A full narrative of Korean art history
Yoo Hong-jun, former director of the Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) and professor of Myongji University, has brought out the first of a new history book series, “The Story of Korean Art” (Nulwa: 412 pp., 28,000 won).
Encompassing the era from prehistoric times to the Balhae age (698-926), the book is the first of a three-volume series. The second volume will cover the Unified Silla (668-935) and Goryeo (918-1392) kingdoms, while the third will deal with the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) — all to be completed in three years.
Although the book appeals to students studying art history as a guide, Yoo said that it is not exclusively academic, which would be a struggle for readers. Rather, it is an easy story-telling book that can be “comfortably read from the couch.”
The publication’s origins go back to the 1980s when Yoo gave lectures on Korean art history to youngsters, which continued until the 1990s. His lectures made a strong impression on his audience who were accustomed to boring, hard and academic teaching lessons in art history classes. But with his experience as a practical scholar, his lectures inspired the young audience,
Unlike other art history books, it shows a different pattern of composition. He doesn’t follow the typical format of architecture, sculpture, painting and crafts. Instead, the author divides the book into 12 interesting topics.
“I think the introduction of an art history book should be basically designed to help readers better understand museum exhibitions and field trips to cultural heritage sites as a guide book. So I covered archeology and included a lot of portions for epitaphs which are usually not discussed much in art history books,” he wrote in the introduction of the book.
His statement seems to be true as the historical stories spontaneously flow and are informative, scholarly but not boring. His glib talk which has been seen in many university lectures also shines in this art history journey.
The book is full of basic historical information and knowledge based on Korean art, but it also reflects his piercing views.
Yoo interprets Korean art in the context of East Asian art history. Generally, other similar Korean art history books tend to define national characteristics and try to identify their unique features.
But Yoo relates Korean art with neighboring countries such as China and Japan.“Korean art has been much influenced by China from the formation of the ancient states to the 19th century. For that reason, our cultural identity has been doubted and sometimes it leads to a cultural complex. But cultural influence doesn’t naturally emerge, rather it is the result of aggressive choices by accepters. The influence was not just offered by China — we chose to accept it,” he said.
He argues that the cultural identity of a nation doesn’t lie in its origins. “No one says European medieval Christian culture is an imitator of Jewish culture or Chinese Buddhist art is never underestimated because its origin is from India. Korean Buddhist art is Korean culture. It was natural in the past and in the present day for a nation to accept an advanced culture and develop it more in its own way.”
Yoo argues, for example, that many tribes in East Asian countries in the past who failed to assimilate themselves into the advanced mainstream culture fell easily or disappeared.
In the history of world culture, a single entity is divided into the mainstream and marginal offshoots. Before the 19th century, China was the mainstream that led East Asian culture while nations such as Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Tibet and Mongolia were a crucial part of it. With them, East Asian culture could flourish, he said.
“If Goryeo people didn’t make celadon, the world ceramics history might have stopped in China. Without Korea, East Asian history cannot be complete.”
In every chapter, he discusses the basic theories of archeology in order to help readers easily understand the fundamental roots of Korean art history and the country’s relations with its neighbors, particularly in terms of culture.
Every historical fact as well as academic research are communicated through vivid and practical views that are easily associated with what we have seen at museums and other historical heritages during our schooldays.
To better illustrate the foundation of Korean art, the author closely looks into two big categories — ancient funerary and Buddhist art. Particularly, he puts incense burners and reliquaries from Buddhist art into a separate section to further discuss the importance of relics.
The book also puts more emphasis on the excavation of Silla mausoleums, the founding history of the Mireuk Temple from Baekje and Hwangryong Temple from Silla, which are a reflection of his students’ interests during his lectures.
As art history requires much background knowledge, each chapter tries to offer specific overviews: the introduction process of Buddhism from China to Korea and the general landscape of Buddhist sculpture patterns. More technical explanations about gilt bronze and gold crafts are additionally referred to.
Better known for the best-selling book series, “My Field Trip Diary to Cultural Heritages,” which was published in the 1990s, the author served as head of CHA from 2004 to 2008.