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Flora and Fauna in Korean Art

March 13, 2010 - Spring 2011

Depictions of flora and fauna found in Chinese art as well as those indigenous to their native peninsula inspired Korean artists and craftspeople. In East Asia, as in cultures across the world, animals and plants served as living symbols with philosophical, historical, and metaphorical associations. Symbolic interpretations of particular plants and animals were widely shared throughout China, Japan and Korea.

Mythical creatures such as dragons and phoenixes were believed to protect against evil spirits. Plums, orchids, chrysanthemums, and bamboo were considered to be "four friends." Often the metaphorical meanings of animals and plants were based on word play. For example, the Korean pronunciation of the characters for "reed" and "old man" are the same (no), as are the words for "geese" and "comfort"(ahn); thus, traditional Korean paintings of reeds and geese represent a wish for a peaceful life in later years.

Drawn from the permanent collection, Flora and Fauna in Korea Art features approximately 50 objects, including paintings, ceramics and lacquer objects. Among the highlights will be a pair of Korean court paintings; one depicts phoenixes with their young and a paulownia tree and, while the other shows peacocks with chicks and a peach tree. These rare paintings from the nineteenth-century Joseon dynasty were recently conserved and remounted in Korea, and will make their debut in this exhibition. Directly attached to the wall of a Joseon palace, they would have functioned both as wall decorations and emblems of good fortune.

Owing to the fragility of works on paper and silk, the paintings will be rotated periodically.

Main Building


Hyunsoo Woo, The Maxine and Howard Lewis Associate Curator of Korean Art

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