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May 2019

Vol. 161 / No. 1394

Uri Korea: Kunsthistorische und ethnografische Beiträge zur Ausstellung S. Knödel and B. Schmelz, eds.

Reviewed by Burglind Jungmann

Uri Korea: Kunsthistorische und ethnografische Beiträge zur Ausstellung Edited by Susanne Knödel and Bernd Schmelz. 423 pp. incl. 119 col. + 10 b. & w. ills. (Museum für Völkerkunde, Hamburg, 2017), £29.95. ISBN 978–3–944193–06–9.


The exhibition Uri Korea: Serenity in Acceleration, which opened at the Museum of Ethnology, Hamburg, in December 2017, presents a selection of the museum’s rich collection of Korean art and ethnographic material. Although this is not the first exhibition on Korea to draw on the collection, this show benefits from new information that has come to light in a recent examination of the collection by the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, Daejeon, Korea, and in a separate comprehensive evaluation of the collection.1 It coincides with an exhibition of the same title, organised by the National Folk Museum of Korea, Seoul, which introduces contemporary South Korean urban culture through everyday items. Both exhibitions will remain on view until December 2020.

The book under review is not only an exhibition catalogue for these shows, nor does it serve as an introduction to the museum’s Korean collection per se. With forty essays by twenty-seven different contributors, Uri Korea provides an abundance of information about South Korean society and culture, past and present. The book consists of three parts. Part 1, ‘Why South Korea?’, explains the work of the two supporting Korean government institutions and their cooperation with the museum. Part 2, ‘From Joseon to South Korea’, explores various aspects of Korean culture, from the Minjung socio-political movement of the 1980s to contemporary K-pop music, from aesthetics to the decline of old family structures and Bildungsfieber (zeal for high education). At the end of this section, insightful essays on shamanism, Buddhism in the twentieth century, Confucianism and Korean Christianity contribute another dimension to the picture of a society that continues to struggle with rapid Westernisation. Inserted into the larger topical discussions throughout the book are short studies of single objects from the collection, including a shaman’s robe, a night dish for palace ladies, the poster for a demonstration and a rosary for a car. Part 3, ‘Collection’, consists of essays on individual works of art from the museum’s Korean collection, including screens acquired in the early 1900s from Consul Eduard Meyer, who founded the first German trading company in Korea in 1883, some rare maps, an album by the genre painter known as Kisan (active in the late nineteenth century) and a woodblock print by Pai Unsoung (1900–78), the first Korean modern artist to work in Europe.

The essays in parts 2 and 3 are of mixed quality. Each does, however, offer an illuminating perspective. Particularly interesting are, for instance, Jan Creutzenberg’s essay on pansori – Korea’s tradition of storytelling and chanting – and its influence on contemporary performance art and theatre, and Marion Eggert’s exploration of the roots of Confucianism as a semi-religious social doctrine and its propagation in Korea. The screens discussed in part 3 provide good examples of Seoul’s burgeoning nineteenthcentury art market and its close connection with court painters. Thanks to their sumptuous colours and fine detail they were much sought after by foreign visitors to Korea. Only a screen decorated with peonies can be ascribed to a specific artist, the scholar and painter Heo Ryeon (1809–92). Exemplifying a new genre that evolved during the nineteenth century, a smaller screen titled One hundred fans was probably inspired by Japanese screens (Fig.6). It is unique in its playful depiction of a great variety of flat Korean-style fans and folding fans, some opened, others half or entirely shut. The highly naturalistic yet lively rendering is testament to the professional painter’s skill; some of the folding fans are intricately decorated with motifs closely resembling extant works by the famous genre painter Kim Hong-do (1745–c.1806).

At the beginning of part 3, Susanne Knödel, who curated the Uri Korea exhibition and wrote half of the short objects studies, offers a succinct analysis of two stone sculptures, probably dating from the nineteenth century. They represent civil servants of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) that were originally placed as guardian figures on the tomb of a high-standing personality. Knödel raises important questions relating to issues of provenance and restitution. She acknowledges that the guardian figures were illegally acquired by their former owner, reaching the museum at a time when such questionable provenance was still overlooked. She also reports that Korean authorities first decided to leave the statues in Hamburg on loan but are now considering to have them returned to Seoul, where they would be added to a great number of similar statues outside the National Folk Museum. It remains open to question whether their exposure to the elements is advisable and whether, given the rarity of such objects in European collections, it would not be better if they remained in Hamburg, where they serve as ‘ambassadors’ of Korean culture.

As might be expected from a publication of such a broad scope there are a few typos and errors. Some essays follow the McCune- Reischauer transliteration system, others use the Revised Romanisation System, but at least each system is used consistently within one text. One of the contributors, Jiyeon Kim, received her Ph.D. in 2009 but is listed as MA. It is also unfortunate that the text is accessible only to readers of German. Nonetheless, given the difficulty of finding appropriate expertise on Korea, one has to congratulate the museum, Knödel and her editorial staff for their achievement. Providing a wealth of valuable information and visual material, the book can be recommended as a textbook on Korean culture.


1 For the detailed report, see National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage: Korean Collection at the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg, Germany. (Catalogue of Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage, 36), Daejeon 2017.