Three laddered antlers of beaten gold rise from the crown, covered with small golden spangles that twirl at the ends of gold wires. In a royal procession, on a sunny day, swaying majestically under its solemn weight, the wearer's head must have seemed to be aflame.
No one sees this exhibit will ever again think of Korea as just a little offshoot of China.
The greatest collection of Korean art ever to be shown in this country opened recently at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It has been working its way east from San Francisco since May 1979 and will wind up its stay here at the National Museum of Natural History -- in a newly set up ground-floor gallery -- July 15 through September.
The crown is only one of a roomful of wonders, 354 pieces to be exact -- sculptures, pottery, paintings, masks, jewelry, figurines, scrolls and a gorgeous neolithic pot from 3000 B.C., the reason the show is called "5,000 Years of Korean Art."
From the earliest days, Korean culture naturally was influenced by China, and new ideas tended to travel through Korea to Japan. Yet what has always fascinated scholars was Korea's serene independence. Where the Chinese pursued technical perfection almost to the point of mania sometimes, the Koreans let their vases stand visibly lopsided with the glaze not quite covering everything.
The artist's personality comes through: We can believe that an actual person made this pot, struggled with the clay (which sometimes seems to resist in an almost human way: If the thing wants to slump a quarter-inch, let it slump).
An offhand charm and humor brighten many of the pieces. Drawings and pottery decorations are spare and strong. One may spot little clay figures copulating on the shoulder of a vase or a marvelously fuzzy tiger drawn with the face of a pussy cat. This in the same room with the famous 7th-century gilt-bronze. Maitreya, one of the most glorious
Buddhist sculptures in East Asia.
Many pieces were taken from 5th- and 6th-century royal tombs excavated just in the past few decades. The first of the five gold crowns -- whose antlers and leaves clearly indicate Siberian origins -- was dug up in 1921, the latest in 1974.
There are unanswered questions here: What could those little jade commas be? They look like cashews and dangle everywhere. Are they phalluses or fetuses or shrimps? They seem to have meant a lot to early Koreans.
On the other hand, some questions are answered. One item that turned up in the exhibit was a little incense burner with a lion top; Western scholars knew of its existence from its description by an astonished Chinese traveler who had seen it in 12th -century Korea.For years the Chinese tried to duplicate its delicate celadon glaze. Westerners assumed this famous trinket had disappeared centuries ago. Yet here it is. The Korean celadon, by the way, a fine light blue-green glaze, never again was to reach such lustrous glowing perfection after the Koryo period.
Another old friend is the 5th-century stoneware vessel in the shape of a warrior on horseback, a figure still used by the koreans as a sort of trademark. Somehow it combines the humor of a cartoon with a sense of massive presence, though it is only a few inches high.
Much work comes from the Silla (pronounced Shilla ), Paekche (Pecksha) and Koguryo kingdoms covering the first seven centuries of the Christian eras in, respectively the southeast, southwest and north of Korea. The later Koryo period lasted through the 14th century, and was followed by the long Yi dynasty ending in 1910. Each period reflects in its own way the attraction and resistance of Korean art with China and Japan. So far, few pieces have been found in what we call North Korea.
For some, the unique Korean pot shape with bulging shoulders, narrow top and flat bottom, is ungainly. But other shapes, modeled on animals and plants, have their own charm. One sensuously curving 12th-century water bottle in bronze with silver inlay suffers from bronze disease, a fungus (very contagious, if you're a bronze, curators warned) that leaves it covered with a whitish dust. The effect is curiously pleasing. And some of the pure white Yi pots cry out to be stroked, so smooth, so liquid are their slopes.
There is also a lovely Yi scroll of endless rivers and mountains that bears long minutes of study. A bench is provided for the devoted viewer, one of the small touches that make this beautiful show easy to look at, elegantly presented, yet not at all overproduced.
It is said that the best way to understand a culture is to compare it with its parent (China and Japan, England and America, Spain and Mexico). wHere is a culture that is at once child and parent, and its importance to everyone interested in Oriental art is obvious. We were prepared to be instructed by this Korean art; what we didn't expect was to be delighted.