Korean Buddhist paintings returning home after centuries-long absence

A Korean Buddhist painting returned to South Korea as a donation from a private museum in the U.S. state of Virginia (Provided by the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation of South Korea)
A Korean Buddhist painting returned to South Korea as a donation from a private museum in the U.S. state of Virginia (Provided by the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation of South Korea)

GUNSAN, South Korea–Long ago taken to Japan and the United States under unknown circumstances, Buddhist paintings originally from the Korean Peninsula are returning to South Korea in rapid succession following an absence of many centuries.

These works of art are drawing attention as “cultural asset-class” works back in their homeland.

In June last year, Jong Geol, the 59-year-old head monk of Dongguksa temple, which stands in a section of the old port town of Gunsan in Jeollabuk-do province, was astounded when he looked at a Japanese auction site.

An antique dealer in Oita Prefecture had put an “antique Korean Buddhist painting” up for auction. He examined the expressions on the Buddhist monks and the musical instruments to verify that it was a Buddhist painting drawn on the Korean Peninsula.

Dongguksa temple, built during the time of Japan’s colonial rule and registered as a modern cultural asset of South Korea, also has supporters in Japan. Jong Geol contacted them, and they made a successful bid at “a high figure.”

The antique dealer who exhibited the piece explained that “a small temple brought it to me.” After a check confirmed that it was not designated a cultural property in Japan and customs authorization was obtained, the Buddhist painting came to Dongguksa temple the following July. The wide work measures 0.87 meters vertically by 2.24 meters across. An expert examined the painting and determined it was drawn in the 16th century, during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The reasons why it went to Japan are unknown.

Jong Geol says he searches for cultural properties from the Korean Peninsula and often checks relevant sites in Japan.

“I think cultural properties exhibit greater value simply by virtue of returning to their original location,” he says. “When they come back to their homeland, the Buddhist paintings probably feel at peace, too.”

Jong Geol plans to apply to South Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration to have the auctioned painting registered as a cultural asset.

Other Buddhist paintings have returned to South Korea, as well. One made from silk and measuring 3.2 meters on each side was unveiled in January at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul. A private museum in the U.S. state of Virginia had donated the piece to the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation in Seoul. The foundation determined it was painted in the southeastern province of Gyeongsangnam-do in or around 1730, during the Joseon Dynasty, but the identity of its original owner is unknown.

A foundation employee spotted this Buddhist painting online last May. According to sources, including the private museum’s records, at the start of the 20th century when the Korean Peninsula was a Japanese colony, the painting for an unknown reason was put in the hands of Yamanaka & Co., a Japanese art dealer. The company, renowned as a dealer in Oriental art that sold works of art from China and the Korean Peninsula in the West, had an office in the United States where the Buddhist painting was stored.

After the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941, the United States seized the company’s assets within its borders under a policy of economic sanctions against Japan. The U.S. government auctioned off the Buddhist painting in 1944, for which the private museum made the winning bid. But reportedly for the past 40 years it mostly sat in storage.

An investigation by the Cultural Heritage Administration found there are roughly 152,900 cultural properties from the Korean Peninsula in other countries. Of those over 40 percent, or around 67,000, are in Japan, while the next largest, at around 42,000 pieces, is in the United States, according to the administration.

The production of Buddhist paintings on the Korean Peninsula flourished during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392), when Buddhist culture thrived, and in the following Joseon Dynasty. Confucianism was the basis for managing the affairs of state during this dynasty, but the masses continued to believe in Buddhism as well.

There are around 300 Buddhist paintings produced in these two eras that are known to exist. Of these around 20 are in South Korea, while the vast majority are known to be in Japan.

The reasons why these works crossed the sea are unknown in many cases, but in South Korea it is widely thought that in general they were illegally plundered by the armies of Toyotomi Hideyoshi that invaded the Korean Peninsula in the late 16th century and during the period of Japanese colonial rule.

Yet according to Chung Woo-thak, a professor in the Department of Art History at Dongguk University in South Korea known for his research on Buddhist paintings, while damaged old Buddhist paintings at temples in Korea may be burned, in Japan they were treasured objects of faith.

“It is quite conceivable that the Japanese took back (to Japan) Buddhist paintings that would have been burned,” Chung points out.

Chung, who also researches Buddhist paintings from the Korean Peninsula that are now located throughout Japan, borrowed one such painting dating to the Goryeo Dynasty from a temple in Yamanashi Prefecture last October and displayed it in a special exhibition at his university’s museum.

The return of Buddhist statues stolen by a South Korean theft ring on the island of Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, has become a pending issue between Japan and South Korea, the repercussions of which have led to the postponement of cultural property exhibitions scheduled in both countries.

“This (dispute) is the time I want us to engage each other through cultural properties,” Chung says.

At the urging of Chung, the temple that owns the Buddhist painting he borrowed–worshipped as a principal image of Buddha since the temple was built around 500 years ago–loaned it out for the first time. The work delighted the eyes of many art fans, and last December it returned again to Yamanashi. In the future, as well, Chung intends to do what he can for cultural exchanges between Japan and South Korea through Buddhist paintings.

By AKIRA NAKANO/ Correspondent

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