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LACMA presents a fuller image of Korea

The museum has always had some art from the peninsula, but never like this.

September 13, 2009|Suzanne Muchnic

In May 1965, two months after the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opened its doors on Wilshire Boulevard, Yook Young-soo, the wife of Park Chung-hee, president of the Republic of Korea, paid a visit. She was so disappointed with the paltry display of Korean art that she decided to take action. In February 1966, Korea's first couple gave the fledgling institution 23 ceramic works covering 1,000 years of Korean art history.

The donation launched a collection that has grown, in fits and starts, to one of the world's most comprehensive holdings outside Korea. Joining broad holdings of Japanese and Chinese art, the Korean collection comprises about 500 paintings, sculptures, ceramics and textiles, and an 850-piece trove of historic pottery shards. But that's one of the little-known facts about LACMA, partly because the museum has a global agenda and partly because Korean art hasn't occupied much space there.

The museum opened its first long-term installation of Korean material in 1999 on the lower level of the Ahmanson building and closed it a couple of years ago, amid an ongoing reorganization of its permanent collection galleries. But something notable is happening now.

The big summer show at LACMA's Broad Contemporary Art Museum is "Your Bright Future: 12 Contemporary Artists From Korea," a splashy multimedia exhibition of recently made work that runs through Sept. 20. And just a few days ago, the museum reopened its Korean galleries in a larger, more prominent location. The 6,600-square-foot showcase, on the plaza level of the Hammer building, debuted with 101 objects, including three loans from the National Museum of Korea -- one designated as a National Treasure -- and 23 pieces from the Amorepacific Museum of Art, established by a cosmetics company near Seoul.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Korean treasures donor: An article in Sunday's Arts & Books section about Korean works on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art identified the donor of a collection of historical pottery shards as a former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea. Gregory Henderson was a foreign service officer and specialist on Korea.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 20, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Korean treasures donor: An article in last Sunday's Arts & Books section about Korean works on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art identified the donor of a collection of historical pottery shards as a former U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Korea. Gregory Henderson was a foreign service officer and specialist on Korea.

Visitors find paintings on screens and scrolls, sculptures of wood and metal, a wide range of ceramics and objects used in religious ceremonies and daily life. Text panels, a map and multimedia presentations on small screens provide a cultural context for the works and explain artistic processes. A large room adjacent to the gallery complex offers hands-on art experiences -- initially, instruction in traditional painting techniques.

This is an auspicious occasion, says Jaewon Kim, director of L.A.'s Korean Cultural Center. "I'm very happy and proud. My hope is that the galleries will provide great accessibility to the museum and Korean art for the Korean community and Los Angelenos in general. When the first Korean galleries opened at LACMA, their collection was not so full-scale. This time, not only is the space greater, but the collection is richer. I also hope, through the development of the relationship between LACMA and the Korean National Museum, there will be other treasures coming and going."

Kwang-shik Choe, the National Museum of Korea's director, said the new galleries "will be at the center of an intercultural exchange and collaboration between Korea and the United States," in a statement sent by e-mail. The National Treasure lent to LACMA, a Buddhist sculpture popularly known as the "Pensive Bodhisattva," embodies the highest level of artistic form and craftsmanship, he said, "and its aesthetic presence extends beyond borders."

The inauguration of the galleries is a sort of debut for Hyonjeong Kim Han, a specialist in Korean painting who arrived at LACMA from Seoul's National University and Research Institute of Korean Painting in 2006 as associate curator of Chinese and Korean art. She spent many months evaluating the collection and soon started working on an installation that changed in size and location as plans evolved.

The finished product begins with an introduction to "a mountainous peninsula located in northeast Asia between China and Japan" that has "played a pivotal role in East Asian culture," as a text panel states. Subject to many outside influences, sometimes through the force of invasions, Korea has nonetheless forged a distinctive artistic culture.

The Three Kingdoms Period (57 BC to 668 AD) produced fine metalwork, stoneware and painting. Buddhism's arrival in the 4th century brought new imagery and refinement, reaching its peak in the sculpture, painting and celadon-glazed ceramics of the Goryeo period (918 to 1392). The Neo-Confucian Joseon period (1392 to 1910) left a legacy of stoneware and white porcelain pottery, landscape and genre painting, among other art forms that appealed to scholarly rulers and a rising middle class.

The first artwork to be seen in the new galleries is National Treasure No. 78, a late 6th century gilt bronze sculpture of Maitreya, a Bodhisattva, or Buddha-to-be. At LACMA for three months, it occupies a room of its own, just behind a large screened window in the lobby.

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