Royal tombs near the Silla capital city, Gyeongju, in southeast Korea, have yielded sophisticated gold adornments including crowns and earrings. Elaborate pendants like these were either worn as earrings or suspended from the sides of royal crowns to mimic earrings. Granulation, or decoration with small individual gold beads, is applied to the sheathing of the earrings’ upper segment and used to outline the individual leaf shape of the gold spangles and lower leaves. The technique is thought to have developed in Mesopotamia around the eighteenth century B.C.E. and then spread to the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires, eventually traveling across the great Central Asia trade routes to China and the rest of East Asia. Its diffusion demonstrates the importance of Silk Road trade to East Asian material culture.
With its delicate modeling and restrained decoration, this botanically inspired vessel is considered one of the finest Korean ceramics in existence. The lid and body have fired to slightly different tones of green—probably because they were in separate areas of the kiln—but we know that they belong together, because the tiny white moth on the lid appears directly opposite the cocoon, from which it has just emerged, on the handle. Whereas the body of the ewer is made of light gray clay, the moth and cocoon are in white porcelain, a material that was new to Korean potters at the time. Also new was the addition of tiny white spots of slip (liquid clay) to highlight various elements of the vessel: these are a precursor to the inlaid decoration that would become the signature ornamentation on later Goryeo celadons.
By the seventeenth century, porcelain had overtaken stoneware as the ceramic of choice for wealthy Koreans and underglaze brown—once favored for decoration of Buncheong stonewares—enjoyed a brief revival, this time on porcelain vessels. These large, bulbous storage jars were formed by joining two bowls, one inverted on top of the other. The swelling surfaces of the jars give dimension and energy to curvilinear forms, as seen in particular in the swirl of the highly abstracted dragon.
Clay cylinders called haniwa were set into the ground around the large funerary mounds created during Japan’s Kofun period (circa 300–538 C.E.). Their original purpose was probably to mark and protect the periphery of the tomb. Many haniwa have been decorated to resemble houses, animals, or people; these likely represented the entourage and possessions that the deceased would need in the afterlife.
The figural haniwa appears to represent a female of high status, with jewelry and a shelf-like headdress. It is unusual that the pigment on her face and body survives. Because of her distinctive facial markings, she is sometimes identified as a holy woman or shaman, but it may be that many different types of women marked their faces during this period.
Bronze objects known as dōtaku have been found deliberately buried along with other ritual objects at ancient agricultural sites throughout the western part of Honshū Island. Although their shape is clearly inspired by that of a hanging bell, they do not ring when struck because their walls are too thinly cast. The purpose of the dōtaku remains mysterious, but the fact that they were buried suggests that they were offerings for the earth, probably made as part of rituals to ensure bountiful crops.
For much of their history, Ainu people wore clothing made from a woven bark-cloth called attush. As cotton became available through trade with China and southern Japan, it was added sparingly as an ornament. Robes such as this one, made entirely from cotton, were expensive and often had to be pieced together from multiple small sections of material.
This Shang-dynasty gong is the finest Chinese ritual bronze in the Museum’s collection. The lid is shaped like a dragon with a maniacal, toothy grin and protruding horns while the handle forms another beast. On the sides are two demon masks (taotie) with horns, fangs, and bulging eyes, and another two are found under the chin and tail of the beast. In total, twenty dragons, birds, and mythical creatures morph into each other on the lid and body of the vessel, illustrating the spiritual transformation that the ancient Chinese believed occurs when communicating with ancestors, or when leaving this world for the afterlife to become an ancestor oneself. Such vessels were used for pouring wine offerings on ancestral altars or during ritual banquets by Shang kings, who served as the communication links between the living and their ancestors.
This masterpiece of Chinese porcelain is an important example of early blue-and-white ware from the imperially sponsored kilns of Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province. Four fish—mackerel, whitefish, carp, and freshwater perch—are depicted swimming along the hip of the vessel; their Chinese names form a rebus for the phrase “honest and incorruptible” (qingbai lianjie). The visual wordplay suggests that the jar may have been made for an elite clientele who, it was hoped, would be inspired by the rebus’s message of rectitude while drinking their wine. The twisting leaves and stems of the eelgrass, blossoming lotuses, and other flora elegantly frame the fish and evoke the teeming pulse of the ocean. The mineral cobalt for the rich blue color was imported from western Asian sources, and similar porcelains were often made for the Middle Eastern export market.
The wine jar was part of a large bequest of Chinese ceramics from the Hutchins family collection in Long Island. The Brooklyn Museum curator George Lee (active 1949–59) described finding the vessel when he went to survey the collection in 1952: After other ceramics were loaded onto the Museum’s truck, he went to the garage to wash his hands. There, he found this wine jar below the sink, catching water drops. It was put on the truck and would become one of the Museum’s greatest treasures.
These joined twin vases were modeled on ancient bronze-arrow containers, given as rewards for military valor. On the front, a falcon—with outspread wings and one foot resting on the head of a monster—symbolizes courage, strength, and authority. The monster’s body passes between the bases of the vessels, and its flame-like tail is visible on the back, where it supports a dragon, the emblem of the emperor.
Arts of Asia
Arts of Asia and the Islamic World, 2nd Floor
We house one of America’s foremost collections of Asian art, with the Asian galleries currently including more than 350 works from China, Korea, and Japan. These sections are newly re-imagined, the result of a multiyear reinstallation, with additional galleries planned for the arts of South and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas.
The Chinese collection ranges from the Neolithic era (circa 3000 B.C.E.) to today, revealing the sophistication of Chinese craftsmanship and the variety of concerns—funerary, courtly, religious, and poetic—that combined to define traditional Chinese culture. The works also demonstrate an enduring respect for antiquity as well as novel, contemporary approaches to time-honored materials such as ink and bronze.
Among the first U.S. institutions to collect and exhibit Korean art, we house one of the country’s premier collections. The galleries feature a fine selection of ceramics including early stoneware funerary vessels, inlaid celadons, and later wares with freely painted underglaze decoration. There are also rare examples of bronzes, furniture, costume, and painting.
Japanese works form the largest area within our Asian collections. The reinstallation features traditional arts of Japan such as screen and scroll paintings, woodblock prints, wood sculptures, archeological materials, and ceramics by great masters of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. We are proud to display highlights from our important holdings of art of the Ainu people of northern Japan, material rarely seen in Western museums. A significant display of Ainu artifacts in the Arts of Japan gallery serves as a reminder of the cultural diversity within the modern nation of Japan.
The installation of the China, Japan, and Korea galleries is curated by Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Senior Curator, Asian Art, and Susan L. Beningson, Assistant Curator, Asian Art.
The reinstallation of the Korea collection is made possible by the National Museum of Korea and Young Hwan Jeong. The reinstallation of the Japan collection is made possible by leadership support from Alan L. Beller, Collie and Charles Hutter, Karl and Jennifer Hutter, Katherine and Eric Mason, Claudia and Wilson Langworthy, and Barbara F. and Richard F. Moore. These generous gifts, and others, were made in honor of longtime Brooklyn Museum Trustee Leslie Langworthy Beller (1951–2017). The reinstallation of the China collection is made possible by leadership support from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation and the Freeman Foundation. Additional support for the Arts of Asia collection reinstallation is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.