A Korean Masterpiece, Restored

December 15, 2011
Stephen Little, Curator and Department Head, Chinese and Korean Art

One of the largest traditional Korean paintings in the United States was unveiled last weekend in LACMA’s galleries of Korean art. This spectacular work, depicting the historical Buddha Seokgamoni (Shakyamuni) preaching at the Vulture Peak in India, was acquired in 1998, but was so damaged that it could not be displayed. Now, thanks to the generous financial support of CJ E&M America and other donors, the newly conserved painting is being presented for the first time in many years.

Buddha Seokgamoni Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak, Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 1755, Far Eastern Art Acquisition Fund

The painting was created in 1755, during the Joseon dynasty, and presents a visionary scene of the Buddha surrounded by a host of enlightened beings, including bodhisattvas, the Hindu Gods Indra and Brahma, and the Guardian Kings of the four cardinal directions. The scene is inspired by the Lotus Sutra, a pivotal text of Mahayana (Great Vehicle) Buddhism. The work is painted in ink and bold mineral colors on silk. When acquired, the painting had been cut into six irregular pieces and had suffered from extensive loss of pigment; during the conservation effort, the separated pieces were re-attached, losses patched, and missing areas of pigment inpainted.

Buddha Seokgamoni Preaching to the Assembly on Vulture Peak, Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 1755, Far Eastern Art Acquisition Fund

Led by Korean conservator Prof. Park Chisun and her team (including LACMA conservators), the conservation project took over a year to complete. Using traditional tools (knives, brushes, paper, silk, dyes, and mineral pigments), this process resembled nothing more than a painstaking and delicate surgery. The entire project was filmed in detail, and is now the subject of a five-minute video displayed in the same gallery as the painting.

Conservators working in the Korean galleries earlier this year

On December 11 LACMA celebrated the unveiling of the Vulture Peak painting with the presentation of the rare Yeongsanjae ritual: a combination of Buddhist chanting, music, and dance. Listed as an endangered cultural form by UNESCO, the Yeongsanjae is rarely performed outside of Korea, and the LACMA performance attracted an enormous crowd of observers. We are grateful to the Buddhism Promotion Foundation in Seoul whose support made it possible to bring a group of monks and dancers from the Kuyang Temple in Incheon, Korea to LACMA to present this riveting performance, which commemorates the Buddha’s sermon at the Vulture Peak through music and movement.

Monks from the Kuyong Temple in Incheon perform the Yeongsanjae ritual

LACMA has one of the finest collections of Korean art, and the largest Korean galleries, of any museum in the United States, and it is our intention to be the leader in the presentation of Korean art and culture in America. The acquisition, conservation, and unveiling of the Vulture Peak painting is a symbol of this commitment, and we are grateful to both the generous Korean population in Los Angeles, and to our many corporate and foundation partners in Korea, who are making this possible.