We fought there and forgot about it: a look at art from the overlooked nation of the Orient

Korea
November 24, 2000

Slowly, surely and perhaps none too soon, Korea is beginning to impinge more regularly and favourably upon British consciousness. Within a little over 18 months, it has seen one of the most successful overseas visits by the Queen and duke of Edinburgh; the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean war has recalled past sacrifices and aid; the business world has marvelled at South Korea's remarkable recovery from the Asian financial crisis; the media has goggled at the startling image of Kim Jung-il greeting Kim Dae-jung warmly at Pyongyang airport and applauded the entry of the two Koreas under a single flag at the Sydney Olympics; and this month the opening of the British Museum's Korea Foundation gallery establishes a permanent reminder that amid all the shining cultural riches of East Asia, Korea, as well as its better-known neighbours China and Japan, warrants our whole-hearted admiration.

Jane Portal begins her introduction by sketching in the story of the western discovery of Korea and underlines how slow it has been to appreciate Korean culture. She mentions the handful of foreigners who first collected Korean arts and crafts, including Bernard Leach and Godfrey Gompertz in the United Kingdom. The first Korean artefacts to be shown in London were displayed at the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition of 1910, when Korea had recently been absorbed into the Japanese Empire, and it was the Japanese whose discoveries did most to promote archaeological interest in Korea; ironically so, since they were also trying to play down the peninsula's cultural individuality at the same time. Since the Korean war, archaeology has flourished in both North and South Korea. Some of its discoveries have been dramatic, but their interpretation has not always proved easy where it has involved Korean, Japanese and Chinese experts with differing viewpoints. Portal demonstrates, however, the immense debt that Koreans and foreigners alike owe to the tireless scholarship of one man, the late Kim Won-yong. Although she herself refrains from making too many precise claims for Korean neolithic and Bronze Age history, she shows how even in the first millennium BC the peninsula had distinct cultural features of its own, while also benefiting from Chinese sources of inspiration.

One of the greatest problems Koreans have to confront is foreigners' misapprehension that Korean art is simply a pastiche of Chinese and Japanese styles. Inevitably, given the comings and goings across the region of painters and potters, collectors and calligraphers, monks and merchants, embassies and entertainers, a mixture of aesthetic taste, diplomatic flattery and commercial considerations did mean that a good deal of copying went on. Korean artists painted very well in Chinese styles; Japanese craftsmen learned from their Korean counterparts, sometimes making modern attribution of antiques problematic; Korean potters imitated and improved upon Chinese celadons, inlaying their own with delicate patterns of birds, flowers and bamboo in white and black. But Korea's marvellous gold crowns and jewellery, stone pagodas, genre paintings, and plain punchong pottery are distinctively its own, as are many branches of folk arts such as screen decoration, furniture, carved masks and textiles. Throughout the book, Portal is quite rightly concerned to identify the common (quasi-Chinese) elements and the particular Korean features in the rich cultural tapestry.

She covers a wide spectrum of arts and crafts: one has only to compare this book with Evelyn McCune's influential and still respected Arts of Korea (1962) to appreciate how much more difficult a task it is now than it was 40 years ago to condense so much into a single volume and make balanced judgements. As in China over the same intervening period, numerous discoveries have revolutionised understanding of the past. Sometimes Portal is obliged to simplify issues through lack of space; sometimes questions have been raised that are as yet unresolved, and she acknowledges them. The only notable omission from her coverage is any reference to music, a major and distinctive art form for which there is ample evidence in paint, stone and metal. Even the section describing the culture of the Kaya kingdom contains no mention of its eponymous zither, the kayagum , modern Korea's "national" instrument.

Korea: Art and Archaeology is arranged chronologically, beginning with the prehistoric period and ending with the 20th century. There are two appendices, one on the technology and sources of Korean celadon (by M. Hughes and L. Joyner), the other on Korean money (by H. Wang), as well as a chronological table and a glossary. The author's intention is "to inform and enthuse non-specialists about the long-neglected subject of Korean art and archaeology". By her lightness of touch, sensible subdivision of chapters into easily manageable sections, and numerous and beautiful illustrations - most of which come from the British Museum's collections - she should have ensured that the book will be welcomed by specialists and general readers alike.

Keith Pratt is emeritus professor of Chinese, University of Durham.

Korea: Art and Archaeology

Author - Jane Portal
ISBN - 0 7141 1487 1
Publisher - British Museum Press
Price - £15.99
Pages - 240

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