But do I focus my review solely on the art or mention what the show does not? In the case of Korea, it's hard to ignore the Korean War, the current leadership in the north, Japanese exploitation of the country, including "comfort women" and even South Korean's dynamic but sexist society.
The curator of the show asked us what we think of when we think of Korea and for many, that would be the Korean war. The exhibit is an attempt to educate viewers on another side of Korean history, in this case, the upper 1%.
Some people on facebook said that they didn't want to hear about the other 99% of the society; that artists were always supported by wealthy patrons, wadda, yadda. But I think that what pays for the art can be as interesting and as integral part of a review as just looking at the pretty pictures.
The show displays intricate paintings, carved seals, embroidered robes, 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 hand scroll depicting King Jeongjo’s famous procession to his father’s tomb, seen as the perfect symbol of filial piety; a royal throne; ceremonial robes; as well as kings’ and queens’ seals and protocol books with paintings of royal banquets. There is a gorgeous screen, full of symbolic images, that went behind the throne and would be carried to wherever the king was holding court.
For a fascinating look at the intricate 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.
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% farmers whose labor supported layers and layers of hierarchy.
What the show does not talk about but which is covered in the catalog 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's 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 beautiful but looking at it is like viewing a tiny slice of Korean history, through the rose coloed glasses of privilege.