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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Arts of Asia
Arts of Asia and the Islamic World, 2nd Floor
We house one of America’s foremost collections of Asian art, displayed in newly renovated galleries. We are currently completing a multiyear reinstallation that celebrates the great diversity of Asian art and now features works from Japan, Korea, China, and Southeast Asia as well as the arts of Buddhism. Once complete, the Asia galleries will include arts of the Himalayas and South Asia.
The Arts of Japan gallery features traditional forms such as paintings, woodblock prints, sculptures, and lacquerwares. We have a large, historical collection of art made by the Ainu people of northern Japan, which is prominent in the gallery, as is our important collection of ceramics by modern and contemporary masters.
Among the first U.S. institutions to collect and exhibit Korean art, we hold one of the country’s premier collections. The Arts of Korea gallery offers a full range of traditional ceramic wares as well as fine paintings, costumes, home furnishings, and religious arts.
The Arts of China gallery ranges from the Neolithic era (circa 3000 B.C.E.) to today. Objects in a wide variety of mediums reveal the sophistication of Chinese artistry and reflect Chinese religious, political, and intellectual traditions that continue to evolve.
The Arts of Buddhism gallery offers an introduction to Buddhism through its art forms, featuring art from multiple Asian cultures. Juxtaposed icons of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and other enlightened figures, as well as tools used in worship, illustrate regional variations in practice and aesthetics.
Arts of Southeast Asia highlights our collection of historical art from the region, with a primary focus on sculpture depicting Hindu and Buddhist deities.
The installation of the China, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia galleries is curated by Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Senior Curator, Asian Art, and Susan L. Beningson, former 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. Major support for the reinstallation of the Southeast Asia collection is made possible by an anonymous donor. Additional support for the Arts of Asia collection reinstallation is provided by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.