Plum blossom vase (maebyeong) with painted decoration,

Goryeo dynasty, 12th century



BOSTON, MA (November 13, 2012)—A new gallery showcasing a range of Korean works of art, from ancient to contemporary, and an exhibition of rare Buddhist paintings will debut on November 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA).  The Arts of Korea Gallery features a display of some 120 objects, including Buddhist paintings, celadons and other ceramics, inlaid lacquerware, gilt silver metal work, archeological artifacts, and jewelry, as well as contemporary pieces.  These works of art are drawn from the Museum’s collection of more than 1,000 Korean objects, one of the largest and finest holdings in the West. The establishment of this gallery was made possible by the support of the Korea Foundation.  Complementing the new Arts of Korea Gallery is the exhibition Divine Depictions: Korean Buddhist Paintings featuring 10 rare Buddhist paintings, and one contemporary work, on view November 16, 2012, through June 23, 2013, in the adjacent Asian Paintings Gallery.  The exhibition is presented with support from the Dr. Robert A. and Dr. Veronica Petersen Fund for Exhibitions.  In celebration of the opening of both galleries (located on the first floor of the Arts of Asia, Oceania, and Africa Wing), the MFA is hosting Korea Foundation Day on Friday, November 16, from 3 to 9:45 p.m., co-organized with the Korea Foundation.  (Please see accompanying press release for more information on Korea Foundation Day or visit

Arts of Korea Gallery

   The MFA’s new Arts of Korea Gallery presents highlights of the Museum’s Korean collection, which began to be assembled at the MFA in 1892.  It spans the Bronze Age (1000–300 BC) to the present day, with a concentration of objects made in the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) dynasties.  Bronze and slate daggers found in tombs and slate and stone arrowheads are among the ancient artifacts on view in the gallery.  It also offers a look at early Korea (57 BC through AD 918), exploring how the country’s peninsula was divided into three kingdoms: Goguryeo in the north, Baekje in the southwest, and Silla in the southeast. During this Three Kingdoms period (57 BC–AD 668), artists and craftsmen made iron armor for men and horses and high-fired stoneware vessels for shamanistic burials.  They also created adornments such as gold and silver crowns and jewelry, examples of which are on view in the gallery, including earrings, necklaces, and belts with pendants.




Medicine Buddha triad with Twelve Guardians, Joseon dynasty,


    The importance of Buddhism in the cultural history of Korea also is explored in the gallery.  Buddhism reached a highpoint in the country from the 7th to the 14th centuries and was central to life during the Goryeo Dynasty (918–1392), when temples and monasteries were constructed and works of art produced for the glorification of the church.  The subsequent Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) largely replaced Buddhism with an austere form of Confucianism that emphasized family lineage through the male line.  It lasted some 500 years, throughout which many people, including the royal family, continued to believe in Buddhism and support temples financially.  Among the five paintings displayed in the Arts of Korea gallery is one that documents the high quality of Buddhist art produced during this nominally Confucian period, Medicine Buddha triad with Twelve Guardians (Joseon dynasty, late 16th century).  It depicts the healing Buddha sitting upright on a lotus-shaped throne, flanked by two attendants and The Twelve Guardians, symbolizing the Buddha’s 12 vows to cure all sufferings.  Because of the fragility of the paintings, they will be rotated periodically. 
   In addition to these works, the gallery showcases other strengths of the Museum’s Korean holdings, such as 11th–13th century celadons—green-glazed, high-fired stonewares.   The technique of making celadons (their light green “celadon” color coming from traces of iron oxide in the glaze) was brought from China to Korea by the 10th century, their production centered primarily in southwest Korea.  Of particular note is Plum blossom vase (maebyeong) (Goryeo dynasty, 12th century), a type of vessel originally made for wine, later used to hold a flowering plum branch.  It incorporates the typical Goryeo maebyeong shape, with a bulbous shoulder and thin belly curving outward toward the bottom. The unique decoration features large flowers painted in white slip under the glaze.  Another beautiful example is Bamboo-shoot-shaped ewer (Goryeo dynasty, 12th century), used for serving wine, which evokes fruit and vegetable motifs often used in Korean ceramic pieces.  Many of the MFA’s Korean celadons were acquired by collector Charles Bain Hoyt in Paris, where these refined and elegant works had been brought from Korea during World War I.  Hoyt gave his collection to the MFA in 1950, along with some metal work.  Other ceramics on view are of the Buncheong (“powder green” or “grayish green”) variety—coarse stoneware developed from Goryeo celadons in the 15th to 16th centuries—such as Flask (Joseon dynasty, late 15th century).  Fine white porcelain also became popular beginning around the 15th century, as seen in examples from the late 18th century (Joseon dynasty), Moon Jar and Jar with phoenix design.  To enhance the appreciation of Korean ceramics on view in the gallery, a touchscreen features four videos depicting traditional
Korean ceramics production and decoration techniques, including preparing clay, throwing and shaping porcelain, carving inlaid designs, and firing blue and white porcelain in a dragon kiln. The touchscreen is made possible with generous support from Song Hye-kyo and Seo Kyoung-duk.



Ewer and basin, Goreyo dynasty


Among the other works in the gallery are laquerware and metal work, such as Sutra box (Goryeo dynasty, 13th century), a lacquered wood box inlaid with mother-of-pearl, originally made to house Buddhist scriptures.  It is one of a group of just eight such boxes remaining in the world; in all, there are only about 15 Goryeo inlaid lacquer objects in existence.  Also of note are exquisite works in metal, such as the elaborately designed gilt silver Ewer and basin (Goreyo dynasty, 12th century), which would have been used by the Goryeo royal court, its lotus-flower basin filled with hot water to keep wine in the ewer warm. The ewer’s body is fashioned in the shape of 24 bundled bamboo stalks, while the handle and the spout are made to resemble bamboo shoots, and the lid is decorated with two lotus flowers in high relief, topped by a phoenix.  Another gilt silver work is Buddhist reliquary (Goryeo dynasty, 14th century), which is shaped like a stupa (mound-like structure to house relics) and contains small beads of glass and bronze—symbolic remains of 14th-century monks. The stupa rests on a base decorated with upturned petals of a lotus, a Buddhist symbol of purity.

   Another highlight of the Arts of Korea Gallery is a superb 18th-century Joseon dynasty trompe l’oeil Bookshelf screen, on loan from a private collection.  This eight-panel silk screen is a rare example of a decorative painting genre called chaekgeori, “books and things,” featuring scholarly items that indicate one’s learning and sophistication.  Made for a gentleman’s study—possibly for royalty—it is displayed in a room-like setting in the gallery accompanied by writing tools placed on a low table.  Also on view are newly acquired contemporary ceramics and paintings, both Buddhist and secular, which will be shown on a rotating basis.  The ceramics are juxtaposed with some of the earliest works in the gallery to illustrate how the contemporary responds to the traditional.  Included among these newly made pieces is Translated Vase (2011) by Yee Sookyung, featuring celadon fragments joined together with epoxy and gilding—a remaking of the old into the new. 

Divine Depictions: Korean Buddhist Paintings (through June 23, 2013)

   Adjacent to the Arts of Korea Gallery is the Asian Paintings Gallery, where Divine Depictions: Korean Buddhist Paintings is on view.  Serene Buddhas and bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who put off nirvana in order to help others), regal Kings of Hell, and contemplative monks adorn the walls of the gallery.  The exhibition, which complements the Arts of Korea Gallery, features 10 rare Korean Buddhist paintings from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which have not been displayed in many years.  In addition, there is one contemporary painting that illustrates the continuing influence of Buddhism in present-day South Korea, where about 20 percent of the population is Buddhist. 

   The MFA’s collection of Buddhist paintings comprises 15 works (10 on view in the exhibition and two in the Arts of Korea Gallery), some commissioned for royalty.  A number of these paintings came to the MFA from Japan, where they were appreciated and stored in Buddhist temples (the Japanese also were interested in Korean ceramics).  In 1882, diplomatic relations were established between Korean and Western countries, including the United States; previously, Westerners were forbidden from entering Korea.  During the late 19th century, Bostonians William Sturgis Bigelow and Ernest Fenollosa, who lived in Japan and became Buddhists, acquired Korean paintings, ceramics, and other works, later giving them to the Museum along with numerous objects from their Japanese collections. 

   “I learned to appreciate the subtle beauty of Korean Buddhist paintings when I lived and studied in Korea, and was thrilled to find such high quality paintings in the MFA’s collection, thanks to the generosity of 19th–century collectors,” said Jane Portal, Matsutaro Shoriki Chair, Art of Asia, Oceania, and Africa at the Museum, who curated Divine Depictions.  “I am delighted to now have the opportunity to display them and share them with new generations of Bostonians.”

   Buddhist paintings created during the Joseon Dynasty, when Confucianism was in favor, would have been placed in Korean Buddhist temples in remote mountain locations. They were usually painted on hemp or coarse silk and backed with paper, sometimes as hanging scrolls or pasted on temple walls as though mural paintings. Very large ones sometimes were mounted as banners and hung outside.  The paintings in the exhibition all feature mineral colors, such as malachite (green), azurite (blue), and cinnabar (red), and are framed and glazed.  They are divided into four categories: Buddhas, bodhisattvas, Kings of Hell, and portraits of monks.



Avalokitesvara with Water and Moon, Korean, late 17th–18th century


   Among the traditional Buddhas on view in Divine Depictions is Amitabha Buddha (Joseon dynasty, 19th century), which depicts the popular Buddha seated cross-legged with his right thumb and index finger forming a circle, a gesture showing one of the nine degrees of rebirth in the Western Paradise over which he was believed to preside. Around him are bodhisattvas and two disciples.  A contemporary take on the revered figure is seen in the painting Happy Buddha (2008) by Kang Ik-Joong, in which three-inch wooden blocks are arranged in a grid of 84 squares surrounding one 12-inch square in the center.  Each square features a Buddha sitting in a similar pose but varying in color. From a distance, the work gives the effect of an ever-changing video screen, reflecting the lasting influence of the artist’s mentor, the pioneer video artist Nam June Paik (1932–2006).  Included among the bodhisattvas in the exhibition is the monumental painting Avalokitesvara with water and moon (late 17th–18th century).  It features the bodhisattva of compassion, who has vowed to lead all to the Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha.  He can be identified by his jeweled headdress, floating drapery, feminine body, and his willow branch in a pure water vessel (kundika), sitting by the water in the posture of “royal ease” with a moon halo around his head.

   Also well represented in the gallery are depictions of Kings of Hell and portraits of monks and priests.  Kings of Hell were believed to preside over the Buddhist purgatory and were enshrined in temples in the Hall of Judgment, where people made votive offerings to them and prayed for rebirth in a better place.  The painting The Seventh King Taesan (Late Joseon dynasty) illustrates one of the Ten Kings of Hell surrounded by numerous attendants, while the lower part illustrates a gruesome hell scene.  Notable Buddhist monks also were depicted, such as Portrait of Priest Samyeongdang (Joseon dynasty, 18th century), an illustration of a monk known as the Venerable Samyeong, who was a military leader and diplomat during the Japanese invasions of 1592–98.  Images of important monks were hung in dedicated portrait halls of Buddhist temples. 

The MFA and the Korea Foundation

   In addition to co-organizing and sponsoring Korea Foundation Day at the MFA on November 16, the Korea Foundation has provided funding for internships at the Museum in the fall for three years.  Last year, Dayun Oh researched Korean paintings, and this year conservator Kyeong-eun Park is doing analysis and a conservation survey of Buddhist paintings at the MFA.  The Korea Foundation was established in 1991 to promote awareness and understanding of Korea through efforts to enhance goodwill and friendship throughout the global community. As one of Korea’s representative public-diplomacy organizations, the Korea Foundation supports a wide variety of activities and programs, including Korean Studies programs and cultural exchanges. Of particular note, the Korea Foundation has extended support to some 30 US museums for the establishment of Korean art galleries and the implementation of Korea-related exhibitions and outreach programs.

Conservation of Objects

   In preparation for the renovation of the Arts of Korea Gallery, MFA conservators improved the appearance and stability of many objects from the Korean collection, including bronze vessels, lacquer boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl, celadon ceramics, and ancient gold jewelry. Some objects had been on continuous display for the last 30 years, while others had been in the Museum’s collection for more than a century but had never been exhibited. Conservators were faced with a variety of challenges ranging from dirty and stained surfaces to poorly aged repairs. In many cases, scientific study of the Korean artworks helped to identify the types of materials, tools, and techniques used by the original craftsmen to create these objects. In addition to conserving objects in the Arts of Korea Gallery, conservators also remounted two of the Buddhist paintings in Divine Depictions.