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Part 1: The History

The arts of Korea, while largely influenced by Chinese, are characterized by simplicity, spontaneity and naturalism. A work of Korean art is not very meticulous in tiny details. It rather tends to embrace wholeness. This seemingly indifference lies in the flexible state of mind of early Korean artists who love nature as it is. Ko Yu-sop, a Korean art scholar, defines the characteristic aspects of Korean art as “technique without technique,” “planning without planning,” “asymmetry” and “nonchalance.”

During the Three Kingdoms period (BC-AD 668), the first major period of Korean Art during recorded history, the local powers of Koguryo in the north, Paekche in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast fought for control over the Korean peninsula. Koguryo’s art survived mostly in the form of fresco-type mural paintings decorating 5th and 6th century tomb chambers. The vigorous polychrome paintings represented lively everyday scenes, animals, and other stylish figures, some of which display Central Asian influences. The Paekche kingdom maintained close relations with Japan in the 6th and 7th centuries. Its art is mostly known for gracefully sculpted Buddhist images preserved in Japan. The finest example from this period is the painted wood figure of Kudara Kannon in Japan, which either was brought from Korea or was carved by one of the many Paekche artists working in Japan at the time. Silla art of the Three Kingdoms period is noted for the refinement of its metalwork. Monumental tomb mounds surrounding Kyongju, the Silla capital, is famous for a striking array of uniquely Korean ornaments, including a group of gold crowns richly decorated with masses of jade pendants and gold discs.

Silla unified the Korean kingdoms into a single nation in AD 668, marking the beginning of the Great Silla period (668-918). Impressive granite monuments were constructed, including the mid 8th century pagoda of the Pulgaksa monastery and the cave temple of Sukkalam, both located near Kyongju. The Sukkalam contained a giant stone Buddha figure and fine relief carvings showing Chinese influence. Metalworkers of Silla period excelled in the creation of large bronze temple bells, which were often as tall as 13ft high. Also noteworthy are the elegant bronze figurines of Buddhist gods, such as that of Maitreya (7th century).

Support of Buddhism by royalties during the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) encouraged the construction of new temples and monasteries. One of the best example being the “Hall of Eternal Life” of the 13th century Pusoksa, is believed to be the oldest standing wooden building in Korea. Although sculpture and stonework declined during the Koryo period, the aristocratic arts such as precious metalwork, lacquer inlaid with mother of pearl, and above all, ceramics reached new levels of quality and refinement. Porcelain making, introduced in late 11th century from China, was rapidly transformed by Korean artists into a distinctly Korean variant of Koryo Celadon. These unique blue green clay wares are regarded as among the most beautiful Asian porcelains ever produced. In the 12th century, the Koreans invented the technique of adding black or white clays into the celadon wares to produce delicate patterns of birds, flowers, and clouds.

With the founding of the Choson dynasty (1392-1910), Buddhism was replaced by Chinese inspired Neo-Confucianism. Under the conservative formalism of Confucian concepts, the Korean art suffered a steady decline in the early periods of Choson dynasty. The autocratic monarchy tried to maintain close relationship with the court of Ming China and grand buildings, such as the 15th century Kyongbok Palace, were constructed in the new capital of Hanyang as an imitation of even grander Chinese Peking prototypes. In areas of painting, both the professional court artists and the upper-class painters relied heavily on Chinese themes and customs. Not until the 18th century did distinctively Korean styles emerged in the works of number of Choson artists. The most well known of these artists was Chong Son, who gave up the traditional Chinese style landscape for the representation of rough Korean scenery as in his painting, “The Diamond Mountains”. Genre painting also represents another way in which Choson artists broke away from the imitations of Chinese paintings. A good example of this is the “Boating Scene” by artist Yunbook Shin, which displays the typically Korean skillfulness and wit.

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