Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 6, 2021
J. P. Park, Burglind Jungmann, and Juhyung Rhi, eds. A Companion to Korean Art Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2020. 568 pp. Ebook $156.00 (9781118927007)

Twenty years after Jane Portal’s introductory survey Korea: Art and Archaeology (Thames and Hudson, 2000), this long-awaited edited volume offers a chance to review the historiography of Korean art history and to see the astonishing developments the field has made over the past number of years. In general, the volume covers cross-cultural connections that deemphasize ahistorical national narratives and illustrate the increasing depth of research on modern and contemporary art. Leading scholars in Korean art provide insightful essays with a preference for historical and social contexts over stylistic analysis. Donald L. Baker’s introduction provides an excellent historical overview. It is the only contribution in this book that was not written by an art historian. Ironically, it contains outdated information about Korean art, which is nevertheless updated in the following chapters. For example, the idea that “Koryŏ potters pioneered the use of inlaid designs” is a narrative that has been overhauled in the most recent scholarship on the topic, as Namwon Jang explains in her detailed discussion of the inlay technique (147).

The book’s eighteen chapters are organized chronologically and by dynasty. The first three chapters of part 1, “Ancient to Medieval Cultures on the Korean Peninsula,” are to be commended for parting from a previously dominant morphological approach by discussing artworks in their cross-Asian historical and political context. After a brief discussion of archaeological artifacts from 300 BCE onward, Minku Kim provides a detail-rich discussion of historiographical issues and different types of Koguryŏ (traditionally 37 BCE–668 CE) tomb murals. Youn-mi Kim’s chapter about pagoda architecture is particularly insightful for highlighting the connections between Liao dynasty China (907–1125) and peninsular Buddhist architecture. Her chapter and Sunkyung Kim’s contribution about Buddhist sculpture from the Silla kingdom (trad. 57 BCE–935 CE) are written in clear, accessible language and could therefore be assigned to undergraduate students. Hyunsook Kang’s contribution on funerary art from the third to seventh century CE follows an exclusively stylistic analysis approach without any references to social and political contexts, which, unfortunately, makes her chapter hard to follow. However, it introduces an overwhelmingly wide range of early Korean material culture, from metalwork to jewelry and pottery.

Part 2, on the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392), is well balanced in terms of thematic distribution and methodological approaches. Namwon Jang provides an excellent interpretation of the development of Koryŏ period celadon (a.k.a. greenware) in the East Asian context, discussing not only different kiln types and decoration techniques but also the export of Koryŏ celadon to Yuan China (1271–1368). Incorporating Korean as well as Western scholarship on Koryŏ period Buddhism, Sun-ah Choi provides a fascinating overview of Koryŏ Buddhist sculpture and its adaptations of Liao, Song China (960–1279), and Sino-Tibetan artistic styles. In addition, Yoonjung Seo’s chapter on Koryŏ Buddhist painting provides a new analysis of the secular elements in Koryŏ period Amitābha, Avalokiteśvara, and Kṣitigarbha paintings. Seunghye Lee’s chapter on Koryŏ period wooden architecture reveals intriguing insights into the historical background, spatial layout, and interior design of various Koryŏ period monastic plans and pagoda styles. Finally, Charlotte Horlyck’s contribution about Koryŏ period lacquer and metalware is particularly valuable since it allows the reader to look beyond the perceived fine arts of painting and sculpture. Horlyck not only vividly explains how government craftspeople were organized but also examines the Song, Liao, Jin (1115–1234), and Yuan impact on the stylistic development of bronze bells, incense burners, and mirrors.

In contrast to the earlier sections of this book, part 3, on the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392–1910), provides fewer innovative approaches and critical reflections of the field. Insoo Cho examines canonical works of early Chosŏn landscape, animal, and plant paintings, literary gathering paintings, and woodblock prints focused on Confucian teachings. Chin-Sung Chang introduces Chŏng Sŏn (1676–1759) as the pioneer of true-view/true-scenery landscape painting (chingyŏng sansu), as well as Kim Hongdo (1745–?) and Sin Yunbok (1758–1813) as creators of Korean genre painting. Chang’s chapter ends strongly with a convincing explanation about the nuances of the terms “literati painter”/”scholar-artist” in the Chosŏn context and the impact of European painting, science, and technology on the late Chosŏn cultural elite. In her intriguing contextual analysis of Chosŏn period ceramics, Soyoung Lee notes that “Koreanness” of late Chosŏn arts was complex and cross-fertilized with “foreign” layers, particularly the desire to collect colorful luxury items from Qing China and Tokugawa Japan, contrasting with the popular notion that Chosŏn Koreans preferred white porcelain exclusively since it adhered to the Neo-Confucian ideal of modesty and austerity. In the subsequent chapter about Chosŏn period court art, Burglind Jungmann provides a wonderful overview of the various genres of court painting, such as architectural paintings, portrait paintings, genre paintings, and ch’aekkado (“bookshelf” paintings); Jungmann also discusses large-scale screens that documented special events such as royal outings, were used during banquets and weddings, or were placed behind the throne. The last chapter of part 3, Unsok Song’s discussion about Chosŏn Buddhist art and architecture, contains numerous translation issues (“the lift and hang type of fenestration,” 382) and editing issues (“the use of background color and lines without coloring,” 379), which unfortunately add to the reader’s confusion. An advanced learner of Korean Buddhist art familiar with Song’s excellent Korean publications will understand this poorly translated text, but without substantial additional instructions it is not practical for undergraduate teaching in the North American college setting.

Part 4, “Modern & Contemporary Developments,” begins with an intriguing overview of Japanese colonial period (1910–45) art. Jungsil Jenny Lee covers a wide range of topics, from the introduction of Western-style urban architecture and photography to academic realism and the concept of “local color,” convincingly arguing that scholars should follow a more nuanced approach that goes beyond the simple dichotomy between pro- and anti-Japanese attitudes among colonial Korean artists. In chapter 16, Joan Kee discusses postwar Korean art such as abstract painting, Tansaekhwa, performance art, and video art, emphasizing how the Park Chunghee administration commissioned artworks to promote specific political goals such as industrial progress and national unity while restricting art production that was considered a political threat. Young Min Moon’s contribution about contemporary South Korean art is a fascinating account in its portrayal of Minjung (people’s) art and the “New Generation” artists of the 1990s, including women artists such as Lee Bul and Choi Jeong Hwa. Moon gives artists, but also gallery and museum curators, agency in engaging in “the tripartite tasks of decolonization, deimperialization, and the undoing of Cold War legacies” (490). The last chapter of part 4 is Kyung Hyun Kim’s insider report on the South Korean movie industry, a captivating reading for an undergraduate class on East Asian cinema. However, this misplaced chapter feels out of step with the rest of the book. With director Bong Joon-ho winning the Oscar for his movie Parasite in 2020 and Yuh-jung Youn winning an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her role in Minari in 2021, Kim’s statement that a “market not sufficiently targeted by . . . South Korea is the North American box office” (500) now appears obsolete.

This volume seeks to denationalize the narrative of Korean art history. While that narrative includes cross-cultural and cross-regional exchanges, the editors and/or the publisher decided to reproduce exclusively “Korean” images. For example, no images of Chinese or Japanese Buddhist art and architecture were included in the chapters on Buddhist art in Korea. In chapter 11, an image of Pak Chega’s painting of Koxinga and his mother is missing. No ceramic sherds from kilns in China or Japan are depicted in the chapters on ceramics (one exception is figure 12.8, which depicts a blue-and-white vessel with a floral design inspired by the kilns of Arita and Jingdezhen). The exclusivity of Korean works of art in the selection of images thus makes it difficult to fully comprehend the visual evidence for the cross-cultural approach that the authors refer to in their writing. Hence, the book does not fully deliver what it promises, but it does represent a transition from the nation-centered approach to the broader intercultural discussion of Korean art.

This book distills the latest scholarship in a wide array of subfields of Korean art history. It is an outstanding accomplishment and a welcome addition for scholars with advanced knowledge of East Asian art. It is helpful that each chapter has a glossary with terms in McCune-Reischauer, Revised Romanization, and Sinitic script. However, considering the hefty price for the hardcover version ($195), it is less useful as an undergraduate textbook. Furthermore, since each chapter was only afforded a maximum of ten images, the reader can quickly become overwhelmed by copious dates and names, which is not conducive to the education of students with no background in Korean studies and/or art history. If the volume is used in undergraduate teaching, instructors will need to find the images that are discussed but not illustrated to make the content understandable to the students. These issues notwithstanding, with more than five hundred pages of text and 153 illustrations, it is an excellent edition of essays on Korean art. It will surely bring Anglophone researchers up to date with the most recent Korean scholarship.

Maya Stiller
Associate Professor, Department of History of Art, University of Kansas