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North of the Border

Sooa McCormick, Associate Curator of Korean Art
October 19, 2018
Seven Jeweled Mountain, late 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). 1989.6

Inspired by recent political attempts to secure peace in Northeast Asia, the next installation in the Korean gallery (236), opening in January, explores artworks that capture the identity of cities and natural sites north of the Korean demilitarized zone.Although Pyongyang is now better known as the capital of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, the city became the capital of the Goguryeo kingdom (37 bc–668) in ad 427, as the kingdom expanded its territory. During the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), Pyongyang was famed for its stable government and economic prosperity but also for its performance artists. By the turn of the 19th century, the city’s large population of Christians earned it the nickname “the Jerusalem of the East.” In fact, Kim Il-sung (1912–1994), founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (the formal name of North Korea, established in 1948), was from a devoted Christian family. In his 1992 memoir, Kim expressed his gratitude to a number of Korean Christian leaders, including Son Jeong-do (1872–1931), who supported Kim’s resistance activities against Japanese colonial rule.

Landscape with Waterfall 1800s. Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Han Unpyeong (Korean). Ink and color on paper; 59.3 x 28.3 cm. Gift of the John Huntington Art and Polytechnic Trust, 215.1915

The City of Pyongyang, a ten-panel folding screen, accurately renders some of the city’s historical architecture and geography, including the Hall of Revering Virtue, a shrine worshiping a legendary sage believed to have brought advanced technologies from China to Korea, and the Shrine of Military Heroes, a monument dedicated to Chinese military generals who fought on behalf of Korea during the Japanese invasion (1592–97). The screen’s bottom section is largely occupied by the Taedong River that flows through the city. During the Joseon dynasty, the river was host to extravagant boating parties to celebrate the inauguration of new governors. During a boat ride on the Taedong in 1994, former US president Jimmy Carter is said to have won Kim Il-sung’s promise to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program, although their agreement never came to fruition. An assemblage of objects, including celadons, spoons, seals, and bronze mirrors, shed light on the common burial practice during the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392).

Spoons Korea, Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). Bronze. From top: 1918.508, 1918.509, 1918.514, 1921.667

Although the interior of Goryeo tombs could be accessed without much difficulty, they were left untouched until the late 19th century. During the colonial period (1910–45), Japanese archaeologists actively excavated areas such as the tombs located in the dynasty’s former capital, Kaeseong, near the present-day border of South Korea. Bronze spoons and mirrors are the most common items found in tombs. Many of the spoons have a curved handle that splits into a jagged fish-tail design. This form is not unique to Korea, but was also widely used in the area ruled by two non-Han Chinese states, Jin and Liao. Seemingly ordinary objects like spoons, however, reveal interactions between the Goryeo dynasty and northern states of non-Han China that were often omitted in official textual archives. One octofoil-shaped mirror narrates the story of Ci Fei, the dragon slayer.

Octofoil-Shaped Mirror Featuring Ci Fei, the Dragon Slayer 960–1279. China, Song dynasty (960–1279)–Jin dynasty (1115–1234). Bronze; diam. 17.2 cm. Gift of Drs. Thomas and Martha Carter in Honor of Sherman E. Lee, 1995.376

Although the mirror is currently classified as a Chinese work of the Jin dynasty (1115–1234), recent excavation reports reveal that this particular type of mirror was in fact exclusively unearthed from Korean tombs built during the Goryeo period. This might result in a reattribution to a Korean maker. This new installation also celebrates the natural beauty of North Korea through renderings of two notable mountain ranges. The Guryrong (Nine Dragon) waterfall in the Diamond Mountains is depicted in Landscape with Waterfall. Two scholar-tourists, guided by a Buddhist monk, enjoy both the spectacle and the roar generated by the water cascading into the pond. The ten-panel folding screen The Seven Jeweled Peaks: Chilbo Mountains portrays the Seven Jeweled Mountain. Shaped by ancient volcanic eruptions, its eccentric and awe-inspiring terrain includes phallic-shaped pillars; a large flat-topped, steep-sided cliff; and a rugged mountain composed of metamorphic and igneous rocks. These natural wonders have always been beloved as popular tourist destinations, but after the Korean War (1950–53) they became isolated from the outside world. The works in this installation allow us to experience what we can only imagine.  

The City of Pyongyang late 1800s. Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Kim Yun-bo (Korean, 1865–1938). Ten-panel folding screen; overall: 98.1 x 305 cm. Private collection

Cleveland Art, November/December 2018