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November 1999

Made in Korea

Korean art exhibition at the Hypo Kunsthalle

This year’s highlight for lovers of Asian art is the exhibition of Korean art in the Kunsthalle of the Hypo-Kulturstiftung. Korean art, which has a long and glorious history and which was essential in transmitting artistic impulses from China to Japan, has been overshadowed by that of its powerful neighbors, and has largely escaped the attention of the public. Roger Goepper, who brought an outstanding exhibition of Chinese art to Munich in 1995, is attempting to redress the balance by giving visitors the opportunity to discover a fascinating culture. A wide-ranging selection of 200 priceless objects from museums and private collections, many of which are classified as Korean national treasures, can be seen for the first time outside their native land. Taking into account the lack of public knowledge of Korean history, the arrangement of exhibits is not chronological, but thematic, grouped under the headings of the three official cults, Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism. These succeeded each other, exerting much influence upon the art and culture of Korea during their heyday and remain powerful even today. According to mythological accounts, the Korean kingdom was set up in 2333 B.C. The earliest artifacts found in Korea date from the Neolithic period, ca. 5000 B.C., and a distinctively Korean culture had certainly established itself by 10th century B.C. Golden crowns and items of personal adornment from tombs located in the area around Kyongju are among the oldest pieces in the exhibition. These tombs were decorated with beautiful murals of hunting scenes and mythical creatures, testifying to a highly developed culture and shamanistic religion. Comma-shaped pendants made from jade and other precious stones are typical of this early period, but their meaning remains a mystery to scholars, who have identified them as symbolizing anything from an embryo to a silk worm. Buddhism reached Korea via China between the fourth and sixth century B.C. and quickly found followers among the native population. Models of Buddhist art were imported from China, but were soon interpreted in a distinctly local way. The beauty of a gilded bronze statue of Bodhisattva Maitreya seated deeply in thought is profoundly spiritual and touching. The naked torso shows the beauty of the body, while the benevolent expression on the face portrays the compassion of an enlightened being whose pity for human suffering and the wish to help others prevented him from entering Nirvana. The founder of the Choson dynasty, which stayed in power from 1302 to 1910, making it one of the longest reigning dynasties in Asia, moved the capital to Hansong, modern Seoul. With its strict rules governing moral behavior and social stratification, Confucianism replaced Buddhism as the state cult. Calligraphy and painting were two forms of art practiced by educated gentlemen as part of the pursuit of refined simplicity as an ideal. Korea is unique in Asia in that Shamanism, which was probably brought to the country by the first Siberian Mongolian settlers as early as the fifth century B.C., still plays an important role in the life of today. Included in the exhibition are the costume and regalia belonging to one of the most respected of modern female Shamans, revealing a mysterious, little-known aspect of the high-tech world we associate with 20th century Korea. <<< Korea: Die Alten Königreiche is on display at the Kunsthalle of the Hypo-Kulturstiftung until January 30, 2000.

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