Korean artistry stakes its place at a New York museum

Korean artists’ experimentation and their influence on Asian culture are on display at the Brooklyn Museum’s new Arts of Korea exhibition, which traces the evolution of Korean artistic traditions over about 1,800 years.

The 80 exhibited objects showcase “an early mastery of ceramics technology … and a sophisticated mastery of goldsmithing,” said curator Joan Cummins. She points to several pieces that demonstrate Korean artists’ pioneering use of new materials: a string of glass beads made “when glass technology was quite new in East Asia” and a large group of very early stoneware ceramics.

“Korea was an innovator in the development of stoneware,” said Cummins. Examples include the stoneware designs of the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C.E.–668 C.E.) and the “jewel-like celadons,” or green-glazed ceramics, of the Goryeo era (918–1392 C.E.).

Illustration of shrine flanked by flower vases (© Brooklyn Museum)
Spirit Shrine, ink and color on paper. Korea, Joseon dynasty, 1811. (© Brooklyn Museum)

Cummins singles out the museum’s “masterpiece-quality celadon ewer, with its perfect color and pristine carving,” for special praise. Created in the shape of a lotus bud, the Goryeo-period ewer is widely regarded as the finest Korean ceramic in the Western Hemisphere.

The exhibition features many objects from the long reign of Korea’s Joseon dynasty (1392-1897 C.E.) as well. One standout piece from this era is a 19th-century bride’s robe, embroidered with floral and bird motifs.

Antique Korean bride's robe (© Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)
Bride’s robe; cotton, silk, paper, gold thread. Korea, Joseon dynasty, 19th century. (© Jonathan Dorado, Brooklyn Museum)

Arts of Korea also reveals how the flow of people and goods helped shape material culture in Asia, and beyond. For much of its history, the Korean peninsula was in communication with its neighbors, so “Korean art both influenced, and was influenced by, the arts of China and Japan,” said Cummins.

China’s technological innovations in bronze casting and porcelain manufacture were adopted by Korean and Japanese artists. Chinese artists admired “the celestial blue-green color achieved in Korean celadon glazes,” said Cummins. “Korea appears to have introduced both stoneware and porcelain to Japan.”

A pair of elaborate gold earrings from the Three Kingdoms period is a prime example of Korean metalwork. The earrings are also the result of an international exchange of ideas — a testimony to the cosmopolitan nature of early Korean society.

Pair of elaborate gold earrings (© Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum)
Pair of gold earrings. Korea, Unified Silla period, 6th century. (© Sarah DeSantis, Brooklyn Museum)

Dating from Korea’s Silla kingdom (6th century C.E.), the earrings “are decorated with little balls of gold, [using] a method called granulation,” said Cummins. “Gold granulation originated in the ancient Middle East and ancient Mediterranean, then traveled eastward via the Silk Routes through Asia.”

Through the exhibit, the museum hopes to highlight Korea’s refined past, said Cummins.

“We also hope that by dedicating a large, beautiful gallery to the display of diverse Korean objects, we can help distinguish Korea’s artistic contributions from those of its neighbors,” she added. “For far too long, Korean art has been treated as a variant or satellite of Chinese and Japanese art, when in fact it is both separate and exceptional.”