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Art Review: Beauty in "Silla", the Korean Exhibition at the Met

By Kathleen Arffmann
online February 2014

Hwangnam Daechong Tomb, Gyeongju Photograph by Charlie Hahn
Hwangnam Daechong Tomb, Gyeongju
Photograph by Charlie Hahn

There is only a short time left to see “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before it closes on February 23, 2014, and there are so many important reasons to see this exhibition. First of all ,“Silla” is a major history lesson; especially for those of us born before 1950 who were taught that ancient history began with Egypt. Second, the artifacts, sculpture, jewelry, pottery and other objects demonstrate the positive influences of the cross pollination of cultures through travel in the ancient world, east to west, west to east, without trains, planes, and telecommunication networks. However, the greatest contribution of this exhibition, and what makes it a “must see”, is the sheer beauty and magnificence of the objects on display from this small relatively unknown kingdom of Silla that thrived from 54 B.C. to 876 A.D. In today’s modern world when attacking the beautiful in art is in vogue, or relegating it to the rear, it is refreshing to look to the Korean kingdom of Silla for a genuine, aesthetic experience.

Crown Korea, Silla Kingdom
Crown Korea, Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.–A.D. 935), second half of the 5th century Gold and jade H. 10 3/4"
Lent by Gyeongju National Museum, Korea
National Treasure 191
Photo: © National Museum of Korea

At the entrance to the exhibition is a digital image of a grassland landscape projected onto a curved screen. In the foreground are the turf-covered mounds under which the royal tombs are to be found. The leaves from the trees in the photograph move slightly, providing the viewer with the feeling of actually being on the edge of a momentous discovery. The contents of the exhibition include pottery, sculpture, gold crowns, jewelry, glass and other objects. As you move through the exhibition, you are struck by the fine craftsmanship and myriad techniques that were required to create the art on view. We are informed that different Nomadic tribes, roaming the Eurasian plains over centuries, were the major source of the skills and information that produced such highly prized objects for the royals entombed: for example glass making came from Syria and Afghanistan, while a cloisonné sheath and dagger came from Central Asia. From the information exchanged between the Nomadic tribes and the sedentary cultures, something unique evolved, and the results are remarkable. Since Korea is on a peninsula, information was also transported by sea. Korea, as well as absorbing the many disciplines of the ancient world passed them along to other cultures, such as pottery making to Japan and China and possibly to other countries in the world much further away.

Few museumgoers will remember the Korean exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in 1981. I remember seeing the gold crowns from Korea in that exhibition and thinking that I had never seen anything quite like them before; (and certainly, not since). Now, once again, in this exhibition, there is another crown with similar detail along with a belt and neck pieces with the same outstanding workmanship made for the royals that were regarded as deities in Silla’s Old Kingdom. It is the beauty and design of these objects, as well as the skills required, that make these pieces more art than decoration, more sculpture than jewelry. This elevates the experience from wanting to wear or own such objects to truly appreciating them as art.

Bodhisattva in pensive pose, probably Maitreya (Korean: Mireuk) Korea, Silla Kingdom
Bodhisattva in pensive pose, probably Maitreya (Korean: Mireuk)
Korea, Silla Kingdom (57 B.C.–A.D. 935), late 6th–early 7th century
Gilt bronze H. 36 7/8"
Lent by National Museum of Korea
Photo: © National Museum of Korea

However, unlike exhibits in the 1980’s, “Silla” includes educational supports from video, audio, label copy and wall text, that help to answer some of the inevitable questions that arise, like, “How in the world was this made?” Without intruding on the visual experience this exhibit provides, brief, and to the point assistance which serves to transform the aesthetic experience that accompanies “just looking”, into a more mindful encounter. It is not always necessary to have help when looking at art; in fact, it can be distracting. However, having, just the right help, can be liberating when one is looking at art so unusual, from a time and place so far removed from our modern consciousness. The videos explain, in two to four minutes, how the tomb, temple or jewelry was constructed. This speaks well of the curators ‘sensitivity to the public’s experience. Denise Patry Leidy, Curator in the Department of Asian Art and Soyoung Lee, Associate Curator in the Department of Asian Art, have provided helps, which do not distract you from the primary reason why you are visiting an art museum.

After 400A.D.with the introduction of Indian Buddhism coming to Korea by way of China, precious metals were used solely to create religious objects. The Pensive Bodhisattva in gilt bronze, National Treasure #83, is installed in the round, so one can view the delicate lines of this piece from all sides. There was much controversy about including this sculpture in the exhibition for fear of damage and it may never travel outside Korea again.

Beauty is a reality that should be experienced regularly, in nature as well as art. It contributes so much to our lives that beauty can change our society into something better. This is not just speculation or an original idea. These “ideas” have been around for centuries. The history of the past shows us that beauty in art helped move civilization forward. Made to inspire, art of this kind, can be found in town squares, churches, museums, poetry, plays and literature. There are artists today who still create with the same intention, unacknowledged though they may be! Lynne Munson in her book, “Exhibitionism: Art in an Era of Intolerance “explains, through serious research, what has happened to the art world today. She has given us insight into the changes in the art market, NEA and art institutions of all kinds. In the meantime, see as much of the beautiful in art as possible, and begin with “Silla: Korea’s Golden Kingdom” which is at the Metropolitan Museum only until February 23, 2014. After all, isn’t it the experience of beauty that teaches us that the life we have is worth living?

* The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave (at 82nd), NYC (212) 535 7710 (thru Feb 23, 2014)

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