Joseon Dynasty Arts and Culture

Karma mirror and stand, 19th century, wood with painted decoration, 98.2 x 36.4 cm. National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

THEY USED TO call pre-modern Korea ‘the Hermit Kingdom’. The name no longer applies, yet the country’s cultural and artistic traditions remain relatively unknown in the West. Hyunsoo Woo, The Maxine and Howard Lewis Associate Curator at Philadelphia Museum of Art, believes the hermit is about to emerge from seclusion in this exhibition of Joseon dynasty arts and culture.

First Full-Scale Survey of Korean Arts in US

The National Museum of Korea, Seoul, has teamed up with three of America’s most prestigious art institutions: the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in a bid to boost appreciation of Korean art and cultural life. Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910 is the first full-scale survey in the US devoted to the creations of this long and influential period in Korean art.

The study of Korean art in the West is still in its infancy, in part because in comparison with its East Asian neighbours, it is a small country that remained isolated long after the late 19th-century flourishing of Japanism and the subsequent enthusiasm for all things Oriental. At the end of World War II, when both China and Japan were promoting their cultural and artistic heritage to the West, Korea was busy rebuilding itself from ruin.

The Japanese occupation and the civil wars that followed destroyed many Korean marvels. A scarcity of materials, a backseat position, and a lack of systematic governmental support, mean that Korea has been playing catch up all along.

Antique Treasures from Korea

Treasures from Korea is a lesson in patience and perseverance rewarded – good things really do come to those who wait. The exhibition comprises of more than 150 works that features illustrated books, furniture, sculpture, lacquer, metalwork, costumes, textiles, and photographs, and includes designated National Treasures never before seen in the US. The works range from the courtly arts of ceremonial screen painting and calligraphy to ritual vessels and everyday ceramics; together, the objects reveal the inner life of the Joseon dynasty, its diversity and artistic prowess.

Ms Woo, who was born and raised in Korea, has been working in the field since 1997. She explains that the exhibition is presented through ‘story-telling’. Five key themes tie together the disparate works and illuminate their roles in the Joseon dynasty, whether in courtly, religious, or day-to-day life.

Introduction of Confucianism to Korea

One story describes the introduction to Korea of Confucianism, the founding philosophy of the Joseon dynasty, and the circulation of its strict hierarchies and moral codes. The Joseon dynasty is the world’s longest ruling Confucian dynasty; it saw the succession of 27 kings from one family lineage over 518 years (the exhibition includes examples of various rulers’ royal seals). Confucian ideals dictated every facet of Korean life, from the country’s social system, and distinctions of class and gender, to its artistic production. What Treasures from Korea seeks to show is how these ideals are inherent in Korea and its people and how they continue to influence Korean manners, norms, and social attitudes.

The suppression of Buddhism under Confucian rule is another key theme. Buddhism expanded through Korea in the 4th century; it had flourished for almost a thousand years by the time the Joseon dynasty was established. Although Buddhism lost the official support of the court when Confucianism became the state religion, traces and memories of it remained. The exhibition dedicates a chapter to the persistence of Buddhist ideologies; works of art and other objects demonstrate how the religion gained power through different sources and patrons.

A 19th-century karma mirror and stand, comprising of a standing lion with a three-tiered pedestal on its back, supporting a mirror adorned with a Sanskrit letter, is one example. According to Buddhist lore, the Ten Kings of Hell used such a mirror, also known as a mirror of deeds, to reflect and judge good and evil in a person’s life.

Religious and Mystical Qualities

Religious and mystical qualities infuse almost every work of on show; each piece contains a narrative. Fine ceramic and metal wares tell stories of family value: A porcelain jar with design of bamboo and plum trees, created between the 16th and 17th centuries, is a prime example. Bamboo and plum imagery are among the Joseon dynasty’s preferred subjects for art and craft; they represent two of the Four Gentleman, a symbolic group of four plants (along with the orchid and the chrysanthemum), which are associated with the qualities of a respectable scholar.

Another example of Joseon Dynasty arts and culture on display is an early 18th-century Joseon white porcelain Moon Jar. Created by joining together two halves, moon jars have visible seams and are never perfectly circular in shape. The flaws are intentional: the result is a more natural object, like the moon, itself misshapen.

The Royal Protocols of Joseon Dynasty

The Joseon dynasty produced some of Korea’s finest artistic masterpieces; out of all of the works on show, Ms Woo’s personal favourites are The Royal Protocols. Produced from beginning to end of the dynasty, and never before shown outside of Korea, this collection of books is a unique royal archive that records and prescribes important royal ceremonies and court rituals. Each US museum will have its own original book to display, as well as a virtual copy that will allow viewers to flick through and explore the text and illustrations. The courtly events are portrayed with the greatest accuracy and in minute detail – menus, musical entertainments, theatrical performances, all documented and intently described.

The Links Between Past and Present

The exhibition of Joseon dynasty arts and culture stresses the link between past and present; while looking back, and in a sense acting as retrospective, the show looks forward to the future. Ms Woo refers to the exhibition as ‘a window’, a tool with which ‘to look at modern Korea through traditional eyes’. The Joseon dynasty has left a substantial legacy to contemporary Korea, and in Ms Woo’s opinion, much of what occurs today can be explained only with reference to the past.

Korea’s cultural connections with China and Japan form a crucial part of its history. Ever since the adoption of the Chinese writing system in the 2nd century BC, China has, as Ms Woo attests, served as ‘the cosmopolitan culture for all of East Asia’. An 18th-century, 10-fold screen on display, Ten Longevity Symbols, points to such influence: The symbols, consisting of a group of natural objects, animals, and plants associated with long life, originate from the Chinese Daoist cult of immortality.

Ms Woo would argue against using the word ‘influence’; it gives the impression that a cross-cultural exchange – a two-way process, an exercise in receiving and giving – is a one-way street. Although the iconography of the Ten Longevity Symbols originated in China, the particular grouping on this screen is found only in Korea.

Screen Paintings

Korea also has rich artistic traditions that are unrelated to that of its Asian neighbours. Another narrative running through the exhibition is the role of the king and his royal court in establishing this distinctive art and culture. Screen paintings were often created based on elements unique to Korea, in particular to its court. A 19th-century 10-fold screen, Peonies, comprising silk panels adorned with colours, is one example on show. In Korean art, the popular peony motif symbolises wealth and honour.

Screen paintings featuring these flowers were produced in large quantities in the Joseon court; a crucial component of rituals and ceremonies, they were viewed as good luck, and would decorate and delineate space.

Direct Encounters with Western Civilisations

The exhibition promotes Korean art not only in the context of Asian art, but also in relation to art from around the world. The last section of the exhibition depicts from both internal and external points of view the direct encounters with Western civilisations that began in the late 19th century. The Pilgrim’s Progress (1895) is a key object according to Ms Woo, and one that exemplifies the dynamic interaction between Korea and the West.

This famous Christian allegory, written by English preacher and writer John Bunyan, was translated into Korean by Canadian Presbyterian missionary James S. Gale. Illustrations, added by folk painter Kim Jun-geun, replace Western characters and settings with familiar Joseon figures and landscapes; Korean elements replaced Western ones to encourage readers to accept the narrative and its Christian message.

Treasures from Korea hopes to open Western eyes to the experience of Koreans of the past, in order to help them gain an understanding of Korean identity today. Elements of native tradition and foreign influence are equally apparent; while shedding light on the external influences that shaped Korean cultural life, the exhibition also explores local demand and aesthetics that incited change.

The exhibition is a collaboration among cultures, museums, and their curators; the works on show have primarily been taken from the collection of the National Museum of Korea (many have never before travelled overseas), and supplemented by loans from public and private collections in Korea and the US. The underlying message here is the power of cultural exchange. The hermit has learned to mingle.


Treasures from Korea, 2 March to 26 May at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2600 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia,

It travels to LACMA, Los Angeles 29 June to 28 September, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2 November to 11 January 2015