This file photo shows the Korean Room at the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1927 when it first opened. “Attendant,” right, is a wooden statue which is one of the museum’s earliest Korean pieces and is visiting Korea for “Korean Art from the United States” exhibition at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul. / Courtesy of National Museum of Korea
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Korean celadon and Buddhist paintings, housed in museums overseas, have returned home temporarily for a special exhibition, “Korean Art from the United States,” at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul.
Seven museums in the U.S. have Korean rooms while there is a total of 67 in 22 countries worldwide. However, experts say that the quality of Korean collections is poor compared to those from China and Japan. This exhibit highlights the history of collecting Korean artwork in the U.S. and the importance of Korean collections abroad.
“Through this exhibit, we aim to review the current situation of Korean collections overseas,” said Shin So-yeon, curator of the collection.
The National Museum borrowed a total of 86 artifacts from nine museums in the U.S. — the Honolulu Museum of Art; Brooklyn Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Cleveland Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Harvard Art Museums / Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
At the beginning, American collectors were interested in ceramics, especially Goryeo celadon. Some of the artworks were first identified as Chinese or Japanese and later corrected to Korean. The “Masterpieces of Korean Art” exhibition (1957-1959) and “5000 Years of Korean Art” (1979-1981) at major U.S. museums helped fuel interest in Korean art.
The first part of the exhibition is titled “Collecting: The History of Korean Art Collections at U.S. Museums” and features artworks explaining how collections of Korean Art in America began.
Some of the artifacts have long stories behind them. “Maebyeong,” a celadon bottle from the Goryeo Kingdom (918-1392), is a collection from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and originally obtained by zoologist Edward Morse, who collected Japanese and Korean ceramics in the late 19th century.
Another Goryeo celadon “Ewer” in Brooklyn Museum was reportedly a royal gift to the missionary Underwood family. Horace Underwood was the founder of Yonsei University and his wife Lilias served as a court physician for Empress Myeongseong.
The Metropolitan Museum of Arts’ “Amitabha and Kshitigarbha” is one of the rare Buddhist paintings from the Goryeo era. This scroll was first believed to be Chinese, but later identified as a Korean work of art.
The exhibit displays major works from each museum in the second section — “Exhibiting: Artworks in the Korean Collections at U.S. Museums.”
The first ever Korean Room in the U.S. was established at the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1927. Hawaii has a long history of Korean immigration since 1903 and such tradition boosted the opening of the Korean-specialized gallery. A wooden “Attendant” sculpture from late Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), which was borrowed to celebrate the opening of the Korean room in 1927 and later purchased, is on exhibit here.
The Brooklyn Museum, which was the first to launch a Korean Gallery in the New York area in 1974, loaned six items including a “Shrine” painting from the Joseon era. Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought a section of the 16th century painting “Water Buffaloes in a Mountain Valley” in 2000 and purchased the newly-located pair in 2005, making the scroll complete.
“Sutra Box” from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, shows the essence of lacquer ware inlaid with mother-of-pearl from the Goryeo period, while a celadon “Ewer” of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco is an example of a ceramic modeled after a metal counterpart.
The exhibition wraps up by presenting a video clip of Korean rooms in U.S. museums and related catalogues.
“Korean Art from the United States” runs through Aug. 5, except for on Mondays. Docent programs are available at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday.
For more information, call (02) 2077-9000 or visit www.museum.go.kr.