A Los Angeles museum is showcasing some rarely seen religious art from South Korea. The exhibit consists of nearly 50 brushed-ink sketches of Buddhist devotional figures, many of them life-sized. These sketches were preliminary models for other religious paintings and are rarely displayed themselves. When each ink drawing was finished, it was covered with silk, hemp or cotton fabric and its lines, visible through the material, guided the artist.
What is unique about this art, says curator Keith Wilson of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is the identity of the artists. Beginning in the 14th century, Korea's Choson dynasty withdrew royal patronage from the kingdom's Buddhist temples, and the impoverished monks had to create religious art themselves.
The curator says the monks displayed the finished works in temples, but these draft sketches were rarely displayed.
"These kinds of images are not very well known," said Mr. Wilson. "They are kept by monk-painters as reference images. If they are going to make a new painting, they look at their old ink paintings to get ideas. Most of the examples of this type of painting that survive in Korea are kept by individual monks who receive them from their teachers in temples. So if you go to a Korean museum, you will not see these kinds of paintings either."
When Mr. Wilson saw the ink paintings in the collection of a monk in South Korea, he asked to borrow them for an exhibition. "What I found very compelling about them is the great beauty of the imagery and the strength of the brushwork," he explained. "The painting skills of the monks should not be underestimated."
The curator says the monks may not be professionals, but they are superb painters.
Most of the works in this display are from the collection of Abbot Pyongjin of Changan monastery near Seoul. The monk is himself an artist and created some of the works. He attended the opening of the exhibit in Los Angeles.
The monk says he entered a Buddhist monastery at a young age, studying and working under a senior monk, who invited him to help with painting. As he worked at it, his skills improved.
Abbot says this artistic tradition is important in Korean Buddhism.
He says paintings and statues of Buddhist figures create an atmosphere conducive to worship.
Curator Wilson says the exhibition of ink paintings spans the past 300 years and shows the expansive nature of Korean Buddhism.
"It shows a rather unique blend of indigenous Korean folk beliefs, which become part of Buddhism in Korea," informed Mr. Wilson. "Some subjects that are shown in the paintings like the Mountain Spirit or the Hermit are subjects that are not shown within the Buddhist pantheon in any other culture."
The ink drawings also include portrayals of an important Buddhist figure revered throughout Asia. Called Avalokiteshvara in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, the deity of compassion is known in China as Kuan-yin, the goddess of mercy. In Japan, the figure is called Kannon and in Korea, Kwanum.
A companion exhibition based on the museum's own collection explores portrayals of this figure, depicted as a man in the early Buddhist art of places like Indonesia, and most often as a woman in East Asia. The curator says there are various representations in Korea.
"Some more female oriented, others more male," said Mr. Wilson. "Some more humanistic in their representation, others supernatural, many arms, many heads, so that it reflects, I think, the range of subjects that were important in Korea, but it also shows how Korea was connected with the rest of the Buddhist world, emphasizing the importance of Avalokiteshvara."
Curator Wilson says the Buddhist figure remains popular throughout Buddhist Asia.
"The deity is the primary source for salvation, and so deities in any religion responsible for saving deceased souls become very important," he said. "They are your main source for hope, your main source for protection, and ultimate salvation."
The exhibition, "Drawing on Faith: Ink Paintings for Korean Buddhist Icons," will be on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through next January 11. The companion exhibition, "Salvation: Images of the Buddhist Deity of Compassion," will be shown through early July, 2004.