This folding screen depicts a subject that has its origins in the Chinese religion of Daoism. It shows guests arriving for the mythical feast held by Seowangmo, the Queen Mother of the West (Chinese: Xiwangmu), at her home on Mount Kunlun, a paradise of jade mountains and auspicious plants, said to be located in Central Asia. The feast takes place every 3,000 years upon the ripening of the peaches that grow in Seowangmo’s gardens—peaches that grant immortality to anyone who eats them.
The Queen Mother of the West appears in the fifth panel from the left, enthroned at her banquet table. Her consort, Dongwanggong, the King Father of the East, sits at a table in the fourth panel from the left. At the bottom of the third panel, the Daoist philosopher Laozi is the first to arrive, identifiable because he is riding a water buffalo. In the first and second panels, the eight Daoist Immortals are depicted crossing turbulent waters to attend the feast. The Immortals are benevolent, often humorous figures who use their supernatural powers to destroy evil or grant long life and prosperity to ordinary people. Other deities, most of them associated with longevity, appear in the sky above or in the landscape, along with innumerable servants and a pair of dancing phoenixes.
Korean artists and scholars often looked to Chinese culture for inspiration, and while the Daoist religion was not widely practiced in Korea, its stories often appear in Korean arts and literature. The depiction of the figures and the color palette of this folding screen are uniquely Korean. Given the subject matter and high quality of the painting, it is likely that the screen was made for court use and displayed at birthday celebrations to suggest long life and prosperity.
In many Buddhist traditions great teachers are revered as enlightened beings and the embodiments of Buddhist wisdom. Temples often include shrines housing the likenesses of past masters, who continue to serve as inspirations, role models, and spiritual guides for current practitioners. In Korea this practice is most typical of the Son school, best known in the West by its Japanese name, Zen. This portrait shows a monk seated on a rocky outcropping, sheltered by a humble hut. He holds a staff with a pendant horse tail; originally used to whisk away insects, this implement became an emblem of Buddhist authority. The most unusual feature of this portrait is its gold background, which contrasts with the rustic setting and underscores the spiritual power of the sitter.
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) that serve 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.
This miniature sedan had long poles running through the holes in the base so it could be carried on the shoulders of footmen. It mimics the style and shape of palanquins used for transport of aristocratic women, but its small size indicates that it was used in funeral processions. It would have held the spirit of the deceased, as represented by an inscribed tablet. The tablet accompanied the coffin to the burial site, then was taken to the family ancestral shrine, where it was installed and worshipped regularly by surviving family members. As funeral rites became simpler in modern times, these miniature palanquins fell out of favor. Today they are extremely rare.
This bottle has been decorated using the “sgraffito,” or scratching, method: the gray clay body of the vessel was painted with white slip, and then the surface was scraped to reveal the darker surface beneath. It was then covered in transparent celadon glaze, which sealed and protected the decoration. The peony flower was a popular motif in Korean art because it represented wealth and high status.
The original purpose of this exquisite gold ornament is unclear. Based on its size and the way it curves upward, the dragon head may have decorated the end of a hairpin.
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 small individual gold beads, is applied to the sheathing of the earrings’ upper segment as well as 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 through Persia to the Greek and Roman empires, eventually travelling 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.
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.
Arts of Korea
Arts of Asia and the Middle East, 2nd Floor
Our pioneering collection of Korean art is one of the largest and most important Korean collections in the United States. A selection returns to view in a new gallery three times the size of the previous space and featuring many treasures never before shown. At the center of this state-of-the-art installation are the luminescent celadon ceramics of the Goryeo dynasty. These include a famed ewer in the shape of a lotus bud widely acknowledged to be the finest Korean ceramic in the Western hemisphere. But the riches of the Brooklyn collection—from golden earrings of the Silla kingdom to vibrant costumes, paintings, and furnishings of the Joseon dynasty—show that the sophistication of Korean art stretches far beyond these celebrated green wares.
Following a multi-year renovation of our second floor, the Arts of Korea is the first phase of a major reinstallation of our renowned collection of the Arts of Asia and the Middle East.
This installation of the Brooklyn Museum’s Arts of Korea collection is organized by Joan Cummins, Lisa and Bernard Selz Senior Curator of Asian Art, and Susan L. Beningson, Assistant Curator of Asian Art.
The reinstallation of the Korea collection was made possible by three generous grants from the National Museum of Korea.