The Asian Art Museum is presenting "In Grand Style: Celebrations in Korean Art during the Joseon Dynasty." The show opens October 25 and explores the intricate ceremonies of Korean's Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), which was among the world's longest reigning dynasties. The Joseon Dynasty presided over two periods of great cultural growth, during which Joseon culture created the first Korean tea ceremony, Korean gardens, and extensive historic works.
Through the art, “In Grand Style” explores four key themes: what it meant to be a king during the Joseon dynasty; royal processions and banquets; women at the royal court; and the lives and celebrations of the Joseon dynasty’s subjects.
The show displays intricate paintings, carved seals, embroidered robes, elaborate pins for equally elaborate hair styles and stoneware placenta jars used to store the placenta of a royal prince or princess. There is an red lacquer palanquin, upon which the king was carried by selected servants of high rank; a book of praise for King Taejo, made entirely of jade and inscribed with gold; a 64-foot-long handscroll depicting King Jeongjo’s famous procession to his father’s tomb; a royal throne; ceremonial robes; as well as kings’ and queens’ seals and protocol books with paintings of royal banquets.
For a fascinating look at the elaborate rituals around food for the court, check out the popular Korean soap opera, "Dae Jang Geum." It tells the tale of an orphaned kitchen cook who went on to become the king's first female physician. In a time when women held little influence in society, young apprentice cook Jang Geum strives to learn the secrets of Korean cooking and medicine in order to cure the King of his various ailments. It is based on the true story of Jang-geum, the first female royal physician of the Joseon Dynasty. The main themes are her perseverance and the portrayal of traditional Korean culture, including Korean royal court cuisine and traditional medicine. A tiny exerpt from the TV show plays on endless loop in the 3rd gallery.
Each gallery displays a different side of court ritual. The Lee Gallery exhibits the stoneware placenta jars used to store the placenta of a royal prince or princess. These jars were filled with herbs and kept in a special chamber for symbolic protection of the health of the royal infant. The Hambrecht Gallery features artworks from the 18th century, scrolls full of minuscule figures, representing royal processions and major events such as court festivals. The Osher Gallery contains symbols of the power of women through their sons (if the son became a king), their dynastic roles as queens and royal consorts, their robes, jewels and other paraphernalia of court life.
The grim side of Korean history is not what the show is about - of course not, when the focus is court history- but how can one ignore it? According to one article I read, 40 - 50% of the population were slaves and the remaining 40% were farmers whose labor supported layers and layers of bureaucracy and hierarchy.
What the show does not talk about but which is covered in the catalog ("In Grand Style") is the ferocious court intrigues, how few kings ascended to the throne without murdering their predecessors, how Korea was under attack through much of her history by both China and Japan. It is possible that the rigid performance of Confucian ritual was supposed to align Korea with the protection of heaven.
If so, it was a failure as was Korean's 13-year period as an "imperial power." The Japanese invaded in 1910, exploited the country ruthlessly and were only driven out in 1945.
Next came the Korean War and the division of the country into north and south, with the north being ruled by another dynasty, possibly one of the most paranoid and cruel in Korea's long history.
The Joseon period has left a substantial legacy to modern Korea; much of modern Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and the modern Korean language and its dialects derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon. The exhibit is full of exquisite objects and gives the viewer a comprehensive look at the life lived by the elite. For most of us, that is a previously unknown side of Korean cultural history.
"In Grand Style" opens October 25 through January 14, 2014