A summer of Korean art
In the era of ``hyperwork," summer vacation is a disappearing luxury. I got lucky this year and was able to visit Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Ann Arbor, Michigan, my hometown. I have not visited any of those places in at least fifteen years, and I enjoyed noticing the changes while making new discoveries.
As one of several subthemes of my travels, I decided to visit collections of Korean art in museums in each city. In recent years, the Korea Foundation, Korean corporations, and private collectors have generously supported the promotion of Korean art in major museums overseas. I was curious to see how these efforts affected the position of Korean art in museums, most of which are known for important collections of Asian art.
First stop: Boston. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston has one of the most important collections of Asian art in North America, and the Korean collection was befitting of this reputation. The museum has a gallery dedicated to Korean art that consists almost entirely of pottery from the collection of Charles B. Hoyt (1889-1949), an important collector of Chinese art. The collection contained excellent examples of various genres of Korean pottery from the Three Kingdom's Period (57 B.C.-A.D. 688) through the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
Next stop: Ann Arbor. The University of Michigan ― Museum of Art contains an important collection of Asian art that supports the university's research in Asian studies. Though small, the museum has an entire gallery devoted to Korean art. The collection is relatively new and consists of pottery and roof-end tiles. The Korea Foundation and generous private contributions supported the development of the gallery.
Third stop: Washington, D.C. The Freer Gallery of Art, one of the many museums that make up the Smithsonian Institution, contains one of the leading collections of Asian art in the U.S. Compared with the museums in Boston and Ann Arbor, the collection of Korean pottery is older. Charles Lang Freer (1854–1919) was a major collector of Asian art in the early 20th-century and he acquired a number of Korean pottery through Japanese acquaintances who were knowledgeable about Korean art. The collection contains a number of outstanding examples of pottery and porcelain from the Goryeo (918–1392) and Joseon Periods.
Final stop: New York. Though challenged by a number of active art scenes, New York remains the art capital of world, giving Korean art a unique stage. Among the first collectors of Korean art, The Brooklyn Museum is one of the first museums in the U.S. to devote a permanent gallery to Korean art. Unlike the other museums, the collection includes furniture and painting.
The collection began in the 1912 when a curator visited Korea and took an interest in Korean art, and has since grown to 850 objects. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the greatest art museums in the world, and has developed a gallery for Korean art in recent years. The gallery had an exquisite special exhibition of Joseon-period ceramics from the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. The Korea Foundation supported this exhibition.
Nearby the spectacular Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright presented a solo exhibition of the works of Lee Ufan, a Korean artist living and working in Japan. The entire museum was filled with Lee's abstract paintings and installations, with retrospective on his long and notable career. The exhibition received major support from Samsung with additional support from the Korea Foundation and, interestingly, the Japan Foundation.
What does all this mean? The development of permanent galleries devoted to Korean art in major museums and museums with important collections of Asian art gives Korean art a presence that it long lacked. The Korean galleries join long-established galleries of Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, and Southeast Asia art. The Korea Foundation and others who have supported Korean art can justifiably be proud of the efforts.
A closer look at the competing galleries of Chinese and Japanese art reveals a much broader range of offerings. In the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for example, an entire gallery is devoted to Chinese furniture and decorative arts, displayed in a reproduction of a traditional residence. The exhibitions in Japanese galleries in the various museums include pottery, Buddhist statuary, woodblock prints, decorative screens, kimonos, and more.
For all the progress in establishing a presence of Korean art in major museums, exhibitions remain limited largely to pottery. This is perhaps natural because the early 20th-century collectors whose generosity formed the core of most collections were most interested in Joseon-Kingdom ceramics and pottery. But Korean art is more than pottery. Building on these collections by expanding the range of offerings to other genres, such as painting, folk art, furniture, and architecture, will give art lovers overseas a richer understanding of Korean art.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.