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Unusual Art Exhibit Highlights Korea's Role in Spreading Buddhism


A collection of Buddhist art focusing on Korea's often forgotten role in transmitting Buddhism from China to Japan has begun an exclusive showing in New York. Most of the objects in the exhibition are in the United States for the very first time.

Historians have established that Buddhism evolved in Northern India in the first millennium B.C., entered China by the first century A.D., and was introduced in Japan in the sixth century. Until recently, however, little attention was paid to how the ancient faith traveled from mainland China to Japan.

Alexandra Monroe is the curator of the Japan Society exhibition, "Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan." She says the exhibit celebrates new research demonstrating that smaller kingdoms on the Korean peninsula embraced Chinese Buddhism, made it their own, and then transmitted Korean Buddhism to Japan.

"This is the first time that Korean art has been presented in a context of one of its great neighboring cultures and civilizations," she explained. "And it is certainly the first time it has been presented in the mediating, shaping, influential force in the transmission of continental culture to Japan - as a bridge of the Chinese culture and civilization in that development, that was then transmitted to Japan."

Ms. Monroe says Korea's role in the spread of Buddhism was "somehow marginalized" by art historians in China, Japan, and the West over the years. But she thinks turmoil on the Korean peninsula contributed to the oversight.

"Korea, having suffered a division in 1945, and a major civil war in the 1950s, simply has not had its own chance to focus on studying and promoting its own great culture and civilization," she said.

The exhibition presents masterpieces of the earliest Buddhist art ever created in Korea and Japan. Each room is crowded with bronze, wood, stone and iron figures, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of various sizes, lit from above with fiberoptic beams, giving them the appearance of holographs gathered in a dark chamber.

It is not apparent to the untrained eye which pieces are from Japan, and which are from Korea. But Professor Lena Kim, a historian from Hong-ik University in Seoul, South Korea, says there are key differences.

"You see the common iconography, the forms look similar," she noted. " But especially the facial expressions, you see the difference. Often the Japanese image is more solemn, more rigid. You see a smiling, intimate facial expression, which we think is a different aesthetic quality, in Korean images."

Professor Kim says the casting and carving in Japanese sculpture is often more detailed and precise, whereas in Korean figures, it tends to be more open, less clear-cut.

Many of the items from Japan come not from museums, but from functioning monasteries.

Exhibition curator Alexandra Monroe says that procuring art from living centers of worship differs greatly from procuring it from other museums.

"We contributed to specific ceremonies to de-sanctify [certain] icons before they traveled. A rather unusual budgetary item, you might say," she explained.

Ms. Monroe says there is a particular object in a North Korean museum she would have liked to include in the exhibition, but could not.

William Clark, Junior, President of the Japan Society and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, says that North Korea's refusal to lend the object is the result of current tensions between Pyongyang and Washington.

"The North has been very vocal on its comments on our activities in Iraq at the present time, and sees itself, maybe, as the next target. Everyone in the U.S. government has made great pains to assure them this is not the case, but never mind," he said.

Ambassador Clark says the exhibition is nonetheless a successful celebration of the common roots that connect all of East Asia, and is a must-see.

"You won't see it again. It's not traveling. It's all going back. You'd have to travel to the national museums of Korea and many temples in Japan and see them one at a time," he said.

The exhibition marks the first time a U.S. museum has received the official cooperation of both Korea and Japan in presenting a comparative survey focusing on both.