This spring the Philadelphia Museum of Art will present the first comprehensive survey in the United States devoted to the art of the celebrated Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), an era that profoundly shaped the culture of Korea in ways that continue to resonate today. This will be the only East Coast venue for this unprecedented exhibition. Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910 contains more than 150 works, among them National Treasures that have never before left Korea. The works range from screen paintings and calligraphy created for the courts to scenes that vividly and colorfully illustrate life across the social classes. Also displayed are ceremonial vessels, outstanding glazed ceramics, and works that reflect the dynamic encounters at the end of the nineteenth century between the “Hermit Kingdom” and the Western world. Illustrated books, metalwork, sculpture, lacquer, furniture, costumes, textiles, and photographs have been selected to demonstrate the breadth and scope of the dynasty’s artistic achievements. The exhibition comprises works drawn primarily from the collection of the National Museum of Korea, supplemented by loans from public and private collections in Korea and the United States.
Timothy Rub, The George D. Widener Director and Chief Executive Officer of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, stated:“This ambitious exhibition enables us to bring together an exceptional range of arts produced over a period of 500 years that will offer our audiences many rare surprises. We are pleased to have organized this exhibition in partnership with the National Museum of Korea, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, expanding on an initiative that began with an earlier survey of American art presented in Korea. The exhibition will be an eye-opener for many Americans and an opportunity for the vibrant Korean and Korean-American communities in Philadelphia and beyond to discover fresh connections with their cultural heritage.”
The exhibition is organized around themes that illuminate the artistic accomplishments and dynamics of Korean cultural life under the world’s longest-ruling Confucian dynasty, which saw the succession of twenty-seven monarchs over 518 years. The period is one of deep fascination because it continues to influence modern manners, norms, and societal attitudes in a country that has today emerged as one of the world’s most vibrant economies. The exhibition also sheds light on the external influences that exerted a profound effect on Korea’s culture. These include the adoption of the Chinese writing system in the second century BCE, the spread of Buddhism, and the introduction of Confucian values that would impose strict moral codes and standards. As the founding philosophy of the Joseon dynasty, Confucianism provides a unifying perspective for the artistic styles that evolved over time.
The exhibition’s five sections focus on the role of the king and the royal court in establishing a distinctive art and culture throughout the Korean peninsula; the taste for elegant simplicity that was assiduously cultivated at this time; the hierarchies and customs that defined class and the separate roles of men and women; the production of ritual implements in metal and ceramics that gave expression to ancestral worship; the suppression and persistence of Buddhism under Confucian rule; and the direct encounter with Western civilization beginning in the late nineteenth century as seen from internal and external points of view.
Highlights include its expansive folding screen paintings, ranging from those used in Joseon court ceremonies to others serving secular functions. Ten Longevity Symbols, a nineteen-foot-long panorama of mountains, waterfalls, and forest punctuated by branching pines and animated by abundant wildlife, from paddling turtles and foraging deer to white cranes perching and soaring above. Redolent with symbols that originated in the Chinese Daoist cult of immortality, the ten-fold screen was painted in the eighteenth century and was intended as a benison for a long and happy life.
One of Korea’s largest temples, Hwaeomsa, located on a mountain slope in Gurye, has lent a spectacular Buddhist hanging scroll, a National Treasure that will be seen for the first time outside Korea and only in Philadelphia. The forty-foot-tall gwaebul, or large banner painting, is installed in the Museum’s Great Stair Hall where temple monks will perform the Yeongsanjae ceremony, prayers offered for the deceased on the forty-ninth day after death, to which it closely relates. In the center of the banner is Buddha himself, surrounded by disciples, bodhisattvas, and heavenly kings.
Prized for elegance and simplicity, the ceramics on view represent the pure embodiment of the ascendant Confucian taste; at the same time, some wares in their restraint offer chance associations with modern Minimalist aesthetics, including such works produced at royal kilns as the Bottle with Rope Design (Treasure No. 1060), and the eighteenth century Moon Jar (Treasure No. 1437). Another outstanding ceramic is the porcelain Jar with Design of Bamboo and Plum Trees (National Treasure No. 166), most likely by a court painter, and also on loan from the National Museum of Korea.
Costumes on display, striking for their strong blocks of pure color, offer important insights reflecting ranks and roles across the span of Joseon life. A courtier’s official robes, or jobok, contains a cloud-and-crane pattern and gold ring ornaments that he would have worn in the presence of the king. Also featured is a dangui, a formal upper garment, embellished with symbols of luck and fertility. Only a woman of the imperial family or the court would have worn it, in this case during the dynasty’s waning days. The garment’s green outer layer is slightly translucent and blends with the inner red layer, creating an eye-catching effect.
The exhibition includes interactive touch screen kiosks and a large cinematic screen that add to visitors’ understanding of the works on view. Upon entering the gallery, visitors witness a life-size animation of a grand procession culminating in the wedding of King Yeongjo, who ruled from 1724–1776, and his Queen, Jeongsun. The scenes are taken from a vividly detailed royal protocol, a courtly document displayed nearby, from which only a small number of pages can be displayed at any given time. With the help of a digital display placed near the document, visitors can turn the pages virtually, and see the lively cast of courtly characters. Elsewhere, twin touch-screen monitors with pop-up windows provide information explaining symbols seen in the artwork that Western audiences might otherwise find mysterious. At end of the exhibition is a station where visitors can have their names printed out in Hangeul, the written language developed by King Sejong, ruled 1418–1450, and his advisors that ushered in unprecedented literacy throughout Korea.
A major scholarly catalogue accompanies the exhibition and a broad range of public programs, ranging from Korean films to a K-Pop dance party and fashion show, begins on opening day with a performance of the Yeongsanjae ceremony by Korean monks in the Great Stair Hall.
Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910 is organized by Hyunsoo Woo, The Maxine and Howard Lewis Associate Curator of Korean Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, in close consultation with Dongsoo Moon, Associate Curator of the National Museum of Korea, of which efforts supported by curators of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
This exhibition is made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and the Korea Foundation. Transportation assistance is provided by Korean Air.
In Philadelphia, the exhibition is presented by The Exelon Foundation and PECO. Additional support is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, The Kathleen C. and John J. F. Sherrerd Fund for Exhibitions, the James and Agnes Kim Foundation, Sueyun and Gene Locks, Maxine S. and Howard H. Lewis, Dr. Sankey V. Williams and Constance H. Williams, Frank S. Bayley, Lois G. and Julian A. Brodsky, Dr. Young Yang Chung through the Seol Won Foundation US, Maude de Schauensee, Dr. Bong S. Lee and Dr. Mi W. Lee, James and Susan Pagliaro, and other generous individuals. The accompanying publication is supported in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Fund for Scholarly Publications.
Promotional support is provided by H MART, The Korea Times Philadelphia, and the Korea Tourism Organization, New York.
The exhibition is organized by the National Museum of Korea, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.