Asian Accents: This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the diverse range of artistic influences from Asia in the arts and culture of Southern California.
The Getty Museum is not usually a great destination for Asian art lovers. The important Los Angeles art institution is much better known for its Greek and Roman antiquities, European paintings and drawings, and European and American photographs. Nor do we typically hear of an object in its collection improving international relations. News stories have tended to focus on other nations' accusations that it illegally acquired their artifacts. A new exhibition at the Getty Museum, "Looking East: Rubens' Encounter with Asia," presents a brilliant study of a European artist's curiosity about Asia and the impact Christian missionaries had on cultural and artistic exchange between Europe and Asia (not just the Americas!). More importantly, however, the exhibition is the culmination of years of artistic and intellectual exchange between the US and Korea and is an inspiring example of a Southern California art institution bringing cultures together.
Sometime around the year 1617, the Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens drew a figure of a man wearing white robes with long sleeves and a black hat made of fine gauze. The man's fine bone structure and his direct stare challenges to the viewer to stare back and to wonder who he is. Where is he from? What is he wearing? How did he become the subject of a Rubens drawing at a time when very few Asians were in Europe?
The drawing, known as "Man in Korean Costume," was apparently well known in Rubens' time. A copy by one of his pupils is included in the exhibition. In 1774, the British artist William Baillie reworked and reversed the image in a print, inscribing it, "Siamese Ambassador Who attended the Court of King Charles I." The figure was generally considered Siamese until 1934, when British scholar Clare Stuart Wortley (crediting British Museum curator Basil Gray) pointed out that, based on the figure's headgear, the costume was actually Korean. For decades after this, the drawing remained in a private British collection and did not receive significant international attention.
It wasn't until the drawing was acquired by the Getty in the 1983 that it came under close academic scrutiny, in particular by Korean scholars keen to determine who the figure in Korean costume could be. One Korean historian claims he was the "Joseon Man," a Korean man enslaved by invading Japanese armies in the late 16th century, hired by a Dutch merchant in Japan as an attendant, and then brought back to the Netherlands. Other Korean scholars argue that he is Antonio Corea, a freed Korean slave who resided in Rome around 1600. But no documentation exists to prove that Rubens met or drew either of these men. Korean curiosity about the identity of the figure has made the drawing famous in Korea. It has been lent twice to museums in Seoul. More remarkably, the Getty drawing inspired a Korean novel in 2002 by O Se-yeong entitled "Beniseu ui Kaesong sangin (The Gaesong Merchant of Venice)" and even a Korean musical!
The exhibition at the Getty breaks new ground in the study of this mysterious drawing, presenting the work in a truly global setting, as befits a major art institution located in a culturally diverse city. Exhibition curator Stephanie Schrader, a specialist in European Baroque painting and Rubens, collaborated with a German scholar Burglind Jungman, Professor of Korean Art History at UCLA (and the only Korean art professor in the U.S.), and with several costume scholars from Korean national museums to position the drawing within the context of 17th-century European and Korean culture.
Convinced that the drawing depicts a man of unknown origin dressed in Korean costume, rather than a specific Korean model, Schrader explores the costume itself, examining its possible role in trade, religion and politics in both Europe and Korea. For Europeans of that time, Asia was a destination for trade and Jesuit missionary work. Merchants and Jesuit priests alike brought exotic garments back with them from Asia and some commissioned Rubens and his contemporaries to portray them wearing these robes. This was not simply fancy dress. As the exhibition demonstrates, a portrait of a Jesuit priest in Chinese robes would symbolize his success spreading Christianity in China. Similarly, in paintings such as Rubens's "Miracles of St. Francis Xavier," the inclusion of exotic foreigners in native dress below the figure of the saint illustrates the spiritual reach of these renowned missionaries, in much the same way that contemporary Franciscan fathers in Southern California had artists memorialize the conversions and baptisms of native Americans in paintings and prints.
In contemporary Korea, such a costume would have been worn by a high-ranking government official. Shown for the first time outside Korea, two very rare examples of robes -- a skirted cheollik with long sleeves and a full-length, short-sleeved dapho -- worn together by a 16th-century Korean official help us better understand the structure of the voluminous robes of Rubens's figure. Two Korean portraits of court officials wearing similar robes provide a fascinating contrast with the Rubens drawing, while also showing traces of Western artistic influence such as shading, introduced to Korea from China, where it was taught by Europeans.
Peter Paul Rubens was not only an artist, but also a diplomat working for rulers in courts across Europe. He may not, however, have known of Korea's existence. In the early 17th century, when he drew this exotic portrait, the "Hermit Kingdom" of Korea was dwarfed by its larger, wealthier neighbor China and was barely visible on world maps. Now in 2013, South Korea is a powerful cultural force worldwide and almost half a million Korean-Americans live in California (most of these in the Los Angeles area). Yet, artistic and cultural exchange between the US and Korea has been limited. Says Schrader, "The Getty, with its Museum, Research Institute, Conservation Institute and Foundation was the perfect institution to develop an exhibition that examines cultural exchange." She believes that, just as Rubens was an artist-diplomat, the Getty too can be an institutional diplomatic force. "Seeing the number of Koreans in our galleries since the exhibition opened," she adds, "I now know that this is true."
The exhibition Looking East: Rubens's Encounter with Asia is on view at the Getty Center from March 5 to June 9, 2013.
Top Image: "Man in Korean Costume" by Peter Paul Rubens (Flemish, 1577-1640), about 1617; Black chalk with touches of red chalk in the face; 38.4 x 23.5 cm (15 1/8 x 9 1/4 in.); The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 83.GB.384.
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