Post #841 • July 31, 2006, 6:04 PM • 5 Comments
This week I'll be going through the Cultivating Virtue show at the Sackler. Anne Rose Kitagawa, one of the curators of the exhibition, treated me to an information-packed walkthrough, and I feel inclined to give it the equivalent treatment here.
A notable feature of this exhibition is its inclusion of high, literary Korean art. Korea has been poorly represented in a field dominated by specialists in Japan and China. Connoiseurship of Korean objects has concentrated disproportionately on folk art and peasant ware, an approach exemplified, although not wrongfully by any means, by Soetsu Yanagi. (You can see this at work at the MFA. You go from the Japanese ceramics to the Korean, and suddenly things looking casually charming and funky.) That left an opening for the Sackler to acquire objects created by the literati class, and it now has the foremost collection of such objects in the country.
As one would expect, the themes and the writing are Chinese. These were learned Confucians, and it would have been unseemly for them to write in Hangul. They also adopted the tradition of the Four Gentlemen, which placed bamboo, orchids, mums, and plum blossoms at the center of the botannical pantheon. These were not only beautiful specimens of nature, but embodiments of virtues. Bamboo, for instance, is sturdy but flexible. (An old Japanese proverb says that the bamboo that bends is stronger than the oak that resists. Dr. Yang told his seminar students last week that his master used to remind him that the taller a bamboo grows, the more it bows down.) Orchids, growing on cliffsides, represent uncultivated, natural grace, and via an association with Spring, a balance of Yin and Yang.
If the above work looks especially Korean in some way, my eye can't detect it. But as an extension of the Chinese tradition it wants for nothing. It's a perfect expression of unaffected ease. The Koreans didn't have a monk-painter tradition like the one that took root in Japan, but this has a similar wild tone, and if charm were fire, it would burn down the wall.
Update: This image isn't on the checklist I received from the Sackler but I'm almost positive that it's Korean. I'll work on the attribution. Update 2: Got it.