The Korea Herald


National Museum of Korea to show Buddhist paintings, drawings

By Choi Si-young

Published : Feb. 21, 2024 - 14:41

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A 20th-century ink drawing of Buddhist figures donated by the late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee. (National Museum of Korea) A 20th-century ink drawing of Buddhist figures donated by the late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee. (National Museum of Korea)

The National Museum of Korea is mounting an exhibition through July 21 dedicated to exploring Buddhist paintings and drawings from the 19th to 20th century, a period the museum says is marked by Western influence.

Of 37 pieces on exhibit -- all by monk painters -- the painting of Amitabha Buddha preaching in paradise is a textbook example of such influence, according to a NMK official, citing the three-dimensional effect of the drawn figures.

Another painting carries the name of the painter himself, a rare notation for Buddhist paintings. “This means the monk painter saw himself as an independent creator of the artwork, leaving behind his personality so to speak,” another NMK official said.

Chugyeon, one of the monk painters, is credited with “Simnyuk-nahan” or the “Sixteen Arhats.” The painting depicts 16 disciples of Buddha who have chosen to stay behind in the world to save mankind, and who are all enshrined as portraits or statues at a Buddhist temple.

The presentation also features works gifted to the museum by the late Samsung Group Chairman Lee Kun-hee. Lee donated 167 pieces -- all Buddhist paintings or drawings -- according to the museum.

"Suwolgwaneumdo,” or the “Water-Moon Avalokiteshvara” -- a Buddhist deity of compassion -- is on display for the first time since the donation.

Also on display for the first time are ink drawings of Buddhist figures by Cheonyeo, a monk painter considered one of the representative Buddhist artists of the Jeolla provinces during the 19th century.

“The late 19th and early 20th century is a period we’re especially paying attention to, because that’s when the status of Buddhism and Buddhist art in general was going through some change,” an NMK official said.

“So the exhibition is meant to give visitors a snapshot of that change or the potential driver of that shift and how the change there led to contemporary Buddhist art,” the official added.

Meanwhile, the NMK said preparations are underway for joint exhibitions with overseas museums.

In June, the NMK and Denver Art Museum in Colorado are to explore Native North American art from the 19th century in an exhibition in Seoul. From July to September, another joint show with the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of China will feature lacquerware from the three countries, also in Seoul.

A touring exhibition is also being arranged.

The tour will kick off in November 2025, starting with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. It will then proceed to the Art Institute of Chicago in March 2026 and to the British Museum in September the same year. The theme of the exhibition has not been disclosed.