February 18, 2009
May 17, 2009
Korean art has played a key role at the Honolulu Academy of Arts since the museum’s inception. Academy founder Anna Rice Cooke was an avid collector of Korean ceramics, despite the criticism of some that she invested so much of her time and resources in “crockery.” One of her important legacies to the museum was the gift of more than 100 works of Korean art, establishing what has since become one of the finest Korean art collections outside Korea. And on opening day in 1927, many of them were on view in the “Korean Room”—possibly the earliest gallery dedicated to Korean art in the United States by decades.
Mrs. Cooke’s gift, although dominated by ceramics, included a few paintings, mostly purchased from the renowned Japanese art gallery Yamanaka & Company, based in Tokyo and New York. In fact, Yamanaka & Company lent works to the Korean Room for the opening of the museum, some of which have since been acquired as part of the permanent collection. In the Academy archives is a letter from Mrs. Cooke to the gallery proudly describing the Korean Room, along with a photograph of the first Korean installation.
One of the Academy’s, and Mrs. Cooke’s, greatest coups was the acquisition in 1927 of Cranes and Peaches (Haehakbandodo in Korean), a monumental pair of Korean screens. More than seven feet tall and lavishly made with gold and expensive mineral pigments, the 18th-century screens were clearly for imperial use. Featuring two East Asian symbols of longevity, the paintings may have been made to commemorate the birthday celebration of a prominent member of the imperial family, or to otherwise offer wishes for long life. This exhibition marks the 81st anniversary of the screens’ 1928 Honolulu debut in the Korean Room. The number is auspicious—81 is nine squared, and nine, having the same pronunciation as “long” in Korean, also symbolizes longevity in East Asia.
The screens are among the largest, most opulent paintings to have survived from the imperial court of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), but significant condition problems meant they have been displayed infrequently at the Academy.
In 2006, the National Research Institute of Cultural Heritage, an agency of the Korean government, offered to conserve the screens—a rare honor. They were sent to the Gochang Conservation Institute, one of Korea’s top painting conservation centers, where they underwent more than a year of treatments. In fall 2007, they were the focus of a special exhibition at the new National Museum of Korea in Seoul. The screens are on view at the Academy for the first time in decades. This is an exceptional opportunity to see one of the world’s most important works of Korean art.