Hwajeong Museum, nestled on the edge of Bugaksan Mountain, northern Seoul, is an unexpected place to discover a rare extensive collection of Asian art.
It is a treasure trove of more than 13,000 pieces of East Asian artifacts, including Tibetan Buddhist paintings called Thangka, for which the museum is well-known internationally. The comprehensive collection of Asian art was amassed by Han Kwang-ho, the late former president of Boehringer Ingelheim Korea and an avid art collector for 54 years.
Hwajeong Museum (Hwajeong Museum)
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of its reopening, Hwajeong Museum is holding the exhibition “Luxurious Pleasure of Hwajeong” that showcases Korean, Chinese and Japanese art as well as its prized collection of Thangka, through Feb. 28, 2017. The museum is currently located in the quiet residential neighborhood of Pyeongchang-dong, Jongno-gu and was previously located in Itaewon where it opened in 1999.
Major Thangka pieces are on view on the first floor of the museum, attesting to the central position that Tibetan Buddhist artwork occupies in the museum’s collection. They were selected from more than 3,000 pieces of Tibetan Buddhist paintings, sculptures and scriptures, spanning from the 15th century to the present.
White Tara, 18th century Tibet (Hwajeong Museum)
“The founder of the museum began collecting Thangka in 1988 when he learned about the value of Thangka from the Japanese archaeologist Namio Egami,” said Kim Oak-in, a curator at the museum.
Most of the Thangka works in the museum’s collection were acquired in France and Germany, the countries where many Tibetan Buddhist artifacts were sheltered from the violence of China’s Cultural Revolution, during which Tibet’s temples were destroyed, Kim explained.
Under dim lighting, the paintings exude the flamboyant colors used to depict Buddha and the female bodhisattva Tara, Tibet’s popular Buddhist icon to this day.
Padmasambhava, 19th-20th century Tibet (Hwajeong Museum)
Han’s Thangka collection is one of the world’s largest and rarest. In 2003, it was exhibited at the British Museum. Han also made a generous contribution to the opening of the Korean gallery at the British Museum in 2000 by providing a 1 million-pound ($1.46-million) fund toward the purchase of Korean artifacts that would be exhibited permanently at the gallery.
“His Tibetan Buddhist painting collection tops other collections in terms of size and quality,” Kim said.
The East Asian art exhibition, on the second and third floors of the museum, is divided into three sections that show Korean, Chinese and Japanese art.
“Bamboo on a Rainy Day” by Lee Jeong, Joseon period (Hwajeong Museum)
Highlights of the Korean art collection include a bamboo painting by Lee Jeong, one of the most acclaimed bamboo painters of the Joseon Era and a book written by Han Ho, who was known for his exceptional calligraphy technique in the 16th century.
Chinese artifacts boast the glamor and sophistication of Chinese craft. An 18th century glazed enamel bottle features colorful images of dragon and phoenix, delicately drawn on the pottery surface.
Here, sculptures carved in extreme detail and with great precision capture viewers’ attention. Pieces on view include an ivory carving of a sponge gourd and grasshopper from the 19th century Qing Dynasty and a brush holder sculpted from bamboo from the 18th century Qing Dynasty.
Silver-mounted overglazed enamel bottle, 18th century Qing Dynasty (Hwajeong Museum)
“The Beauty” by Teisai Hokuba, Edo period (Hwajeong Museum)
The exhibition also features Japanese porcelains that represent the Kakiemon style, which stems from enameled ceramics that emerged in the mid-17th century in Japan. Meanwhile, Japanese story books with printed images offer a detailed glimpse of life and culture during the Edo period (1603-1868).