth century.
A stunning exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, titled Treasures from Korea, featuring screens, ceramics, textiles, clothing, metal ware, paintings and furniture of the richest Korean homes, aims to redress the balance. Described as the most comprehensive collection of treasures from the Joseon period (1392-1910) ever displayed in the US, many of the exhibits have never left Korea before.
Much as in the 1970s and 1980s, when there was heightened interest in Japanese culture, so today there is a greater western appetite for art produced by Korea, whose economic miracle has only recently become widely known. If 20 years ago we wanted to know about the culture of Sony and bullet trains, today there is a desire to discover the country that produced Samsung and K-pop.
The exhibition, which will move on to museums in Los Angeles and Houston, focuses on the Joseon dynasty (sometimes written as Chosun), which spanned a line of 27 kings over 518 years. The dynasty overlapped virtually all of what in China were the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) periods. During Joseon, Korea turned away from Buddhism and installed a form of neo-Confucianism, with an emphasis on family, hierarchy and civil service exams.
Korea had been a tributary state of Ming China, but under Qing, China fell under the control of Manchu forces. In some ways, the Korean peninsula, for long periods locked into an isolation that gave rise to its designation as the “Hermit Kingdom”, became the purest expression of a Chinese Confucian culture that was now shifting under Manchu influence. The complex artistic links between China, Korea and Japan are fraught with a historical tension that resonates all-too powerfully today. “They are inseparable. We all understand that Korea, China and Japan – the best of friends and the best of enemies – share so much culture,” says Hyunsoo Woo, the exhibition’s curator.
The art on display in Philadelphia is spot-lit to perfection and displayed in sufficient space to allow the visitor to concentrate on each exhibit in isolation. Many come from palace interiors. Among the most beautiful are several silk-painted screens in dark yet vibrant colours. One called “Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks”, a stylised but gorgeous representation of earth, sea, sky and forest, depicts a symmetrical and ordered view of nature in deep blues, greens and reds. Two discs, one red, one white, representing the sun and the moon, hang in suspended animation above mountains whose waterfalls crash down into a symmetrically tumultuous sea. The painting would have been displayed behind the king’s throne from where it conferred the mandate of heaven upon the royal personage, proof that nature itself stood in awe of his authority.
Another, “Ten Longevity Symbols”, painted on a hinged, 10-panel screen that is 8ft high and 19ft wide, shows a mountainous scene scattered with deer, cranes, magical mushrooms, bamboo, pine and other symbols of long life. A subtle, and itself rather beautiful, liquid-screen display (how very Samsung!) allows visitors to select parts of the painting and learn more about the individual symbols.
Another clever use of technology accompanies one of the exhibition’s highlights, the book of “Royal Protocols”, which is crammed with hundreds of tiny painted figures illustrating the exact procedures for the ceremonies of state: weddings, coronations and funerals. A virtual book allows visitors to flick through the pages not on display. When I was there, two small boys were fighting over who would turn from one 18th-century Korean procession to another.
Some of the ceramics are breathtaking. A “Moon Jar”, named for its resemblance to a full moon, has the milky white quality so prized by Japanese invaders. Produced in two halves, one can just make out the delicate join that gives the shape a pleasing, naturalistic imperfection. “Bottle with Rope Design” is a 16th-century porcelain vase with a narrow neck, painted with an almost provocatively jaunty brown lasso that contrasts with much of the exhibition’s austere formality. A third, and perhaps the most exquisite, is an off-white jar decorated by a court painter in lovely brown brushwork with bamboo and plum.
Under Joseon, the status of women was diminished. The exhibition recreates separate living quarters, where the men practised calligraphy and the women embroidery. In the men’s section is a display of wooden furniture, including an elongated four-tiered stand open on all sides, the better to display high-quality ceramics. There is also a section dedicated to the accoutrements of calligraphy, collectively known as the “Four Friends of Study”, namely inkstones, brushes, paper and ink sticks. The women’s quarters include a pedestal table with a single leg, like the gnarled trunk of a tree, and a lotus-leaf top inlaid with mother of pearl. There are ornamental hairpins, one decorated with a dragon’s head, and a scarlet silk spectacle case, designed to be hung from the waist.
Although Buddhism was officially suppressed during the Joseon period, the religion continued to coexist with the prevailing ideology. Even some monarchs followed it. The largest item in the exhibition is a Buddhist banner painting, 40ft by 25ft, only 80 of which have survived. The one on display has been designated a national treasure. Painted on hemp, the banner was produced by monks to celebrate the rebirth of those who had died repelling Japanese invaders and Manchu aggressors from the north. Ms Woo says the form is unique to Korea. The banner, depicting the Buddha and his disciples, was used in an outdoor ceremony to send the souls of the dead to heaven.
The end of the exhibition features the aftermath of the Joseon period when the Korean king designated himself an emperor. In 1892, the US forced open the isolated country via an unequal port treaty. Paintings begin to depict clocks and other symbols of the modern world. There are even some delicate handblown lightbulb covers shaped like lotus buds.
The final item in the exhibition is a portrait, painted on a hanging silk scroll, of Yi U, grandson of the emperor. By the time Yi was born, Korea had become a colony of Japan. He was sent to Japan where he was inculcated in Japanese culture, part of Tokyo’s effort to assimilate the Joseon royal family. Like other members of the Japanese imperial family, Yi was inducted into the military. In 1945, he was transferred to Hiroshima where he perished when the city was incinerated by an atomic bomb.
‘Treasures from Korea’ will run at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until May 26; philamuseum.org
David Pilling is the FT’s Asia editor and author of ‘Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival’, published by Allen Lane/Penguin, £20