‘Korean wave’ hits Cleveland Museum of Art with shows that go far beyond K-Pop and Squid Game

CLEVELAND, Ohio — The wave of exhibitions on Korean art that has swept American museums over the past year is breaking over the Cleveland Museum of Art in a big way this spring.

Two powerful shows that opened in March and April combine memorable artistic experiences with underlying messages about South Korea’s aspirations for greater visibility and appreciation.

In the current geopolitical moment, the shows, both of which are free, function as a reminder of South Korea’s importance as a Pacific Rim democracy and an important American ally during a period of rising military tensions with China, Russia and North Korea.

Images of missiles, tanks and soldiers guarding the 38th Parallel DMZ separating North and South Korea since 1953 are nowhere to be seen. Nor are there any references to South Korea’s turbulent politics, which some observers describe as a form of gladiatorial combat.

Instead, the exhibitions use the soft power of cultural exports — known in Korean as “Hallyu” — to raise awareness of South Korea’s creative energy in ways that reach far beyond Hyundai automobiles, Samsung gadgets, K-Pop hits and the Netflix Squid Game series.

Fashion and mountain peaks

The bigger of the two shows, “Korean Couture: Generations of Revolution,” which opened April 28 and is on view through October 13, explores South Korea as a rising global force in high fashion.

Designs by Andre Kim (1935-2010) for Salon Andre Kim are filled with motifs from nature, including butterflies and tree branches, with specific meanings in Korean culture.

Organized by Darnell-Jamal Lisby, the museum’s assistant curator of fashion, the show is touted as the first of its kind at a major American art museum. It includes the work of designers such as Andre Kim (1935-2010), who expressed nostalgia for the 500-year Joseon Dynasty in billowing, elaborately embroidered gowns and robes that project a glittering, elegant power.

Kim influenced succeeding generations of designers, including Lee Jean Youn, who translated the imperial aura of Kim’s apparel into flowing, multi-layered silhouettes that cascade from the body, rather than project from it, as in Kim’s designs.

A still from a video presentation of the Spring/Summer 2011 Paris Haute Couture collection by Lee Jean Youn

Also on view are the playful designs of Lee Chung Chung, including a 2023 unisex overcoat festooned with teddy bears. The show features the actual coat, plus a video of a model strutting down a runway in the garment, making the teddy bears bounce playfully as she strides.

A Chung Chung Lee design shown at Seoul Fashion Week Womenswear Fall / Winter 2023.
Image Courtesy of LIE.

Made of synthetic fibers designed to decompose naturally, the coat promotes ecological awareness along with post-COVID advocacy for cuddly emotional comfort. It also appears to reference popular concepts of cuteness in East Asian cultures, known as kawaii in Japanese or aegyo in Korean.

The second Korean show, which opened in March and is on view through September 29, takes viewers on an animated virtual exploration of a monumental, 10-fold screen painting titled “Seven Jeweled Mountain,” acquired by the museum in 1989.

Dating from the late 19th century, the painting is on view in a special display case in a corridor outside gallery 234 on the museum’s second level. Painted in a traditional brush-and-ink style, the panorama depicts a range of sharp volcanic peaks in today’s North Korea where legend holds that gold, silver, pearls, coral, seashells, agate and crystal — the mythical seven jewels of the work’s title —are buried.

The Cleveland Museum of Art acquired the panoramic, 10-fold Korean screen painting “Seven Jeweled Mountain” in 1989.

After scrutinizing the actual painting, visitors can enter the adjacent immersive gallery, where an entire wall lights up with a 10-minute video loop of animated scenes based on the painted landscape in the corridor outside. The video takes viewers on a virtual hike through the mountain landscape, narrated by the words of 16th-century Korean author Im Hyeong-soo (1514–1547).

The journey includes an overnight stop at a cluster of huts nestled in a snowy mountain pass, a hike to a cave, where a spring burbles with cold, sweet water, and a climb to an overlook, where clouds part to reveal a stunning vista of spiky peaks.

As a wall text underscores, the actual Seven Jeweled Mountain is a onetime site of pilgrimage that has been off limits in North Korea since the 1953 truce in the Korean war.

The museum describes the show as drawing a parallel between the “immersive” nature of 19th-century Korean landscape paintings and the actual immersive technology embodied by the video display. The painting and the video could also be interpreted as an expression of wistful yearning for reunification of two Koreas.

Building a brand

Both shows at the museum are part of a decades-long effort by foundations affiliated with South Korean government and business groups to raise awareness about the country. “Korean Couture,” for example, was supported in part by the Korea Foundation, founded in 1991, to build South Korea’s brand by promoting the study of Korean language and culture and by funding cultural events, exhibitions and Korean galleries in overseas art museums.

In Cleveland, the foundation recently contributed to the permanent and complete funding of the art museum’s curatorship in Korean art, a position held by art historian and Korean native Sooa Im McCormick, who joined the institution in 2015 and whose projects include the “Seven Jeweled Mountain” installation.

According to the Korea Foundation’s 2023 annual report, the Cleveland museum is one of five American art museums to receive support for curatorships in Korean art, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art.

The “Seven Jeweled Mountain” project grew out of a collaboration between the Cleveland museum and the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation, established in 2012 to survey, research and in some cases retrieve cultural heritage that has been taken abroad.

An immersive video in Gallery 234 at the Cleveland Museum of Art will explore the mystical terrain of “Seven Jeweled Mountain’’ now off limits in North Korea.

For part of the run of the show in Cleveland, the panoramic immersive video of the North Korean mountain will be on display at the National Palace Museum in Seoul. The exhibit there is considered a first-of-its-kind “Digital Homecoming’’ for an important Korean artwork held by an American collection, according to the Technology Research Institute for Culture & Heritage, the South Korean firm that developed the technology behind the display.

The Cleveland museum’s Korean exhibitions coincide with other projects in the U.S. this year and in 2023 that were supported by the Korea Foundation and/or organizations including the Hyundai Motor Co. and the National Museum of Korea.

Those efforts include “Hallyu! The Korean Wave,” a major exhibition of contemporary Korean art on view through July 28 at the MFA Boston; and “Shape of Time: Korean Art after 1989,” which closed in February at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Many of the curators and organizers of the shows were Korean-born or Korean American women, who are rising in influence in American art museums, as The New York Times noted last year. In addition to McCormick, they include Hyunsoo Woo, the deputy director for collections and exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Min Jung Kim, appointed director of the St. Louis Art Museum in 2021, a step that made her the first Korean-born director of a major U.S. art museum.

The position at the Cleveland Museum of Art held by Sooa McCormick, now
Korea Foundation Curator of Korean Art, has been permanently funded by the foundation and a matching anonymous gift.

Deep ties

Today’s partnerships between Korea and American art museums are rooted in relationships initiated after 1882, when Korea signed its first treaty of amity and commerce with the U.S.

The Cleveland museum’s relationship with Korea grew out of the philanthropy of Louis Henry Severance, the treasurer of Standard Oil, who in donated $10,000 in 1899 to build a new building for a hospital in Seoul that had introduced Western medicine to Korea soon after 1882. The hospital was renamed in honor of Severance in 1904. His son, Cleveland industrialist John Long Severance, continued to support the institution, which still carries the Severance name.

The younger Severance meanwhile became a devoted collector of Korean art, a generous benefactor of the Cleveland Museum of Art and the principal funder of the home venue of the Cleveland Orchestra.

A search of Severance’s name on the museum’s website lists him as the donor of 79 objects to the museum’s Korean Department. Among them are celadon ceramics on view in the Korean Gallery today. The gallery, No. 236 on the museum’s second level, also features a collection of traditional Korean landscape paintings organized by McCormick as a complement to the “Seven Jeweled Mountain” exhibit.

What makes Korean art Korean?

Taken all together, the couture exhibition, the immersive video and the Korean Gallery raise a compelling art historical question: What makes Korean art Korean? It’s obvious to the casual eye that Chinese and Japanese art exerted powerful influences on the small, peninsular nation extending into the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan from northeastern China. Those artistic influences paralleled the introduction of Buddhism and Confucianism from China.

But what sets Korean art apart from that of its neighbors? McCormick has explored answers to that question in recent years with innovative exhibitions including “Chaekgori,” a 2017 show that explored the Korean genre of trompe l’oeil still-life screen paintings focusing on books and writing implements displayed on neatly ordered bookshelves.

Books and Scholars’ Accouterments, late 1800s. Yi Taek-gyun (Korean, 1808-after 1883). Ten-panel folding screen; ink and color on silk; overall: 197.5 x 395 cm (77 3/4 x 155 1/2 in.); painting only: 139.3 x 330.8 cm (54 13/16 x 130 1/4 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund 2011.37

She followed up in 2020 with “Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea,’’ in 2020, which raised the visibility of anonymous women textile artists in the patriarchal society of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).

A visitor to the Korean Gallery today could glean insights about Korean-ness in Korean art that includes distinctive shapes, glazes and decorations on the celadon ceramics collected by Severance.

The landscape paintings on view in the gallery resonate with the “Seven Jeweled Mountain” immersive video by emphasizing the Korean fascination with images that map natural environments and cityscapes.

For example, the gallery display now centers on a late 19th-century 10-panel screen painting of a birds-eye view of Pyongyang, now the capital of North Korea and, like the Seven Jeweled Mountain, largely off limits to the outside world.

Cityscape of Pyongyang (평양도병), late 1800s. Kim Yoon-bo 김윤보 (Korean, 1863–1938). Ten-panel folding screen; ink and color on silk; painting: 98.3 x 307.3 cm; overall framed: 210.2 x 325.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art,

Severance and Greta Millikin Purchase Fund

Insights through couture

The Korean couture exhibition offers numerous insights about the desire of South Korean designers to assert a national identity while engaging in a global cultural dialogue.

A garment designed in 2023 for the spring 2024 collection by Lie Sang Bong consists of colorful polyester fabric that descends from the broad brim of a hat to conceal the body of wearer entirely, perhaps a reference to the idea of Korea as a “hermit kingdom,” an epithet once applied to the entire country but now used to describe North Korea.

A hat-cum veil by Korean designer Lie Sang Bong, born 1954, veils the wearer in a fluted column of brightly colored fabric.

In a more extroverted way, a fall 2008 dress by Lie sculpts the wearer’s body in clusters of navy-colored circles of wool fabric, embodying Buddhist notions of circles of life bounded by reincarnation.

Paris_fashion_week_februay_march_2008 LIE_SANG_BONG Ready to wear fall winter 2008_09

For a 2013 evening dress, Lie drew inspiration from a high hooped skirt and cinched waist designed by Parisian couturier Hubert de Givenchy in the late 1960s.

But Lie constructed his garment with scores of butterflies rendered in colorful snippets of polyvinyl chloride intended to echo the colors of Korean architectural decoration, and to embody life cycles in the natural world. The dress asserts a Korean viewpoint while participating in an international artistic call-and-response, just like South Korea itself.

It’s all part of Hallyu, the wave of South Korean film, art, fashion and music that’s immersing global culture. The two new shows at the Cleveland Museum of Art place Northeast Ohio directly into that current.

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