Korean influence on Japanese art explored in new exhibit

Sunday, April 20, 2003

— The figure, cast in gilt bronze, sits on a pedestal, his right leg crossed over his left knee and his hand raised in a "Hello, there!" wave.

The statue is a seventh-century bodhisattva -- a Buddhist who aims to help other beings toward salvation -- discovered in Japan but Korean in style. Art experts aren't sure whether it was imported from Korea or created by a Korean sculptor living in Japan.

What they do know is that it exemplifies the way Korea influenced the development of Buddhist culture in Japan during the sixth to ninth centuries, when the religion first spread through Northeast Asia.

"Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art From Korea and Japan," on view at The Japan Society through June 22, features 92 works of sculpture, reliquaries, scrolls and decorative tiles, largely from national museums and temple collections.

It is the first time an American museum has received the official cooperation of both the Korean and Japanese governments in the presentation of an exhibit focusing on the two Asian countries. Only a stretch of water separates the nations whose relationship for much of the past century has been mired in antagonism.

In 1910, Japan seized Korea and proclaimed it a province. U.S. and Soviet forces ended the harsh Japanese occupation in 1945, and Korea was divided into North and South.

Just last September, communist North Korea acknowledged it had kidnapped Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s to train its spies in Japanese language and culture. And today, North Korea's nuclear ambitions pose deep concerns in Japan and around the globe.

"For centuries, Japanese and Koreans have considered themselves distant neighbors at best and bitter foes at worst," said Donald P. Gregg, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea.

"The turmoil that exists at the current moment, centering on North Korea, makes this kind of exhibit all the more important as it is a reminder of the flows of religious thought and culture that have been going on for centuries, for millennia," said Gregg, now the chairman and president of The Korea Society, one of the exhibit's organizers.

Similarities, differences

The Japan Society's exhibit opens with a primer on Buddhism: how it evolved in northern India, entered China and Korea and was brought to Japan in the sixth century.

There are about 300 million people today worldwide who practice Buddhism, which is based on "four noble truths": Existence is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the end of suffering comes with the achievement of nirvana; nirvana is attained through a set of actions called the "eightfold path."

While Buddhism's introduction to Japan by a Korean diplomat around the year 538 has long been established, the show seeks to flesh out the larger cultural and historic context of Japanese-Korean relations as they revolved around Buddhism.

In many cases, it does so by placing Buddhist sculpture from Korea and Japan side-by-side. Poses or artistic styles popularized in Korea -- like the infant Buddha pointing to the heavens, or a bodhisattva holding a jewel between both hands -- were mimicked in Japan within a century.

Differences exist, however. Faces in ancient Korean art have childlike expressions, with wide, innocent smiles; when they were reinterpreted in Japan, the sculpture's faces were often longer, with more reserved smiles.

"There is a kind of supreme refinement to Japanese Buddhist sculpture, Buddhist art. I feel in Korea you have a kind of supreme archaic, elemental, transcendent quality, a kind of purity, which might have come from the early encounter of Koreans with the faith," said Alexandra Munroe, director of Japan Society Gallery.

'National treasures'

Historic perspective aside, the show can be enjoyed on a purely aesthetic level. Most of the objects are on display in the United States for the first time, and six are designated as "national treasures" by their countries.

l Two life-sized Buddhas, carved out of cypress wood in Japan in the eighth or ninth century, sit cross-legged on pedestals depicting lotus flowers, much of the decorative golf leaf still present.

l Ninety-nine miniature, earthenware pagodas, made in Korea in the ninth century, are displayed in a room focused on architecture. They were hollow, then stuffed with bits of paper bearing magic incantations.

l A giant Buddha head, created out of stone in Korea in the latter half of the seventh century, exhibits a childlike, innocent facial expression and heavy eyelids.

In the exhibit's last gallery, the style and iconography of the artwork begins to diverge, as Japan developed diplomatic and cultural relations with rulers in China.

"There are other periods of Japanese and Korean cultural relations we could look at for another type of show," said Munroe. "But the peak of this early period is unmatched ever again, where cultural exchange equaled the level of diplomatic exchange. ... The sort of debt and openness of Japan to Korean influence is never matched quite at this level."