Joseon Dynasty Pieces Reveal Bier-y Good Times

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Joseon Dynasty Pieces Reveal Bier-y Good Times

It takes a savvy collector of Asian antiques to happen upon a Korean piece and discern the timeless beauty and unique styles marking works from the peninsula. To these avid collectors, discovering such Korean antiques, many in the form of wooden objet d'art, is like finding hidden treasure. The value of old Korean works lies both in their rarity and the quality of artistic expression, which is highly regarded by art experts worldwide. The international art dealer Sotheby's lists Korean antiques among its prominent collections, along with works from China, Japan and Southeast Asia.

A special chance for visitors to see such rare works is offered in an exhibition, "Rediscovering the Sculptures of the Late Joseon Dynasty," showing at Samsung Plaza's Rodin Gallery, near City Hall. Curated by the Ho-Am Art Museum, the show features more than 70 works on loan from other collections, all dating back to the 17th to 19th centuries.

Korea's aged artworks bear distinctive characteristics of northeast Asian art as well as heavy Buddhist influences. But what really sets Korean art apart is the spirit of local folk art and shamanism. The folk art touch means simpler but bold lines to express the sentiment shared by commoners. Many of the wooden figurines project a sense of humor with a twist of social satire.

The exhibition is divided into various categories such as Buddhist sculptures, tomb sculptures, shamanistic ritual statuettes and roof tile statues.

The late Joseon Dynasty era was the height of Korea's artistic sensibilities, and that led to great diversity and progress in sculpture. It was also the age of Korea's 19th century philosophical enlightenment based on seolhak, or the melding of Confucian tenets with intellectual influences from China and the West. In general, Joseon society was optimistic.

One of the most overlooked areas of Korean antiques is the delightful funerary statuary made during the period. The colorful wooden figurines crafted for funeral biers and shamanistic rituals are playful and represent a cross-section of Korean society of the time. Also of note are the stone statuettes of men and animals used to mark tombs. More human than earlier Korean works, and simple yet bold, the figurines even smack of modern art.

The funeral bier statuettes, full of vitality, affirm that belief in an afterlife was strong during the Joseon era. The figurines depicting the locals, ranging from scholars to servants to jesters, are both comical and charged with the universal spirit of life.

Buddhist carvings in the collection reveal elaborate details and excellent craftsmanship. Indeed, the wooden sculptures were done by expert craftsmen. Images of the Buddha and various bodhisattva are some of the best works; the sophistication and artistic sensibility intrinsic to Korean Buddhism are distinctive features.

For anyone remotely interested in Korea antique statuary, "Rediscovering the Sculpture of the Late Joseon Dynasty" is a must-see.

"Rediscovering the Sculptures of the Late Joseon Dynasty" runs through Sunday at Rodin Gallery. The exhibition is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and admission is 4,000 won ($3) for adults. For more information, call 02-2259-7789 or visit or

by Inēs Cho

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