History of Korean Sculputures

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The History of Korean Sculputures

 

 

Ancient Age

The earliest examples of sculpture known in Korea are some rock carvings on the Ban-gudae Cliff in Ulsan on the southeastern edge of the peninsula and some clay figurines of men and animals dating from the Neolithic Age. The Bronze Age saw the active production of bronze, earthenware and clay figurines, but it was not until the introduction of Buddhism that sculpture in Korea began to develop in both quantity and quality. Any old sculpture worth mentioning falls in the category of Buddhist art.

 

Goguryeo Period

Buddhist images were brought into the country when Buddhism was first introduced to Goguryeo in A.D.372. It is believed that not until several decades later did Korean artisans begin to make Buddhist images. Although there is no tangible proof, it is quite plausible that Goguryeo was the earliest of the Three Kingdoms to make Buddhist images, as it was the first to be exposed to the religion. The construction of temples such as Chomunsa and Ibullansa three years after Buddhism reached Goguryeo supports this assumption. Murals in tombs and many historic records also indicate that Buddhism greatly influenced the culture of Goguryeo.

Nevertheless, no Buddhist images that date before 500 have been found in Korea. A gilt-bronze image of a seated Buddha of the fourth or fifth century was recently discovered in Ttukseom in Seoul, which was part either of the Baekje or Goguryeo Kingdom, but it is also believed to be a Chinese import, as its style is strongly suggestive of the Northern Wei sculpture. If proven to be a Korean imitation of a Chinese Buddha, it would be the earliest example of a Korean-made Buddhist sculpture. As it is, the earliest Goguryeo Buddhas or indeed the earliest Korean Buddhas with definitive inscriptions of date appear only after the sixth century.

The rugged terrain and the harsh climate of Goguryeo's vast territory are reflected in its arts, which were heavily influenced by the temperamental and vital style of the Northern Wei bordering the kingdom on its continental side. The geometric quality of the Northern Wei art which accompanied the introduction of Buddhism, produced a straightforward style. It is not easy to define the style of Goguryeo Buddhas from the few extant diminutive gilt-bronze or clay figurines. Nevertheless, assuming these to be representative of the general sculptural trends of the time, a number of identifying characteristics can be drawn. The Goguryeo Buddhas have lean elongated faces, prominent usnisas (a protuberance on top of the head symbolic of the marks of Buddha) on mostly shaven heads, rigid cylindrical bodies draped by thick robes that have fish-tail folds at the hem on both sides, and hands that are disproportionately large. The boat-shaped nimbuses encircle not only the heads but also most of the length of the bodies and are decorated with crude but meticulously depicted flames. The pedestals, which are cylindrical, are finished with lotus petals carved with a masculine feel.

Embodying all the characteristics is the Tongsa Buddha. A gilt-bronze standing Buddha with the inscription "yeongga seventh year," which corresponds to 539, it was made at Dongsa temple in Pyongyang and was found in 1967 in Hacheon-ri, Gyeongsangnam-do province. The archaic smile of its elongated face, the rigid body draped in a thick robe and the hem of the robe that is pointed like feathers at the sides, all work together to produce its spiritual quality.

Another gilt bronze Buddhist triad with the inscription "gyemi year" as its casting date, which corresponds to 563, was uncovered in Seoul. It also shows the same characteristics. However, a relaxing of the tension and rigidity is seen in a triad bearing the inscription "sinmyo year," or 571. Though basically of the style influenced by Northern Wei, as illustrated by the symmetrical folds of its thick robe, a slight change in modeling is apparent in the fullness of its face and the much softer rendering of the hems of the robe that fluctuate in an M-shape. This is probably attributable to the influences of Eastern and Western Wei or even the early Northern Qi or Zhou which resulted in a new style very much Goguryeo's own. A number of clay Buddhas of the same style found in Wono-ri, Pyeongannam-do province (North Korea) are believed to have been made in the mid-sixth century, though they are without inscribed dates. As Goguryeo's artisans improved and Buddhism became firmly established, sculpture experienced many stylistic changes and a truly Goguryeo style developed around 560.

Baekje Period

It took time for Silla to officially accept Buddhism because of the kingdom's conservatism and geographical remoteness, but when it finally did in 527, the production of Buddhist images flourished. A Buddha about five meters tall was made in Hwangnyong-sa temple within two or three decades of Buddhism's acceptance as a state religion. Buddhist sculpture developed so rapidly that by 579, Silla artisans were exporting their works to Japan. This growth was made possible by the originality of Silla's artists and the cultural influences of the neighboring Baekje kingdom and Goguryeo Kingdom.

Examples of early Silla sculpture include a gilt-bronze standing Buddha which is believed to have come from Hwangnyongsa temple, a stone relief of a group of Buddhas on Mt. Danseoksan in Gyeongju, a Maitreya seated half cross-legged (National Museum collection) and a gilt-bronze standing bodhisattva excavated from Gochang (\Kansong Museum collection). Of these, the relief on Mt. Danseok-san best represents the techniques and style of early Silla. The giant Buddha of Hwangnyonsa temple, which unfortunately was destroyed, must have been of great artistic value as it is recorded to have been one of the three most important treasures of Silla.

The 7th century saw drastic changes in both the quantity and quality of Buddhist sculpture. The seated stone Buddha of Inwang-ri of Gyeongju; the headless figure seated half cross-legged in a posture of meditation on Mt. Songhwasan; a Buddhist group in Tapgok; a part of a stone figure in a half-seated meditational posture, and a stone relief of Buddha, both from Murya in Bonghwa; and a standing gilt-bronze bodhisattva (the former Deoksugung Museum collection) are some examples of this period that share the same stylistic traits. Some of them are portrayed in geometric abstraction, with some indication of Qi and Zhou influences. Some others display Sui and Tang influences, evident in their round, full faces, relaxed bodies and the realistic rendering of the garments.

The stone relief of Tapgok and the triad of Samhwaryeong best illustrate the Silla sculpture of the time. The Buddha, the central figure of the triad, is seated on a low stool in a rather awkward pose. With a low usnisa, the round, smiling face, the elegant rendering of the body under the thin robe, the shallow relief of the sparse folds which cluster at the knee, the Buddhist swastika on the forehead, the decorative knot of the belt, and the simple halo, all indicate a stylistic departure from the previous period. Chinese influences of the Qi, Zhou, and especially of Northern Zhou, are quite obvious. The triad is believed to date from around 600, pre-dating slightly a triad in Bae-ri, which is believed to have been made in the early 600s.

Silla Period

It took time for Silla to officially accept Buddhism because of the kingdom's conservatism and geographical remoteness, but when it finally did in 527, the production of Buddhist images flourished. A Buddha about five meters tall was made in Hwangnyong-sa temple within two or three decades of Buddhism's acceptance as a state religion. Buddhist sculpture developed so rapidly that by 579, Silla artisans were exporting their works to Japan. This growth was made possible by the originality of Silla's artists and the cultural influences of the neighboring Baekje kingdom and Goguryeo Kingdom.

Examples of early Silla sculpture include a gilt-bronze standing Buddha which is believed to have come from Hwangnyongsa temple, a stone relief of a group of Buddhas on Mt. Danseoksan in Gyeongju, a Maitreya seated half cross-legged (National Museum collection) and a gilt-bronze standing bodhisattva excavated from Gochang (\Kansong Museum collection). Of these, the relief on Mt. Danseok-san best represents the techniques and style of early Silla. The giant Buddha of Hwangnyonsa temple, which unfortunately was destroyed, must have been of great artistic value as it is recorded to have been one of the three most important treasures of Silla.

The 7th century saw drastic changes in both the quantity and quality of Buddhist sculpture. The seated stone Buddha of Inwang-ri of Gyeongju; the headless figure seated half cross-legged in a posture of meditation on Mt. Songhwasan; a Buddhist group in Tapgok; a part of a stone figure in a half-seated meditational posture, and a stone relief of Buddha, both from Murya in Bonghwa; and a standing gilt-bronze bodhisattva (the former Deoksugung Museum collection) are some examples of this period that share the same stylistic traits. Some of them are portrayed in geometric abstraction, with some indication of Qi and Zhou influences. Some others display Sui and Tang influences, evident in their round, full faces, relaxed bodies and the realistic rendering of the garments.

The stone relief of Tapgok and the triad of Samhwaryeong best illustrate the Silla sculpture of the time. The Buddha, the central figure of the triad, is seated on a low stool in a rather awkward pose. With a low usnisa, the round, smiling face, the elegant rendering of the body under the thin robe, the shallow relief of the sparse folds which cluster at the knee, the Buddhist swastika on the forehead, the decorative knot of the belt, and the simple halo, all indicate a stylistic departure from the previous period. Chinese influences of the Qi, Zhou, and especially of Northern Zhou, are quite obvious. The triad is believed to date from around 600, pre-dating slightly a triad in Bae-ri, which is believed to have been made in the early 600s.

Unified Silla Period

After Silla defeated Goguryeo and Baekje and unified the Korean Peninsula, the regional differences between the Three Kingdoms were integrated gradually and, with the assimilation of Tang Chinese elements, a new style unique to Unified Silla emerged around 700. Examples of the early Unified Silla period are the Buddhist guardian kings of Sacheonwangsa and Seokjangsa temples, the Buddhist triad of Gunwi, the stone relief of Buddha in Gaheung-ri of Yeongju, a group of relief images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas from Yeon-gi, and two gold Buddhas from Guhwang-ri. Each reflects the confusion of the transitional era while still retaining some regional elements. For instance, in the case of the triad of Gunwi, which is similar to the gold Buddhas of Guhwang-ri except for the facial depiction, traditional abstraction is combined with a new realism. This is seen in the modeling of the shaven head with a prominent usnisa, the solemn face with thick eyelids and elongated ears, and the dignified but rather crouched body which is supported by an angular pedestal.

Realism also became more prevalent in the early 8th century, but as can be seen in the Amitabha and Maitreya images of Gamsansa temple, it is mixed with idealistic elements. The curvilinear lines and the voluminous, elastic bodies of these two images are encountered repeatedly in the Buddhas of Gulbulsa temple, the seated Sakyamuni of Boriam Hermitage, the stone relief of Chilburam Hermitage, and the Buddhist group of Seokguram Grotto.

Needless to say, the Seokguram images are the masterpieces of the sculptural art as well as the supreme embodiment of the religious spirituality of the time. The image of the Sakyamuni Buddha in the rotunda of the grotto is testament to the genius of Korean sculpture, with its superb rendering of the round face, long brows, a perfect nose and ethereal smile, and the magnificent, lifelike body clothed in a thin robe that falls in shallow folds.

These idealized and realistic features and sensual resiliency disappeared gradually after Seokguram Grotto. This tendency is best shown in the newly discovered stone Vairocana Buddha of Seongnam-sa temple in Mt. Jirisan dated 766. By 800 there emerged a neo-realistic style which emphasized a solemness of facial expression and human proportions. Buddhas of this period are characterized by a subdued expression and a lack of vitality in lines and form. This style is most evident in the stone relief of Mt. Bang-eosan, which was made in 835, and the triad of Yunchigok Valley of Mt. Namsan, Gyeongju, which was made in 801. A number of Vairocana and Bhaisajyaguru Buddhas were made in the mid-ninth century in many temples throughout the country, including Dong-hwasa, Borimsa, Dopiansa, Chukseosa, Buseoksa and Beopjusa. All are variations of this style. In the later years, there appeared a tendency to exaggerate the upper part of the body. Buddhas of magnificent proportion were also made occasionally.

Goryeo and Joseon Periods

Goryeo dynasty, which succeeded Silla, proclaimed itself to be a Buddhist nation. The iron Buddha of Gwangju, the stone Buddha triad of Gaetaesa temple, the gilt-bronze Buddha of Munsusa temple and the wooden Buddha of Bongnimsa temple, all are representative of the best of Goryeo works.

The quality as well as the quantity of Buddhist sculpture declined rapidly, however, at the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Nevertheless, during the 15th century when Buddhism was suppressed by the government, Buddha images of good quality were still being made. Most of the existing Joseon images were made after the Japanese invasions of 1592-1598 when Buddhism recovered some of its former vitality and splendor. Buddhas of this period have their own unique qualities and merits.

Modern Period

Modern Korean sculpture was introduced to Korea in 1923 by young artist named Kim Bok-jin. He entered the Tokyo School of Fine Art in 1919, and won a entrance prize at competition which was held by the Japanese government in 1923. He returned home to become the first Korean ever to be trained in the sculptural art of the Western style. A few other students then enrolled in the same Japanese institution in order to study modern sculpture. Those artists, including Kim Jong-yeong, Kim Gyeong-seung and Yun Hyo-jung soon joined Kim Bok-jin in introducing sculpture influenced by European traditions to Korea. They were mostly absorbed with sculpting portions of the human body such as heads, torsos and costumes in a realistic manner, which they had learned in Tokyo and where academic realism prevailed. These sculptors were active in presenting works at national art exhibitions held annually under government sponsorship both in Seoul and in Tokyo. This early stage of modern sculpture suffered from a lack of creative inspiration despite the pioneering zeal of these early artists, who were largely obsessed with imitating Western sculpture and transplanting it to Korea's cultural soil.

These artistic limitations were also aggravated by the colonial situation. Since Korea's colonization by Japan in 1910, Koreans link to the outside world was largely colored by Japanese will. It is from this general perspective that the overall background and development of sculpture as a major aesthetic movement in modern Korean history should be viewed.

By the 1930s, however, the national circumstances were far from conducive to lively activity among artists, as Japan was pulling its colonial reins ever more tightly in preparation for World War II. In 1945 Korea was liberated, but the overall situation did not improve and actually became even worse for aesthetic creation, as the southern half of the peninsula headed into ideological conflicts and military confrontation with the northern half.

Admiration of Western sculpture breathed some life into the activities of Korean sculptors during this unstable period, however. Yun Hyo-jung met Marino Marini in Venice in 1952, and was greatly influenced by the famous sculptor and his works. Futhermore, in 1954, the work of Kim Jong-yeong was selected by the international sculpture competition held in England. It was the first time in the 20th century that Korean sculpture was introduced to Europe. Kim Jong-yeong, although in many ways a traditional scholar-artist well-trained in the Confucian classics, also became a pioneer of Korean abstract sculpture.

After the Armistice Agreement which brought the three-year Korean War to a cease-fire in 1953, art circles began to regain some vitality. A few large-scale exhibitions were held by private organizations, and these helped encourage a remarkable diversity in style and technique most visible in the fields of painting and sculpture. Among the exhibitions of notable significance were the annual membership show sponsored by the Korean Fine Art Association, and the Contemporary Korean Art Exhibition for Invited Artists sponsored by the daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo. The latter deserves special note for providing emerging artists of avant-garde tendencies the chance to display their works.

Modern Korean sculpture became firmly established by the end of the 1950s. As the conflict between the opposing schools of realism and abstractionism was increasing, sculptors began to employ a greater diversity of materials, including assorted metals and stone, thus breaking with their traditional reliance on plaster and wood.

Between the 1960s and the 1970s, Korean sculpture made impressive progress due to the country's rapid economic development. Dominating the Korean sculptural arts during this period of dramatic change were two major international modern art movements. The first of these was the so-called "antiformal abstractionism," first introduced to Korea in the early 1960s. The movement, which acquired a major impetus with the creation of the Korean Avant-Garde Art Association, breathed new life into the world of Korean sculpture throughout this period. Sculptors of this vein repudiated all natural forms respected by the traditional school of academic realism. They sought to give spontaneous expression to their emotions through nonrepresentational shapes. In the following decade of the 1970s, this emotional abstractionism faced a strong challenge from another new art movement that opposed its conception and style, called "aculptural conceptualism."

Sculptural conceptualism pursued pure abstraction, free from all emotional binds and connotations. In terms of style, artists of this movement favored simple and daring forms in contrast to those of the previous generation of antiformal vanguardism which tended to be complex and intricate. The 1980s experienced an unprecedented burgeoning of sculptors and sculptural activity. A number of young artists became nostalgic about past trends of a more humane nature, in reaction to the cold intellectualism of the previous decade.

Since the 1980s, Korean sculpture has embarked upon new and culturally diverse trends. Foremost among them is the establishment of a new realistic tendency by artists primarily concerned with restoring the communication between artists and the public. Genre boundaries between sculptures and other forms of arts were also being broken down. In addition, technology became a very important element in the sculptural art of this period. The video sculptures of Paik Nam-june were a starting point for these artistic movements. These trends all reveal the extent to which traditional concept of sculpture in Korea has been recast by the introduction of new media, which in turn has brought about a newer and more socially diverse relationship between the artist and the public.

 

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