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Should Jews Be Envious of Koreans?

A Philadelphia exhibit of 500 years of Korea’s Joseon dynasty poses questions about insular societies and art

Paul Fishbane
March 19, 2014

An omnipotent judge sitting at a desk, expert in the behavior of men, examines the souls of the dead, deciding the punishments in the afterlife that their misdeeds merit. Vivid, artful depictions, especially of the various castigations, effectively remind viewers to behave virtuously.

This is not a poorly remembered version of Yom Kippur; it is a Korean depiction of one of the 10 kings of Buddhist hell, on view at an illuminating new show at the Philadelphia Museum of Art that surveys Korean art from the Joseon Dynasty. For the show, the 13-foot-tall Augustus Saint-Gaudens bronze statue of Diana—the one that once adorned the tower peak on Madison Square Garden—has lost its dominant station at the top of the monumental staircase of the museum. Diana is hidden behind a more than 350-year-old Buddhistic banner fully three times taller. Beneath that banner, at the exhibition’s opening earlier this month, seven Korean Buddhist monks performed a traditional ritual that celebrates the Buddha’s birthday and guides the souls of the dead to the Buddhist paradise. That ritual, which is sadly not a permanent part of the show, employs drums, gongs, a strange wind instrument called a Taepyeongso, chants, and dance.

As a ritual it resembles perhaps a richer and more multifaceted version of that austere piece of Jewish theater: the opening, reading, and closing of the Torah. Which led me to wonder: Could one mount an art museum exhibition on Jewish art and culture like this one? A few years ago, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem ran a show on the insular life of Hasidic Jews that understandably spent more energy explaining rituals—via video—than displaying material culture. Would a vast exhibition of Jewish arts and culture analogous to the Joseon show concentrate on Judaica, the ritual elements of Jewish life? Or would it build on Jewish artists who flourished in the different cultural atmospheres in which they were embedded? All cultures, even individual works of art, present the possibilities of looking inward and outward at the same time. It is never anything but enriching to look outward.


The Joseon dynasty, a line of 27 kings that spans the period from 1392 to 1910, forms the longest-lasting Confucian dynasty. Its creeds were in reality complicated, with a healthy dose of Buddhism, Daoism, and deep folk beliefs also playing their parts. Moreover, invasions by hostile neighbors marked periodic interruptions. The most compelling feature of the Joseon dynasty is Korea’s insularity during this period. While some foreign influence, particularly from China, did indeed slip into Korea, there was nevertheless a roughly 200-year span ending in the mid-19th century when Korea lived up to its epithet as the Hermit Kingdom.

Confucianism means social structure, with codified rules to govern caste and work assignments, and with differing gender roles. Ancestors were to be deeply and seriously respected. Confucianism also lays down rules that allow social mobility through examinations and other measures of merit. Commemorative portraits abound in the show, painted as markers of the Confucian structure; costumes and insignia make clear who is depicted and why. One penetrating posthumous portrait ca. 1800 of a Buddhist monk was painted for his followers. Another subtle, sensitive portrait (late 18th century) of a government official shows him in a second role as a scholar, practicing the Confucian virtues of a frugal, studious life lived with integrity. Amusingly, an album composed of individual portraits shows all those who passed a special exam marking the 50th year of the mid-18th-century King Yeongjo; copies of those likenesses went to the respective successful candidates—graduation pictures.

Precise depictions of elaborate ceremony give us a detailed record of events in Korea high and low. Paintings of this sort were called “pictures of human life.” One particularly successful scholar-bureaucrat is commemorated in an 18th-century screen that depicts events important to him: three days of celebration after a successful exam; more days of celebration after promotions; a scene of his retirement; his 60th wedding anniversary. The activities flow across the screen, enacting life itself.

Splendid silk costumes, often using solid blocks of intense colors, are hung throughout the exhibition. Every ornament, every strip and piece of brocaded insignia glows.

The heavy role of symbolism in Korean culture of the Joseon period brings us not to abstract art but to something close to it, to a beyond-the-literal interpretation of nature and natural events. A handful of large screen paintings dazzle with their use of pattern and color. Behind the king’s throne in Seoul sat such a screen, “Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks,” meant, here in a 19th-century version, to encompass the entire universe. The moon and the sun are yin and yang—feminine and masculine; the five peaks symbolize, among other things, the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, while two waterfalls and churning hands of watery foam represent the dynamic elements that move the world. In another screen, peonies and rocks represent yin and yang. In still another screen 10 symbols of longevity appear and console those who would contemplate the image.

Symbolism spills over into the marvelous ceramics that make up a good part of the exhibition. Many of them carry brilliant glazes in the most subtle celadon hues. They touch our modern eye with elements of accident over perfection, as in the large moon jar, made by joining two half globes. The horizontal seam produced is a little off, and the “moon” shape is not quite a perfect sphere. The purity of color and form are stunning. Beautiful ceramics from the Far East are of course familiar to Westerners, but their uses can remain foreign. Among the pieces are placenta jars; the handling of the placentas of royal children was thought to be essential to the continuation of the dynasty.

Many of the objects displayed are commemorative or ceremonial, directly understandable to a member of the society, perhaps more opaque to outside observers. But we outsiders can see them as objects of pure beauty, examples of what our fellow humans are capable of in the right circumstances.

Contrast Jewish society across Europe—indeed, across the entire Diaspora—over the 500 years of the Joseon dynasty. That Jewish society was embedded in other cultures. Rather than creating an identity, Jewish society had to work just to preserve its identity. Extreme isolation was one way to do this, as for example in Hasidic society. But the units of that society, small villages or urban enclaves (or ghettos), were so small that a mixture of artisans and a class of clients to commission work scarcely existed. It would have been even harder to envision a group to express opinions about artistic success.

The Korean society was insular, ordered, coherent. Did insularity play a role in the artistic fecundity of the culture? Being isolated is not a necessary condition for producing great art. (Think of 17th-century Holland, anything but a closed society—the 17th century was the golden age of Dutch painting.) Rather, an insular society has the opportunity to develop, to define, or to realize its proper cultural identity on its own, with no interference. But more than simple isolation is needed. In the case of Korea this “more” is inherent in the structural rules of Confucianism, which can accommodate the presence of scholars who can conceive, a class at the top who can command, a class of artisans who can work as they are asked. If the show demonstrates any such cultural recipe, perhaps this is its description.


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Paul Fishbane is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Virginia.

Paul Fishbane is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Virginia.