10 February – 19 April 2023

State Anteroom of the Armoury Chamber

Organizer and participant:
The Moscow Kremlin Museums

Two-section chest ‘Nong’

The Moscow Kremlin Museums are introducing the exhibition on the history of the gifts presented by the Extraordinary Korean Embassy to Emperor Nicholas II on the occasion of his coronation in 1896. The visit of the Korean delegation to the solemn ceremony earned a special place in the history of Korea, as it was the first mission by officials of this then 'closed' country to Europe. However, it was took place in difficult political circumstances caused by Japan's intervention in Korea, in which Russia was providing substantial assistance to the monarch of Korea Gojong.

On display are five remarkable works by Korean masters: a two-section black-lacquered chest of 'Nong' type, two incense burners and two scrolls painted by Jang Seung-eop (1843-1897), known by his pseudonym Owon, who was one of the most distinguished Korean artists of the late 19th century. These pieces are a vivid example of Russian-Korean cooperation and mutual assistance.

Soon after the celebrations were over, the gifts from various countries and societies presented to the Emperor were unveiled in the halls of the Armoury Chamber and the Grand Kremlin Palace. World War I and the revolutionary events of 1917, however, disrupted the routine of the museum and led to the loss of many historical connections. The gifts from the Korean delegation featured at this exhibition had remained on display in the Armoury Chamber until the early 1930s, but their relation to both Korea and the coronation of Emperor Nicholas II had already been consigned to oblivion in the 1920s.

It was only in the mid-2010s that the research work by the specialists of the Moscow Kremlin Museums made it possible to establish the contents and fate of the gifts and correctly attribute the objects, together with the colleagues from the State Museum of Oriental Art. The following significant stage in its history, which allowed this display to take place, was the restoration work required to minimize damage caused to the objects with time.

A two-section black-lacquered chest of 'Nong' type is one of the most spectacular pieces at the exhibition, but it was the most seriously damaged one by the beginning of the 21st century. The unique restoration of 2020-2022 is another example of cooperation between Russia and Korea. The work was restored thanks to the financial support of the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation – it is the first experience of its kind for both Russian museums and the Foundation. Specialists from the Grabar Art Conservation Center made the complex restoration of wood, lacquer, mother-of-pearl, paper, and metal. This chest is a splendid example of Korean furniture types. Such lacquered furniture, richly decorated with mother-of-pearl in traditional technique, was regarded at that time in Korea as a symbol of material prosperity and life success. Various compositions carry many benevolent symbols.

There are two incense burners from the coronation gifts that are a fine illustration of Korean masters’ tradition of metalwork. They are made of a silver-white alloy of copper, zinc and nickel, traditionally called paktong in Korea. The depictions on their surfaces are also deeply symbolic. The incense burners were cleaned of oxides and impurities by the specialist of the Scientific Conservation Department of the Moscow Kremlin Museums.

Among the coronation presents, the scrolls are undoubtedly of the highest artistic value. They constitute a series created in the still life, landscapes and genre painting and have the same size, decoration, similarity of pictorial language, as well as genre and semantic unity. The exhibition features two scrolls. One tells the canonical story of the great Taoist sage Lao-tzi who, in his old age, travelled west on the back of a black bull and, at the request of a border guard, left a record of his teachings at a frontier post. The main character in the second scroll is the great Chinese poet Li Bo, the most celebrated of the so-called "Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup". The specialist of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts carried out the restoration of the scrolls.

The works presented on display have an important historical and cultural significance, an undoubted artistic merit, and are a rarity in Russian museum collections.