Korean Art

The arts of Korea, although a distinct entity, were profoundly influenced by Chinese art and architecture. Korean traditions in turn formed an important early link between Chinese and Japanese culture; it was through Korea that Buddhist art forms first reached Japan during the 6th century.

The earliest Korean art, dating from about 3000 ©, appeared in the form of Neolithic pottery impressed with simple geometric decoration. Metalworking developed in Korea after the 10th century ©. From the 3d century © on, cast-bronze mirrors and other utilitarian objects were made that attest to the marked influence of Chinese styles.

With the Chinese conquest of northwestern Korea in 108 ©, Lo- lang, near modern Pyongyang, North Korea, became a provincial outpost of the Han dynasty (206 ©- 220). Richly furnished burial chambers discovered at Lo-lang have revealed many of the finest surviving examples of Han decorative arts.

During the Three Kingdoms period (late 1st century ©- 668), the local powers of Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast vied for control over the Korean peninsula. Koguryo art survives principally in the form of fresco-type mural paintings decorating 5th- and 6th-century tomb chambers along the middle Yalu River. The vigorous polychrome paintings depict lively everyday scenes, real and fantastic animals, and other stylized motifs, some of which display Central Asian influences. The Paekche kingdom maintained close ties with Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries; its art is primarily known from gracefully sculpted Buddhist images preserved in Japan. The finest example from this period is the painted wood figure of Kudara Kannon (Horyuji, Nara), which either was brought from Korea or was carved by one of the many Paekche artisans then working in Japan. Silla art of the Three Kingdoms period is noted for the refinement of its metalwork. Monumental tomb mounds surrounding Kyongju, the Silla capital, have yielded a striking array of uniquely Korean ornaments, including a group of gold crowns richly embellished with masses of comma-shaped jade pendants and gold disks.

Silla unified the Korean kingdoms into a single realm in 668, marking the start of the Great Silla period (668-918). Impressive granite monuments were erected, including the mid- 8th-century pagoda of the Pulgaksa monastery and the cave- temple of Sukkalam (both near Kyongju), the latter containing an immense stone Buddha figure and fine relief carvings exhibiting Tang (T'ang) Chinese influence. Silla-period metalworkers excelled in the creation of large bronze temple bells, which were often as much as 4 m (13 ft) high; also noteworthy are the elegant gilt-bronze figurines of Buddhist deities, such as that of Maitreya (7th century; National Museum of Korea, Seoul).

Royal patronage of Buddhism during the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) encouraged the renewed construction of temples and monasteries, the most important extant example being the Hall of Eternal Life at the 13th-century Pusoksa, believed to be the oldest wooden building in Korea. Although sculpture and stonework declined during the Koryo period, the aristocratic arts— precious metalwork, lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and above all, ceramics—reached new levels of quality and refinement. Porcelain making, introduced (late 11th century) from Zhejiang (Chekiang), China, was rapidly transformed by native artisans into a distinctly Korean variant—the "kingfisher-colored" Koryo celadon. These subtle blue-green wares are regarded as among the most serenely beautiful Asian porcelains ever produced. In the 12th century the Koreans invented the technique of inlaying black or white clays into the celadon wares to produce delicate bird, flower, and cloud patterns.

With the founding of the Yi dynasty (1392-1910), Buddhism was replaced by a Chinese-inspired Neo-Confucianism. Under the conservative formalism of Confucian concepts, the arts suffered a steady decline in the early centuries of Yi rule. The 5autocratic monarchy strove to maintain close ties with the court of Ming China, and grandiose buildings, such as the 15th- century Kyongbok Palace, were erected in the new capital of Seoul in emulation of even grander Peking prototypes. In painting, both the professional court artists and the scholar- gentry painters relied heavily on Chinese themes and conventions. Not until the 18th century did distinctively Korean tendencies emerge in the work of a number of Yi artists. The most prominent of these was Chong Son, who eschewed the traditional Chinese-styled landscape for the depiction of rugged Korean scenery, as in The Diamond Mountains (private collection, Seoul). Genre painting represents another mode in which Yi artists broke from the slavish imitation of academic Chinese painting. A characteristic example, displaying typically Korean deftness and wit, is Boating Scene (Kangsong Museum of Fine Arts, Korea), part of an album by Sin Yun-bok (b. c.1758).

In Yi decorative arts, the delicate celadons of the preceding period were replaced by pun-ch'ong, a coarsely made pottery often enhanced by freely applied patterns in white or blue slip. Highly prized by collectors in Japan, the rustic Yi wares exhibit qualities of vitality and freshness that characterize much of Korean folk art, from inlaid lacquer objects to charming painted illustrations of Korean folktales.

K. A. Peterson

Bibliography: Covell, A. C., Shamanist Folk Paintings (1984); Eckardt, Andreas, A History of Korean Art (1929); Kim, Chewon, Treasures of Korean Art (1966); Kim, Chewon, and Lee, Kim L., Arts of Korea (1974); Lee, Don Y., Art in Korea (1990); McCune, Evelyn, The Arts of Korea: An Illustrated History (1961); Moes, Robert J., Korean Art (1987); Sun-u, Ch'oe, et al., Traditional Korean Painting (1983); Won-Yong, Kim, et al., Traditional Korean Art (1983).

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