Two New Shows of Asian Art Open at the Freer Gallery

A pair of exhibitions trace the evolution of classical art in Korea and China

A silver Chinese box in the shape of a flower, Tang Dynasty, late 7th to early 8th century
A silver Chinese box in the shape of a flower, Tang Dynasty, late 7th to early 8th century Photo courtesy Freer and Sackler Galleries

A delicately painted Korean wine pitcher, from the late 12th century. A massive marble Chinese burial platform, originally carved around 550 AD. An ornately decorated clam-shaped silver box, which was an elite Chinese household’s treasure in the seventh century. Through these treasures and many others, two new exhibits at the Freer Gallery trace the evolution of artwork in Asia over the course of centuries.

Cranes and Clouds: The Korean Art of Ceramic Inlay” features a range of stoneware vessels from the 11th through 16th centuries that exemplify one of the chief characteristics of Korean art from the era: the technique of inlay, known in Korean as sanggam. “Sanggam was one of Korea’s great contributions to worldwide ideas of ceramic decoration,” says Louise Allison Cort, who curated the exhibition.

The technique was an entirely novel way of embellishing ceramic art, typically used for tableware and ceremonial vessels. “Inlay involves carving design into the soft clay just after the vessel is formed, and then, with a small brush, using a liquid material to fill in the grooves,” says Cort. At the exhibition, the inlay decoraions seem to glow from deep within. Rather than appearing as surface decorations, the centuries-old intricate designs are crisp, as though created yesterday.

A kundika water bottle with inlay waterscape motifs, Goryeo perod, late 12th to early 13th century. Photo courtesy Freer and Sackler Galleries

The variety of jugs, bowls, plates and ornaments in the show demonstrate the many different decorative motifs. A featured item is an elegantly shaped water bottle known as a kundika. “It’s a perfect example of how glaze is combined with inlay color to create a landscape on the surface of the vessel,” says Cort. “You see a little world created there: water, ducks, plants, reeds and lotuses.”

In an adjacent gallery, the exhibition, “Silk Road Luxuries From China,” examines the exchange of luxury goods and artistic concepts that moved along the “Silk Road,”  a trade route that linked China to Central Asia during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). During the era, stability and prosperity brought about an interest in outside cultures and tastes across Central Asia, resulting in the fusion of artistic styles.

A silver bowl, at the center of the show, was excavated in China, but its inscriptions lead scholars to believe it was originally made by the Sogdian people, who lived in what is now Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan. “The appearance of objects like this in China would have been earth-shattering, revolutionary,” says J. Keith Wilson, the curator of the show. “Because at the time, bronze was the medium of choice.”

Soon, though, the arrival of items like this triggered a change in Chinese tastes, as they adopted gold and silver. ”Rather than import everything, they learned the techniques and employed them in their own way,” Wilson says. An array of elaborately designed silver boxes and bowls show the combination of foreign techniques with traditional Chinese motifs.

The exhibition also features a remarkable object that exemplifies the reverse: adaptation of Chinese cultural practices by Sogdian peoples in China. A large marble slab, purchased by the museum’s founder Charles Lang Freer in New York City in 1915, had long been a mystery. “When he bought it, it was unclear exactly what it was,” says Wilson.

But when matching pieces surfaced in other museums, experts realized its function: despite the Sogdian designs, the elements actually fit together to form a large funerary couch, a platform used beneath the coffin in traditional Chinese burial. “It combines Buddhist elements on the bottom part with these non-Chinese musicians and dancers on the side,” Wilson says.

The priceless artifacts shed light on the cultural forces that helped shape trends in classical Asian art over time. “This is not simply a China story,” says Wilson. “It’s a bigger, international story.”

“Cranes and Clouds: The Korean Art of Ceramic Inlay” and “Silk Road Luxuries From China” are on display indefinitely at the Freer Gallery.

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