Muse ’til Midnight with Tycho, Willits, and the Silver Lake Chorus

July 30, 2014

Muse ’til Midnight has a history of bringing music and art together after-hours at LACMA, and this year our mashups are better than ever. Scott Hansen, who has been mastering dreamy downtempo techno for the past ten years as Tycho, is featured at Urban Light with a Willits DJ set opening the evening. Later, the Silver Lake Chorus takes the dreamy evening into their own hands (and voices) with live performances inside Van Gogh to Kandinsky and John Altoon.

We had a chance to speak with the event’s performers and get an inside look at their relationship to art, music, and what they’re looking forward to about the event.

Tycho_2

Tycho, image courtesy of the Windish Agency

First things first, let’s introduce you and what you do.

Scott Hansen (Tycho): I am a musician/producer and a visual artist working in graphic design and video. Tycho is an audio/visual project which combines all of these disciplines.

Christopher Willits: I love to create experiences of peaceful intensity. I do this through sounds and images. I’ll be playing a DJ set at LACMA, no live guitar, voice, or images with the music, but I like that challenge–creating images without using light.

The Silver Lake Chorus: We arrange, sing, and create music that reflects the indie spirit of our community in Silver Lake. Our current album features never before heard songs written for us by awesome indie musicians like Justin Vernon, Tegan & Sara, and Ben Gibbard.

ChristopherWillits_PhotobyTomoSaito_1

Christopher Willits, photo by Tomo Saito

Does the world of visual art inspire you when you’re composing and creating music?

SH: I don’t see a very distinct separation between the music and the imagery I create as Tycho. They are both means to the same end, to translate a larger vision. There is a lot of interplay between both sides during the composition process, it’s not so much that they inform each other, but that they are both coming from the same source and that they are both designed to reinforce a singular vision.

TSLC: Absolutely. Often when we’re arranging we turn to paintings for inspiration. Visual art is an amazing tool that helps us find a given mood or tone. Also, we rehearse in an abandoned church with stained glass windows all around, which always seems to inspire us, especially for the more haunting or ethereal numbers we do.

TSLC2

The Silver Lake Chorus warming up inside the John Altoon exhibition

Tell me about the first time you had an “art experience”—the first time you felt affected, moved, or changed by a work of art.

SH: Around about eight-years-old my dad’s friend gave me a set of mix tapes with most of the Beatles’ discography. I think hearing the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour for the first time taught me what music appreciation could be. Until then I had just heard stuff my parents played or songs on the radio with a passing interest.

CW: I think I was two or three and I was doing this circular sufi-like dance listening to my parents cranking “L.A.Woman” by the Doors.

TSLC: I remember being at summer camp when I was really little, and we did an art project where we cut a circle in the bottom of a paper bag, like the ones you get at the grocery store. We were given paint and were instructed to paint the bag however we wanted, then put the paper bag on like a suit of armor, putting our head through the hole we’d cut on the bottom of the bag. Once we’d finished, I was gallivanting around in my colorful brown paper armor and feeling like a totally different person, like I was a magical creature from a different time. That’s a pretty cool feeling all from a brown paper bag, some scissors, and some paint. (Mikey Wells, Choral Director)

TSLC

The Silver Lake Chorus rehearsing inside the Van Gogh to Kandinsky exhibition

Describe your dream museum visit.

SH: A space dedicated to preserving the history of music technology. Ideally the instruments would be playable but I know that’s not really feasible.

CW: An immersive experience of sound and light and smell. I have not experienced this where it felt completely connected, so my friends and I are striving to create this experience in a new space in San Francisco soon.

ChristopherWillits_PhotobyTomoSaito_2

Christopher Willits, photo by Tomo Saito

What are you most looking forward to about performing at LACMA’s Muse ’til Midnight?

CW: I’m excited to connect with a bunch of new people and really just have some fun, celebrate life with a bunch of friends and friendly strangers. Scott and I are like brothers and it’s always fun to create a space together.

TSLC: Being part of an event where timeless works of art, guests who are looking to have an experience, and musicians come together to share in a truly unique and colorful evening.  Singing harmonies in massive, reverberant exhibition halls amidst expressionist art sounds like a really good time.

Muse ’til Midnight, happening this Saturday, August 2, at 8 pm. On the lineup:

8 pm: Willits DJ set

9 pm: Tycho DJ set

10:30 pm: The Silver Lake Chorus live

Don’t miss this arty party: tickets to Muse ‘til Midnight are available now at lacma.org.

Meghan McCauley, New Members Manager


The Written Image: Books and Portfolios from the Rifkind Center

July 28, 2014

When you hear the names of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, you might think of the colorful, expressive, and often large-scale paintings that they did in the early 20th century—many examples of which can be seen in Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky, currently on view in the Resnick Pavilion. Lesser known is their more intimate work; indeed, the young generation of German avant-garde artists favored printmaking in addition to painting. The newly opened permanent-collection installation The Written Image presents selected works from the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies and the Prints and Drawings Department at LACMA and explores the rich and varied dialogue between the written word and the print in its various manifestations.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Triumph of Love (Triumph der Liebe), 1911, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, © Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, courtesy Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern

In the early 20th century, prints produced as single sheets, portfolios, books, and periodicals became a favorite means of expression for artists, since they were able to use these media to execute relatively inexpensive original art rapidly and widely disseminate it. For instance, emerging artists were hired to create illustrations, which would then be inserted in avant-garde periodicals such as Der Sturm (The Storm) or Die Aktion (The Action). For many of these young men and women, it was their first opportunity to publish work and make a living off art.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Macbeth V, 1918, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Donavon W. and Mary C. Byer

Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Macbeth V, 1918, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Donavon W. and Mary C. Byer

Expressionist artists found a major source of inspiration in literature, turning to classic and modern publications alike. The works of the renowned German writer and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and those of the famous English playwright William Shakespeare provided the artists with popular narratives, which they reinterpreted in highly expressive prints. Other Expressionists turned to more contemporary writers: the English poet Oscar Wilde, who had died in 1900, became another major source of inspiration. His poem The Ballade of Reading Goal became a favorite text for the young generation of artists and was illustrated by many, notably Erich Heckel.

Oskar Kokoschka, The Sailboat (Das Segelschiff), from The Dreaming Boys (Die träumenden Knaben), 1908, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, purchased with funds provided by Anna Bing Arnold, Museum Associates Acquisition Fund, and deaccession funds © 2014 Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ProLitteris, Zürich

Some artists would also write poems or plays and illustrate them. With his book The Dreaming Boys (Die träumenden Knaben) from 1908, the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka created an original work combining lithographs and text. Although initially commissioned by the Wiener Werkstätte (Viennese Workshop) as a children’s book, Kokoschka’s poems about sexual longing and the accompanying, often suggestive, prints are removed from children’s tales and lean toward an original form of Bild-Dichtung (poetry with images) composed in a very expressive and provocative style.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cover of Gustav Schiefler, The Graphic Work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to 1924: Volume 1, to 1916 (Das graphische Werk von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner bis 1924: Band I, bis 1916), 1924–26, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, purchased with funds provided by Anna Bing Arnold, Museum Associates Acquisition Fund, and deaccession funds, © Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Courtesy Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Cover of Gustav Schiefler, The Graphic Work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Das graphische Werk von Ernst Ludwig Kirchner), 1922–24, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, © Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Courtesy Ingeborg & Dr. Wolfgang Henze-Ketterer, Wichtrach/Bern

Besides the written word, the book itself became also a medium for artistic creativity—from the cover, dust jackets, and bindings to the frontispieces, title pages, and endpapers. The original graphics created by artists to adorn the book became works of art in their own right. Especially for their catalogues raisonnés, artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde would give free rein to their artistic imagination, contributing original prints to further single out their work. Kirchner in particular excelled in combining image and text in his simplified, rough-hewn woodcuts.

Ludwig Meidner, Portrait of Paul Westheim, 1924, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, © Ludwig Meidner-Archiv, Jüdisches Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main

After World War I, illustrated books and printed portfolios became increasingly popular with collectors. This was due in large part to several German publishers and art dealers, who often worked directly with the artists and commissioned specific works. The art critic and collector Paul Westheim was the editor of the progressive art journal Das Kunstblatt (The Art Sheet) and also launched the portfolio series Die Schaffenden (The Creators), published between 1918 and 1932, which featured original prints by artists such as Erich Heckel and Max Kaus. By the 1920s, books and the distinctly German phenomenon of the print portfolio had become the central means of presenting modernist innovations, from Dada to the Bauhaus experimentation with type fonts and graphic design.

LACMA is one of only few institutions in the US to own such an exceptional collection of early 20th-century illustrated books, periodicals, and portfolios. Rarely on view, this exhibition is a wonderful opportunity to discover the variety of book illustration and print making in early 20th-century Germany.

Frauke Josenhans, Curatorial Assistant, Robert Gore Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies


This Weekend at LACMA

July 25, 2014

Start the weekend right with some music fun and exciting films! Beginning Friday, LACMA presents three selections in the evening: the classic 1932 psychological thriller M at 7 pm at the Inglewood Art+Film Lab; Inside Man, directed by Spike Lee and starring Denzel Washington, at 7:30 pm in the Bing Theater; and Spike Lee’s Student Academy Award winning film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads at 9:45 pm also in the Bing. Beforehand, at 6 pm, come out and relax to the piano sounds of Sunnie Paxson Trio with vocalist Cynthia Calhoun during this week’s installment of Jazz at LACMA.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Reaper (Harvest in Provence) (Champ de blé avec moissonneur), 1889, Museum Folkwang. Photo Credit: bpk, Berlin / Museum Folkwang/ Art Resource, NY

Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Reaper (Harvest in Provence)
(Champ de blé avec moissonneur), 1889, Museum Folkwang. Photo Credit:
bpk, Berlin / Museum Folkwang/ Art Resource, NY

On Saturday, learn about video and filmmaking at the Instant Film Workshop at noon and come watch the stirring film Salt of the Earth later that day at 7 pm, both presented in conjunction with Inglewood Art+Film Lab. Back at the museum, join in on any of these amazing, free tours including walkthroughs of popular exhibitions like Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandinsky, and Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910; as well as looks at American Landscape, South and Southeast Asian Art, and many more. At 5 pm Latin Sounds presents a program of traditional and modern Brazilian Choro music by Grupo Falso Baiano in Hancock Park. And finally, at 7:30 pm in the Bing Theater see Van Gogh in a portrayal of the troubles and experiences of painter Vincent Van Gogh.

Installation photograph, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, November 24, 2013–July 27, 2014, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Calder Foundation, New York, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, photo © Fredrik Nilsen

Installation photograph, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic, November 24, 2013–July 27, 2014, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, © Calder Foundation, New York, Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY, photo © Fredrik Nilsen 

Catch the final days of the imaginative and balanced modern sculptures seen in Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic closing Sunday, July 27. A ticket into this exhibition also grants you access to Van Gogh to Kandinsky! To explore more of the galleries, visit any one of  these tours including Islamic Art, Cubism, European Art, and Japanese Art. Put a perfect end to the perfect weekend with unique melodies from violinist Conrad Chow and pianist Timothy Durkovic at Sundays Live.

Lily Tiao


John Altoon’s Banana Man

July 23, 2014

I am at LACMA on a Wednesday drinking Earl Grey tea and eating a fistful of sugar cookies; the museum is closed. I watch the gardeners prune the large palm trees in front of BCAM; palm fronds scatter across the sidewalk. I’m here for a study day and walk-through of the John Altoon exhibition with other artists. We take the Barbara Kruger elevator up to the second floor of BCAM and situate ourselves in the first room of the exhibition. I look around. Some of the paintings are familiar, but most are new to me. Despite his premature death of a heart attack at age 44, Altoon produced a plethora of work.

Installation view, "John Altoon," June 8, 2014-September 14, 2014, Los Angeles County Musuem of Art, © 2014 Estate of John Altoon. | Photo: © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Installation view, John Altoon, June 8–September 14, 2014, Los Angeles County Musuem of Art, © 2014 Estate of John Altoon, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Altoon’s practice, especially evidenced in the works in the first room, varies in style and technique, as if the artist was sampling a variety of ideas, trying on many different approaches to see what stuck. We see elements of Abstract Expressionism in a number of his paintings, highly rendered fictional magazine advertisement drawings, and cartoonish works on paper.

John Altoon, Untitled (F-46), 1966, National Gallery of Art, Washington, anonymous gift, 1997, © 2014 Estate of John Altoon

John Altoon, Untitled (F-46), 1966, National Gallery of Art, Washington, anonymous gift, 1997, © 2014 Estate of John Altoon

Carol S. Eliel, the curator of the exhibition, begins the day by discussing how the exhibition came together by framing Altoon as an “artist’s artist.” Highly regarded and respected by other artists, the lineage of Altoon’s practice has been passed on to the subsequent generation of artists. We see this throughout the exhibition wall quotes as well as in the catalogue, texts by contemporary artists such as Monica Majoli, Monique Prieto, and Laura Owens, who each wrote about the influence of Altoon’s work on their own.

During the study day, we learned from Eliel that Altoon’s archive was not well maintained, and much of what we know about his life and practice has been passed on by his colleagues. I sit in the room during the conversation and listen as others share their experiences with Altoon’s work as well as any personal relationship they had with him. Through these different stories, I get a clearer picture of what Altoon might have been as an artist and a person. Arguments were made and disputed—everything from his intentions in using the female form to whether or not he wore striped pants. Some spoke about Altoon as a draftsman or as an illustrator. Others argued that his paintings were not “successful.” I watch as all these artists assert their positions and, through Altoon, position their own relationships to painting.

John Altoon in his studio, ca. 1968. Image courtesy of and © Joe Goode

John Altoon in his studio, ca. 1968. Image courtesy of and © Joe Goode

“Was he a feminist?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Well, he was friends with Judy Chicago.”

“Yeah, but that was before she was a feminist herself.”

John Altoon, "Untitled (F-8), " 1962-63, Pastel on illustration board, 60x40inches, Collection of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson | © 2014 Estate of John Altoon, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

John Altoon, Untitled (F-8), 1962–63, collection of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson, © 2014 Estate of John Altoon, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

As the conversation moves into the third gallery, I am struck by one painting in particular: Untitled (F-8), 1962–63, which, for the purposes of this text, I will call “Woman in Yellow Coat.” The work is a large portrait painting of a bourgeois couple standing together. The woman is at the center of the frame, taking up two-thirds of the image, pushing to the side the man in a green jacket and cowboy hat, who holds a box of cigars. She stands there in a dark yellow raincoat and a large rain hat, which is tied around her short blond hair. Both are naked from the waist down. The presence of this painting reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), in which Kim Novak’s character is supposedly haunted by a painting of her great relative, Carlotta Veldez. The character goes and sits in a museum every day, mesmerized by her own image—she’s supposedly dead. The painting stares back at us, making us, the viewers, aware of its presence. The painting taps into the history of San Francisco and the manner in which a city and its history are mythologized, shared through folktales like ghost stories.

Still from Vertigo, 1958

Still from Vertigo, 1958

Staring at “Woman in Yellow Coat” I’m reminded of a comment that art historian Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe made about a conversation he had had with John Baldessari, who said that no other artist was more influenced by Altoon than Mike Kelley.

Kelley is also mentioned twice in the Altoon catalogue, once by Paul McCarthy, who shared conversations he had with Kelley about Altoon, as well by Eliel, who indicates that Kelley owned and collected Altoon. Looking at “Woman in Yellow Coat” I immediately think of Mike Kelley’s 1983 video The Banana Man. This work is currently on display as part of the Mike Kelley retrospective at MOCA Los Angeles.

Mike Kelley, Banana Man, 1981, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Mike Kelley, Banana Man, 1983, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Kelley’s costume contains a similar hat and jumpsuit, though his outfit covers his entire body. The fabric is lined with white zippers along the suit as well as with a long, white handkerchief that sticks out from the crotch like a large, flaccid penis. I remember seeing The Banana Man over 10 years ago and thinking that Kelley’s character was based on the namesake of Gilligan’s Island, a floppy character who is the show’s comic relief, constantly knocking things over and accidentally destroying others’ belongings. Kelley often plays the clown in his videos, a grown-up child not capable of dealing with adult responsibilities. He too scared to deal with his own sexuality, simultaneously driven by and terrified of his own penis.

Mike Kelley, Banana Man Costume, 1981, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Mike Kelley, Banana Man Costume, 1981, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

According the Electronic Arts Intermix, which houses the video, Kelley states, “the Banana Man was a minor figure on a children’s television show I watched in my youth. I, myself, never saw this performer. Everything I know about him was told to me by my friends. The Banana Man is an attempt at constructing the psychology of the character—problematized by the fact that the character is already a fictional one, and by the fact that none of my observations were direct ones.”

Mike Kelley, Banana Man, 1983, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Mike Kelley, Banana Man, 1983, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Another character constructed through the passing of information from person to person. What is the Banana Man but merely an archetype, a collection of other characters such as Harpo Marx, Charlie Chaplain, and Harold Lloyd, morphed into one clown? We see many archetypes throughout Kelley’s other video work: Dracula, Santa Claus, etc. Each of these figures is a cultural form we already know.

As I recall Kelley’s yellow suit, I first think of the white handkerchiefs. Throughout the video, he constantly pulls them from both the front and back of his costume like a magic trick. I’m also reminded of gay hankie, a common tool in the 1970s for gay sex cruising. Different colored handkerchiefs stood for different sexual proclivity: white meant masturbation (the color representing semen). Kelley mentions his own semen in the video as he pours table salt across the screen. He uses these hankies to clean the mess from his over-sexed libido. The Banana Man’s costume does quite fit Kelley and droops off of his body, as if he was wearing “daddy” clothing. This is much different from Altoon’s yellow raincoat, which is quite form fitting, made for the subject’s body. I’m reminded of Uma Thurman in Kill Bill Vol. 1, running around slaying her enemies in a fitted yellow jumpsuit.

Still from Kill Bill, 2003

Still from Kill Bill, 2003

While Altoon’s subject’s torso appears naturally posed, her lower nude half looks uncomfortable—legs are twisted and turned as if a comfortable stance is elusive. While the half-nude male subject of the painting is tucked into the background, the female’s body is completely exposed. She stands there looking outward, addressing the viewer. Her nudity reminds of me of a Vanessa Beecroft performance, in which spectators are confronted by the reality of the live nude female form.

In The Banana Man, there is a constant struggle between Kelley’s gender identification and gendered power. Although he always uses a male pronoun to identify himself, he fluctuates in performing highly gendered tasks. As man, he identifies as an “average guy” who is paid a low wage for his labor, performing the role as a blue-collar worker. We see him lust over the female body, wanting sexual gratification. This is quite similar to Altoon’s works on paper, in which we see castrated, anthropomorphized penises attempting to seduce fully drawn female bodies.

As female, Kelley performs the role of mother, one seen in multiple characters, from the martyr dressed up as angel feeding the other performers garbage to the pregnant woman trying to deliver a baby to Lady Liberty. As mother, he even plays a pregnant female dog, as he circles around a yellow carpet in his underwear stating that his character has developed a kidney infection mistaken for pregnancy. Without child, he thinks his dog toys are puppies, and he both caresses and humps them. Does Kelley want to be Mother, or does he want to be like Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Does he see enchantment as the only means through which to hold on to Mother? If his male characters are impotent, his women are barren. Kelley performs a miscarriage by standing over a bucket and releasing potatoes from his between his legs, which stands in for stillborn babies. Throughout The Banana Man there is a constant shift between the representation of the phallus versus the representation of the vaginal. His jumpsuit pockets are consistently penetrated by off-screen hands, only to reveal that they are also barren or merely filled with garbage.

Yellow is a symbol of both pleasure and decay in the video. While the viewer is seduced by Kelley’s candy-colored suit and the idea of the sweet taste of the banana, Kelley also reminds us that yellow is the color of jaundice. In both Altoon’s and Kelley’s work, the body is in a state of decay: for Altoon the images are scribbled together, half-formed figures struggling to maintain shape, while in Kelley’s fluids are pouring and leaking out of the body as the character’s physicality begins to fall apart he loses a grip on his mental stability. In their lives, both artists struggled with mental illness. Altoon was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his late 30s and suffered from depression and paranoia, and Kelley who took his own life in 2012. Mental anxiety is apparent in both their works: in Altoon’s through the rapid pace that his pen takes across the paper, the automatic drawing that reveals the artist’s subconscious; and in Kelly’s through the subject of emotional trauma.

Mike Kelley, still from Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36, 2011, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Mike Kelley, still from Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36, 2011, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Mike Kelley, still from Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36, 2011, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

Mike Kelley, still from Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36, 2011, courtesy Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts

I’m at the Egyptian Theatre at FilmForum with a big bucket of popcorn watching Kelly’s video Extracurricular Activity Projective Reconstruction #36 (Vice Anglais), from 2011. In the video, four figures tie up a woman dressed in white, laughing at her and whipping her over until she bleeds. Three of figures are male and the fourth is female. She does not participate in these actions but watches closely with amusement. These scenes take place in what appears to be a cave, similar to a Beckett play, a no man’s land in limbo. Though the video is absurd, at no point does it apologize for its violence. At the end, the bride is not untied, she lays there covered in blood exhausted by her torture. We sit in the theater watching this violence onto the female body. The theater is quite silent during this screening, with the occasional awkward laugh. Each of us wonder with whom is Kelley asking us to identity in this violence. With whom does Kelley identify?

Paul Pescador, artist and filmmaker 


The Legacy of Joseon: Korea’s Last Dynasty

July 21, 2014

Popular interest in all things Korean has been growing in the United States. Samsung and Hyundai are now familiar household names, South Korea’s rapid economic expansion continues to defy most predictions, and recent reports on the health benefits of Korean food and the overseas popularity of Korean films, soap operas, and K-pop have captured the attention of many, especially those of us living in Los Angeles. But even ardent Korea-philes may be surprised to learn that many of the social customs, beliefs, and traditions still prominent in Korea today can be traced back to the Joseon dynasty.

Unknown artist, Karma Mirror and Stand, 19th century, National Museum of Korea, Seoul, photo © National Museum of Korea

Unknown artist, Karma Mirror and Stand, 19th century, National
Museum of Korea, Seoul, photo © National Museum of Korea

The exhibition Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910, which just opened at LACMA on June 29, brings to Los Angeles the art and culture of this last dynasty of Korea. Most of the nearly 150 works in the exhibition, among them national treasures that have never been shown in the U.S., have been generously loaned by the National Museum of Korea as well as other museums and private collections in Korea. This exhibit, which is traveling between the Philadelphia Museum of Art, LACMA, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is part of an important cultural exchange between South Korea and the United States. In 2013, these three museums, along with the Terra Foundation for American Art, sent to Korea the first-ever survey of American art in the exhibition Art across America, which was on view at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul from February 4 through May 19, 2013, after which it traveled to the Daejeon Museum of Art (June 17–September 1, 2013).

Marked by a grand sense of pageantry, a strong sense of morality, and an unwavering reverence for nature—all characteristic of the Joseon dynasty—this exhibition is the first major presentation of traditional Korean art at LACMA. Treasures from Korea is also the third part of a larger effort to share traditional Korean art with the American audience. The two earlier installments, which featured works from the earlier dynasties of Silla (A.D. 57–668) and Goryeo (A.D. 918–1392), were presented at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, in 2013 and 2003, respectively.

Divided into five themes, Treasures from Korea captures the story of the life of an epic dynasty—its embrace of neo-Confucianism in the belief that the philosophy would sustain the country, how tastes emerged as the upper class developed new ceremonies and events (which then influenced the rest of society), how earlier historic Korean traditions were practiced in the private sphere, and how all these customs and assumptions were tested and reshaped by the pressures of modernization and the infiltration of the West.

The King and His Court

Korea’s Joseon dynasty spanned more than 500 years, overlapping with China’s Ming and Qing dynasties and Japan’s Muromachi, Momoyama, Edo, and Meiji periods. The dynastic founder, Yi Songgye, established Korea’s first secular state based on the principles of neo-Confucianism in a decisive move away from centuries of policies centered on Buddhism. In this revolutionary shift, the long-revered Korean traditions of shamanism (the indigenous religion of Korea), Buddhism, and Daoism, which together had sought to bring understanding to the rules of nature and the cosmos, became absorbed and integrated into a larger order based on China’s Confucianism, a philosophy of attaining social harmony. Altered to suit Korea’s political needs, this version of Confucianism was known as neo-Confucianism.

This was both a radical and conscious shift espoused by the government to start the dynasty anew. (The name Joseon translates to “fresh dawn.”) Although Korea had historically regarded itself as a sovereign state of China, the implementation of neo-Confucian policies was an important step for Korea in its effort to become an independent country with a healthy respect for China. With the fall of the Chinese Ming dynasty to the Manchus in 1644, Koreans regarded themselves as representatives of the last bastion of Confucianism.

Royal Protocol for the Kings’ Portraits, 1902, National Museum of Korea, Jangseogak Archives, the Academy of Korean Studies, Seongnam, photo © National Museum of Korea

Royal Protocol for the Kings’ Portraits, 1902, National Museum of Korea, Jangseogak Archives, the Academy of Korean Studies, Seongnam, photo © National Museum of Korea

It was of quintessential importance for the newly founded dynasty, with its unfamiliar secular state policies and recently established kingship, to assert its legitimacy. Rituals played a critical role in bringing about a culture of pomp and pageantry thought to ensure continued dynastic prosperity. All festivities demanded a particular presentation and were massive affairs with countless artisans, laborers, and officials engaged in the production of these rituals of the court. The first section of the exhibition, titled “The King and His Court,” showcases the celebration and documentation of important rites of passage for the royal lineage. It illustrates how the birth of a royal was celebrated with large-scale folding screens and placenta jars, how the honoring of new regal progeny included the giving of official titles of rank, and how the welcoming of foreign envoys, royal weddings, and funerals involved colorful, vibrant folding screens and tranquil ceramics. This theme exhibits the regalia and aesthetic tastes of the court, as well as the public life and customs regarded as most important in the life of the king.

Women’s Ceremonial Topcoat (Wonsam), 19th century, Seoul Museum of History, photo © Seoul Museum of History

Women’s Ceremonial Topcoat (Wonsam), 19th century, Seoul Museum of History, photo © Seoul Museum of History

Joseon Society 

The second theme, “Joseon Society,” explores how the royal aesthetic and adherence to neo-Confucian principles manifested itself in the Joseon upper class and trickled down to the rest of Joseon society. The underlying moral and social culture of the court deeply affected the rest of society. While the majority of the different classes of society were based on heredity, officials of the court secured their positions through government examinations that were based on Confucian teachings. With this, the culture of the scholar-official, or literati, was born. What began as a way to gain a court position evolved into a culture that held scholarship in the highest regard.

A consequence of this was the widening distinction between men and women. Women did not have a place in politics or the outside world and were relegated to overseeing the house with the primary obligation of producing sons. We see the difference in their roles manifested in the style of furniture, clothing, and choice of objects used by the male scholar-official as compared to the interests and decorative aesthetics of the female in the Joseon household. Symbols of nature, longevity, and good fortune visually populated the arts as ways to convey, acknowledge, and affirm an understanding of the shared importance of these beliefs.

Box with Ox-Horn Decoration, late 19th century, National Museum of Korea, Seoul, photo © National Museum of Korea

Box with Ox-Horn Decoration, late 19th century, National Museum of Korea, Seoul, photo © National Museum of Korea

In further efforts to promote Confucian studies, a native script known as Hangeul was developed in 1446. It allowed Chinese classics to be translated, but the new invention had a more far-reaching impact by allowing all members of society, including those who were not educated in classical Chinese, to read and write. It immediately generated a new, popular activity of writing personal letters.

Hangeul Letter and Envelope, 1752–59, National Museum of Korea, Seoul, photo © National Museum of Korea

Hangeul Letter and Envelope, 1752–59, National Museum
of Korea, Seoul, photo © National Museum of Korea

Preaching Assembly of Amitabha, 19th century, Gyeongju National Museum, photo © 2014 Gyeongju National Museum

Preaching Assembly of Amitabha, 19th century, Gyeongju National Museum, photo © 2014 Gyeongju National Museum

Ancestral Rituals and Confucian Values

The Confucian concept of filial piety made it a moral duty to pay respect to one’s ancestors and, by correlation, to one’s king, making the practice of ancestral rituals an even more pronounced part of Joseon life than it had been in previous times. Korean shaman priests and the Buddhist clergy for centuries practiced respect for, and dedication to, one’s ancestors. Re-envisioned in a new ritualized form, the ceremonies honoring the dead held at the Joseon royal court were believed to control the fate of the country; they were directly linked to proving and protecting the king’s legitimacy and authority. The social obligations expected of every court official quickly relegated these practices to the home, where the precise conduct of the ceremony and the quality of ritual wares used became equated with devotion and respect for one’s ancestors. The exhibition’s third theme takes us into this private realm of ancestor worship.

Incense Container, 19th century, National Museum of Korea, photo © 2014 National Museum of Korea

Incense Container, 19th century, National Museum of Korea, photo © 2014 National Museum of Korea

Brass, National Palace Museum of Korea, photo © 2014 National Palace Museum of Korea

Brass, National Palace Museum of Korea, photo © 2014 National Palace Museum of Korea

Continuity and Change in Joseon Buddhism

With Confucian state rites replacing Buddhist ones, Buddhism, which had been the moral and religious stronghold for previous Korean dynasties, was relegated to an even deeper private sphere of individual worship among members of the royal court and society when it came to matters of life and death. Paintings and devotional objects were commissioned to support prayer requests for a long and healthy life and wishes for a successful rebirth in the afterlife. But with the obligation to produce a son, women of both the Joseon court and society became the staunchest supporters. In these requests, all earlier Korean traditions were called upon, and Daoist and folk deities were jointly worshipped in the name of Buddhism.

Water Dropper, 19th century, National Museum of Korea, photo © 2014 National Museum of Korea

Water Dropper, 19th century, National Museum of Korea, photo © 2014 National Museum of Korea

Joseon in Modern Times

Despite a number of major attacks from China and Japan over the years, the dynasty survived centuries of relative political stability. But with the tide of Western influence, all aspects of the Joseon dynasty were brought into question and in many ways were interrupted. Although foreign influences had made their way indirectly to Korea by means of diplomatic missions to China, by and large the Joseon dynasty protected itself with a foreign policy of isolation. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, Korea was forced to open its ports to trade, a decision that prompted a range of responses from those who staunchly believed that Korea’s identity and independence lay in the strict continuation of neo-Confucian ideals to those who, with the changing atmosphere in the world beyond, believed that the future lay with joining the rest of the world. It’s evident that the introduction of electricity and photography and—in an effort to modernize—the declaration of the Korean empire in 1897 brought stylistic changes in art and uniforms as well as royal household items and books in English. From the pomp and pageantry of the king and his court to their influence on the rest of Joseon society, and from expressions of private individuals to their practice of ancestor worship and Buddhism, the seeming end of a dynasty turned out to be a coming of age as the country began to emerge into the modern period.

Korea, Scholar’s Books and Objects (Chaekkeori), Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 19th century, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Far East Art Council Fund

Korea, Scholar’s Books and Objects (Chaekkeori), Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 19th century, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Far East Art Council Fund

Official’s Robe, Trousers, Sword, and Sword Belt, early 20th century, Korean, Museum of Korean Embroidery, Seoul, photo © Museum of Korean Embroidery

Official’s Robe, Trousers, Sword, and Sword Belt, early 20th century, Korean, Museum of Korean Embroidery, Seoul, photo © Museum of Korean Embroidery

It is so often the case: politics affects art. The state policy introduced by early Joseon officials resulted in new artistic production that accommodated the needs of the new dynasty. Largely made by unknown craftspersons and court artists, the art of this period embodied a philosophy and social order that resulted in the longest-running Confucian dynasty in history. And that is a remarkable achievement worth seeing.

Virginia Moon, Assistant Curator, Korean Art

A version of this article originally appeared in the summer 2014 (volume 8, issue 3) of LACMA’s Insider.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,078 other followers

%d bloggers like this: