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.


This Weekend at LACMA

July 18, 2014

Spend Friday with any of these exciting events ranging from film, art tours and exciting live music. At 7:30 pm, catch Spike Lee’s Malcolm X in the Bing Theater. For a more art filled day, join in on LACMA’s many art tours including John Altoon at 1:00 pm, Art of the Ancient Americas at 2 pm, Modern & Contemporary Art at 2:30 pm, and European Art at 3 pm. End the day with some relaxing Jazz at LACMA music featuring bassist Henry “The Skipper” Franklin.

Enjoying Jazz at LACMA

Enjoying Jazz at LACMA

Studio Session: Drawing with Color kickstarts this Saturday at 10 am at the Los Angeles Times Central Court; improve your drawing skills while exploring creativity and color. At 5 pm Latin Sounds presents the Cuban sounds of Orquesta Charonga led by Flutist Fay Roberts.

In the Bing Theater, come enjoy the film It Happened One Night at 7:30 pm. Check out some of LACMA’s additional art exhibit tours featuring Arts and Culture of Joseon Korea at noon, Ganesha: Elephant-Headed God at 1 pm, Art of the Pacific at 2:30 pm and many more.

LACMA9 Art+Film Lab photos © Museum Associates/LACMA, by Duncan Cheng

LACMA9 Art+Film Lab photos © Museum Associates/LACMA, by Duncan Cheng

On Sunday, Montebello Art + Film Lab presents a special Free Day at LACMA: Montebello with family fun activities, art gallery tours, and artist Nicole Miller’s film Nicole Miller: Believing Is Seeing at 12:30 pm. Kids can learn more about environment issues with the art course Eco-Friendly Art at 10 am. Stroll through The Work of Diego Riviera at 1 pm and catch Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic before it closes next week on July 27. Other ongoing exhibitions include Expressionism in Germany and France: From Van Gogh to Kandisnsky at 10:30 am, Art of the Ancient World at noon, and Japanese Art at 2 pm. Finally, there is no better way to end the weekend then with the beautiful opera sounds of the iPalpiti Artists Soprano Disella Lárusdóttir and Counter-Tenor Daniel Bubeck at 6 pm in the Bing Theater.

Lily Tiao


Night in Day

July 16, 2014

The night never wants to end, to give itself over

to light. So it traps itself in things: obsidian, crows.

Even on summer solstice, the day of light’s great

triumph, where fields of sunflowers guzzle in the sun—

we break open the watermelon and spit out

black seeds, bits of night glistening on the grass.

The exhibition Night in Day is named after a Joseph Stroud poem, which describes the dark of night as a powerful force that creeps into everyday objects, refusing defeat. Slivers of night might be found in rounded black watermelon seeds, the wings of crows, or the shimmer of volcanic glass. Black is the remnant of night in our day.

For this exhibition of 11 photographs from LACMA’s permanent collection currently on view in the exhibition, I have selected works by artists who have made the night a central part of their subject. Darkened city streets, glowing suburban structures, and starlit landscapes contain narratives cloaked in darkness, that, when surrendered to the light of day, offer the rare opportunity to grasp their shrouded details.

Larry Clark, Acid, Lower East Side from the portfolio Teenage Lust, 1981, gift of Barry Lowen

Larry Clark’s Acid Lower East Side (1968) is an arresting image of a young man making direct visual contact with the photographer. His white facial makeup and the fringe of his cape reflect the ambient light emanating from the street lamp overhead and shops that line the receding sidewalk. Alone on the cobblestone crosswalk, the man looks fierce, disagreeable, and mildly threatening—sensations that we can voyeuristically observe via the photograph from a distance. For this series, Teenage Lust (and Tulsa just before it), Clark photographed amid his friends and acquaintances, suggesting that this is not a stranger caught unaware, but someone who he was out with one night in 1968 on the streets of New York City.

Lewis Baltz, Night Construction, Reno, 1977, gift of Joe Deal, © Lewis Baltz, courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

Lewis Baltz, Night Construction, Reno, 1977, gift of Joe Deal, © Lewis Baltz, courtesy Galerie Thomas Zander, Cologne

Nighttime Construction, Reno, taken by Lewis Baltz nearly a decade later, offers the landscape of the American West as it was being transformed by a building boom and the systematic creation of suburbs and sprawl. Most closely identified with New Topographics, Baltz’s work aestheticizes the built environment with a deadpan, unromantic gaze. This is a rare nighttime view of home construction as workers presumably aim to meet a completion deadline. The photograph pictures the house’s plywood skeleton lit by a hidden source of light from within, giving the man-made structure a miraculous glow against the dark, silhouetted ridge.

Florian Maier-Aichen, Untitled, 2007, gift of Sheridan Brown, courtesy of the artist; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; Gagosian Gallery, New York; and 303 Gallery, New York

Florian Maier-Aichen, Untitled, 2007, gift of Sheridan Brown, courtesy of the artist; Blum & Poe, Los Angeles; Gagosian Gallery, New York; and 303 Gallery, New York

Florian Maier-Aichen’s 2007 photograph, Untitled, grants a bird’s-eye view of a mountain landscape woven with wispy clouds. At first glance the dark sky evokes a photographic nocturne, but the brightness of the mountain and reflective nature of the clouds suggest something else at work. From the top of Mt. Baldy, this scene was photographed with 4 x 5 black-and-white infrared film evoking an eerie, unnatural appearance. Commonly referred to as day for night in cinema, this technique is used by filmmakers to simulate a night scene. While the effect is convincing, it simultaneously conveys a level of discomfort difficult to qualify.

Since the invention of photography, artists have been capturing nighttime scenes—drawn to the technical challenge of photographing under low light conditions and to the creative challenge of capturing veiled moments that can easily go undetected. Night in Day offers a glimpse into these shadowy and mysterious narratives.

Rebecca Morse, Associate Curator, Wallis Annenberg Photography Department


Kimono: A Garment of Change

July 14, 2014

In Japan, the kimono is a strong symbol of this extraordinary culture. Kimono, which simply translates to, “a thing to wear,” suggests to some extent how these objects served as important artifacts that tell the narrative of Japanese culture. The current exhibition Kimono for a Modern Age showcases some of the exceptional garments that tell the story of Japan of the early 20th century to the present.

This ancient garment would passively see Commodore Perry’s 1854 gunboat diplomacy end 200 years of self-imposed isolation—a feudal sleep. William Gibson, a passionate fan, would write about kimono in an essay titled “My Own Private Tokyo,” in Wired publication: “the quintessential cargo cult moment for Japan: the arrival of alien tech.” And in less than 14 years, in 1868, the Meiji Restoration would restore Emperor Mikado from the shogun, thus ending the feudal period. By the end of the Meiji in 1912, the garment would see the embrace of the “Industrial Revolution’s full kit,” as Gibson would say, “steamships, railroads, telegraphy, factories, Western medicine, the division of labor—not to mention a mechanized military.”

Woman's Kimono with Geometric Pattern, Japan, mid-Showa period (1926–89), c. 1940, Costume Council Fund, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Woman’s Kimono with Geometric Pattern, Japan, early-Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1940, Costume Council Fund, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

By the time our beautiful kimono appears on the scene between 1910 and 1920, Western culture had infiltrated everywhere. Japan had become thoroughly modernized, and the nation would have a forceful military presence in a different Asia. The cosmopolitan lifestyle of café, cinema, department stores, and art movements, such as Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Cubism, inspired fresh designs. Even the Expressionist movement would waylay older traditions in the visual profile of the culture.

Woman's Kimono with Mountain Landscape, Japan, Taishō (1912–26)–mid-Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1940, purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Avant, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Woman’s Kimono with Mountain Landscape, Japan, mid-Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1950, purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Avant, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

The industrialization spurred by World War I was background to Japanese life. In the new class systems, women were in the workplace, shops, and schools, and they moved in all aspects and were finding ways to express themselves and their independence. This transformation is told through the voice of our kimono, the boldness of Art Deco represents the independence of the woman who donned these patterns. Gone were handmade kimonos decorated with spring flowers and flowing streams, those delicate pastel iterations that represented the female posture and placement in the context of Zen Buddhism. The Jazz Age of the 1920s had captured the tempo, and it would be the new mood in this urbanized new world.

Woman's Kimono with Mountain Landscape, Japan, Taishō (1912–26)–mid-Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1940, purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Avant, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Woman’s Kimono with Abstract Hemp-Leaf Pattern, Japan, early Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1935, Costume Council Fund, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

The bold kimonos were known as meisen. They were inexpensive and off-the-rack, ready-to-wear kimonos. Parallel to the Jazz Age Moga-modern girl was the West’s gypsy gamine, the flapper, flaunting her drop-waisted styles. And countering the society’s move toward industrial order, the Japanese homegrown Dada movement, known as Mavo (a Futurist group), would attempt to have its voice heard in the maelstrom of change—the boundaries between art and daily life.

The zeitgeist was not unlike the “floating world” of the Edo period, where compelling urges were daring and new, and social norms were pushed. Western culture, particularly that of Europe, were drawing and seducing Japan into the modern world. The Earthquake of Kanto of 1923 killed 150,000 people and destroyed large parts of Tokyo, which was rebuilt along Western styles such as Art Deco. It was a vivid indication of how deep these influences were.

Woman's Kimono with Mountain Landscape, Japan, Taishō (1912–26)–mid-Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1940, purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Avant, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Woman’s Kimono with Large Dewdrops (mizutama), Japan, early Shōwa period (1926–89), c. 1935, purchased with funds provided by Grace Tsao, photo © 2014 Museum Associates/LACMA

Upon seeing this bold example of clearly one of Art Deco’s graphic fascination with the Zebra stripes stylized in such a fluid matter, I was quite taken aback. The wavy black stripes on white ground were sometimes, sparingly though, shadowed by a gray stripe, which would end in small red-and-orange rectangles of various lengths. These hints at abstraction were a delightful surprise. And to learn from the didactic, it was a meisen—a ready-to-wear from the 1920s that was really thrilling. In my first collection for the House of Worth, I took the theme of the Japanese kimono and obi as a way of reimaging suits and dresses. Maybe it was all those Akira Kurosawa movies that endeared this dream. There was the Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Ran, in which flowing cloth created its own spell, its own dashing drama. These were pure visual thrills. I must confess, I knew little of its history, but saw it as a natural armature to visualize a new look. To trace this history now is a lesson—it’s never too late to know more.

Hylan Booker

 


This Weekend at LACMA

July 11, 2014

In the Bing Theater the latest film series from Academy @ LACMA, By Any Means Necessary: A Spike Lee Joints Retrospective, continues with She’s Gotta Have It at 7:30 pm and Bamboozled at 9 pm. Celebrating the visual imagination, intelligent discourse on race relations, and edgy style of writer-director Spike Lee, this series includes several special introductions including writer-director Justin Simien and actor-comedian Damon Wayans on Friday night. For live music see Grant Geissman & the Bop! Bang! Boom! Band at Jazz at LACMA at 6 pm.

In Inglewood at the LACMA9 Art+Film Lab see the cultural mashup from 1999, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, featuring a score by RZA and starring Forest Whitaker on Friday at 7 pm. On Saturday at noon participate in a free Composition Workshop and learn how to create an expressive image on film. All levels welcome! The LACMA9 Art+Film Lab resides at the Inglewood Public Library through July 27.

On your visit to the museum on Saturday enjoy any of the free, docent-led tours including a 50-minute walkthrough of South and Southeast Asian Art at 2 pm or the popular Highlights of the Museum tour at 3 pm. In the late afternoon Bobby Rodriguez LatinJazz ensemble performs at Latin Sounds in the outdoor amphitheater behind the museum at 5 pm.

Martinus Rørbye, Palermo Harbor with a View of Monte Pellegrino, 1840, oil on canvas, Gift of the 1990 Collectors Committee

Martinus Rørbye, Palermo Harbor with a View of Monte Pellegrino, 1840, gift of the 1990 Collectors Committee

Sunday, see Visions of the South before it closes. This exhibition presents paintings, prints, and photographs from the museum’s expansive collection to explore the evolution of the concept of the south in European art over centuries. Elsewhere in the galleries, Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic enters its final weeks on view. Iconic works abound in this exhibition designed by architect Frank Gehry. Admission to this special exhibition also grants you access to this summer’s Van Gogh to Kandinsky. Families are invited to Andell Family Sundays at 12:30 pm and a project around Korean treasures. Finally, close out the weekend with a concert from accordionist and composer Nick Ariondo and Friends during Sundays Live at 6 pm. Cheers, it’s the weekend!

Roberto Ayala

 


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