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Korean Sculpture


Ancient Korean Sculpture

Sculpture, in the most primitive sense of the word, must have started in the Paleolithic Age, although no example that can be attributed to that time has been found. The earliest examples of sculpture known in Korea are some rock carvings on the Pan-gudae Cliff in Ulsan 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 sculpture worth mentioning falls in the category of Buddhist sculpture.

Koguryo Period Sculpture (37 B.C.~A.D. 668)

Buddhist images were brought into the country when Buddhism was first introduced to Koguryo in 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 Koguryo 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 Ch'omunsa and Ibullansa three years after Buddhism reached Koguryo supports this assumption. Murals in tombs and many historic records also indicate that Buddhism greatly influenced the culture of Koguryo.

Nevertheless, no Buddhist images made by Koreans have been found that date before 500. A gilt-bronze image of a seated Buddha of the fourth or fifth century was recently discovered in Ttuksom in Seoul, which was part either of the Paekche or Koguryo 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 Koguryo 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 Koguryo'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 Koguryo 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 Koguryo Buddhas have lean elongated faces, prominent usuisas (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 "Yongga seventh year," which corresponds, to 539, it was made at Tongsa temple in P'yongyang and was found in 1967 in Hach'non-ri, Kyongsangnam-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 a spiritual quality.

Another giltbronze Buddhist triad with the inscription "Kyemi 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 "Shinmyo 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 Koguryo's own. A number of clay Buddhas of the same style found in Wono-ri, P'yong-annam-do province (North Korea) are believed to have been made in the mid-sixth century, though they are without inscribed dates. As Koguryo's artisans improved and Buddhism became firmly established, sculpture experienced many stylistic changes and a truly Koguryo style developed around 560.

Paekche Period Sculpture (18 B.C.~A.D. 660)

Buddhism was introduced to Paekche via Eastern Jin by an Indian monk named Maranant'a in 384, 12 years after it was introduced to Koguryo. The production of Buddhist images in Paekche is believed to have begun no later than the fifth century, because the aforementioned diminutive gilt-bronze Buddha excavated in Seoul implies that local imitations of the Chinese and Indian Buddhas could have been made by that time, and because ancient records show that a temple was built in 385 in Hansong, today's Seoul. However, Paekche images inscribed with fifth century dates have not yet been found. The earliest examples date from the sixth century and include a stone triad and some clay images from Chongnimsa temple, a giltbronze standing Buddha from the site of Powonsa temple, some Buddhas carved around a boulder in Yesan, and a gilt-bronze Buddha with the name Chong Chi-won inscribed on it. Though retaining the traditions of Wei and the Koguryo style exemplified by the Wono-ri Buddha in their refined faces, thick robes and graceful forms, these Buddhas show signs of Paekche modifications.

Characteristics unique to Paekche sculpture are clearly evident in all the Buddhist images of the late sixth century, including an agalmatolite seated Buddha and a gilt-bronze bodhisattva from Kunsu-ri, and stone reliefs of Buddhist triads in Sosan and T'aean. It is recorded that artisans and painters were invited to Paekche from Liang China in 541. The arts of the southern dynasties of China, therefore, must have influenced Paekche sculpture from the mid-sixth century onward. Whatever their influences were, Paekche Buddhas of the time are characterized by warm, human attributes. The small usnisa, the stately but relaxed body, the voluminous curvature under the thick robe, the diminished side-flare of the hems of the robe, the folds of the robe of the bodhisattva that cross each other in the shape of an "X," and the simple but refined rendering of the lotus petals of the pedestals, are all definitely local traits Paekche artisans developed from the Chinese styles of the late Northern Wei, Qi and Zhou. What makes the Paekche Buddha truly unique is the unfathomable benevolent smile that graces its round pleasant face. That expression, often labeled the "Paekche smile," is one of a kind.

Influenced by the Sui and Tang dynasties of China, Buddhist images became elongated and slender around 600. The modeling of the bodies became much fuller and some bodhisattvas were depicted slightly twisted with S-shaped postures rather than in upright, static positions. These traits are best illustrated by a gilt-bronze standing bodhisattva in the Cha Myong-ho collection, a gilt bronze standing Buddha from Kyuam-myon in Puyo, and a seated stone Sakyamuni in Yondong-ri, Iksan, Chollabuk-do province. Paekche sculpture can be described as being more refined and subtle, the result, perhaps, of its more temperate climate and fertile lands.

Shilla Period Sculpture (57 B.C~A.D. 668)

It took time for Shilla 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 Hwangnyongsa temple within two or three decades of Buddhism's acceptance as a state religion. Buddhist sculpture developed so rapidly that by 579, Shilla artisans were exporting their works to Japan. This growth was made possible by the originality of Shilla's artists and the cultural influences of the neighboring Paekche kingdom and Koguryo Kingdom.

Examples of early Shilla sculpture include a gilt-bronze standing Buddha which is believed to have come from Hwangnyong-sa temple, a stone relief of a group of Buddhas on Mt. Tansoksan in Kyongju, a Maitreya seated half cross-legged (National Museum collection) and a gilt-bronze standing bodhisattva excavated from Koch'ang (Kansong Museum collection). Of these, the relief on Mt. Tansoksan best represents the techniques and style of early Shilla. The giant Buddha of Hwangnyongsa 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 Shilla.

The seventh century saw drastic changes in both the quantity and quality of Buddhist sculpture. The seated stone Buddha of Inwang-ri of Kyongju; the headless figure seated half cross-legged in a posture of meditation on Mt. Songhwasan; a Buddhist group in T'apkok; a part of a stone figure in a half-seated meditational posture, and a stone relief of Buddha, both from Mulya in Ponghwa; and a standing gilt-bronze bodhisattva (the former Toksugung 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 T'apkok and the triad of Samhwaryong best illustrate the Shilla 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, antedating slightly a triad in Pae-ri, which is believed to have been made in the early 600s.

Unified Shilla Period Sculpture (668~935)

After Shilla defeated Koguryo and Paekche 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 Shilla emerged around 700. Examples of the early Unified Shilla period are the Buddhist guardian kings of Sach'eonwangsa and Sokchangsa temples, the Buddhist triad of Kunwi, the stone relief of Buddha in Kahung-ri of Yongju, a group of relief images of Buddhas and bodhisattvas from Yon-gi, and two gold Buddhas from Kuhwang-ri. Each reflects the confusion of the transitional era while still retaining some regional elements. For instance, in the case of the triad of Kunwi, which is similar to the gold Buddhas of Kuhwang-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 eighth century, but as can be seen in the Amitabha and Maitreya images of Kamsansa 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 Kulbulsa temple, the seated Sakyamuni of Poriam Hermitage, the stone relief of Ch'ilburam Hermitage, and the Buddhist group of Sokkuram Grotto.

Needless to say, the Sokkuram 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 of plastic forms and sensual resiliency disappeared gradually after Sokkuram Grotto. This tendency is best shown in the newly discovered stone Vairocana Buddha of Songnamsa temple, Mt. Chirisan 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. Pangosan, which was made in 835, and the triad of Yunchigok Valley of Mt. Namsan, Kyongju, 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 Tonghwasa, Porimsa, Top'iansa, Ch'uksosa, Pusoksa and Popchusa. 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.

Koryo (918~1392) and Choson (1392~1910) Period Sculpture

Koryo dynasty, succeeded Shilla, proclaimed itself to be a Buddhist nation. The iron Buddha of Kwangju, the stone Buddha triad of Kaet'aesa temple, the gilt-bronze Buddha of Munsusa temple and the wooden Buddha of Pongnimsa temple, all are representative of the best of Koryo works.

The quality as well as the quantity of Buddhist sculpture declined rapidly, however, at the beginning of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910). Nevertheless, during the 15th century when Buddhism was suppressed by government, Buddha images of good quality were still being made. Most of the existing Choson 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.

Koryo (918~1392) and Choson (1392~1910) Period Sculpture


Koryo dynasty, succeeded Shilla, proclaimed itself to be a Buddhist nation. The iron Buddha of Kwangju, the stone Buddha triad of Kaet'aesa temple, the gilt-bronze Buddha of Munsusa temple and the wooden Buddha of Pongnimsa temple, all are representative of the best of Koryo works.

The quality as well as the quantity of Buddhist sculpture declined rapidly, however, at the beginning of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910). Nevertheless, during the 15th century when Buddhism was suppressed by government, Buddha images of good quality were still being made. Most of the existing Choson 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 Sculpture (1923-)


Modern Korean sculpture was introduced to Korea in 1923 by young artist named Kim Pok-chin. 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 Chong-yong, Kim Kyong-sung and Yun Hyo-jung soon joined Kim Pok-chin 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 more hostile for aesthetic creation, as the southern half of the peninsula headed into ideological conflicts and military confrontation with the northern half.

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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 Chong-yong was selected by the international sculpture competition which was held in England. It was the first time in the 20th century that Korean sculpture was introduced to the Europe. Kim Chong-yong, although in many ways a traditional scholar-artist well-trained in the Confucian classics, also became the 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 organized 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 leading 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 "sculptural 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 sculpture of Paik Nam-june was a starting point for these artistic movement. 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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