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  • New Research on Central Asian Paintings in the National Museum of Korea
  • Kim Haewon (bio), Jo Yeontae (bio), Cheon Juhyun (bio), and Park Seungwon (bio)

The National Museum of Korea in Seoul (hereafter NMK) houses part of the Ōtani collection, consisting of artifacts collected between 1902 and 1914 during archaeological expeditions organized by Ōtani Kōzui (1876–1948) in various parts of Asia, including Central Asia, Tibet, and India.1 Most of the Ōtani artifacts at NMK are from the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China. One of the major issues in the study of these artifacts has been the difficulty of identifying individual pieces, as the original documents written by those who participated in the Ōtani expeditions rarely record the context of their excavation. The basic information on the artifacts was recorded on a master list, which is thought to have been composed when they were brought to Korea in 1916, but the list has been found to contain many errors.2 In this context, it is particularly important that these artifacts be subjected to scientific investigation in the hopes of finding evidence to support theories of their identification and origin, which have thus far been based mostly on art historical research.

In 2012 curators and conservators of NMK conducted collaborative research on the paintings from the collection and were able to find additional information that helps to identify the artifacts. This essay introduces the major findings of that research, which involves Mīrān paintings, Praṇidhi paintings from the Bezeklik Caves, and paintings from the Toyuk Caves.3

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Fig 1.

Mural fragments, Mīrān, 3rd–4th centuries. 14.8 × 11.2 cm; 8.2 × 9 cm; 16.5 × 30.5 cm (left to right). National Museum of Korea (Bongwan 4051).

[End Page 165]

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Fig 2.

Detail of Viśvantara Jātaka mural, Shrine 5, Mīrān. After Aurel Stein, Serindia, vol. 1, fig. 137.

Paintings from Mīrān

The paintings from NMK’s Ōtani collection consist largely of murals, most of which have been set into wooden frames, with filler added to join fragmented areas. The mounting seems to have been executed in Nirakusō, Ōtani’s villa in Kobe, before the paintings were transferred to Gyeongseong (present-day Seoul) in 1916.4 In most cases, the wooden frames contain more than one wall fragment, as exemplified by the piece registered as Bongwan 4051, which contains three different mural fragments from Mīrān (Fig. 1). This piece has received its fair share of scholarly attention, most of which has focused on the largest fragment (on the right in the illustration), which features an intriguing depiction of a male figure. His large eyes and moustache, along with the use of chiaroscuro on the face and body, accord well with the known stylistic features of Mīrān paintings.

This piece is identified as a Mīrān painting in the first major catalogue of the Ōtani collection, entitled Saiiki kōko zufu (Illustrated guide to the archaeology of the western regions), published in 1915.5 This and [End Page 166] other fragments from Mīrān are described there simply as “Mural Fragments of the Six Dynasties Period.” In the 1950s, Kumagai Nobuo wrote an article on the Mīrān paintings of the Ōtani collection in which he discussed this fragment in detail. According to Kumagai, the only member of the Ōtani expedition team who visited Mīrān was Tachibana Zuichō (1890–1968), and the fragments were collected during his third expedition in 1911. Kumagai proposed that the piece in NMK came from a mural depicting the life of the Buddha.6 Then in the 1980s, Ueno Aki was able to more precisely identify the location and theme of the original mural based on a photograph reproduced in Serindia, the report by Aurel Stein (1862–1943) on his second expedition in Central Asia. Ueno argued that the fragment was once part of the Viśvantara Jātaka painting that covered the walls of the corridor in Buddhist Shrine 5 in Mīrān.7 The photo that Ueno based...


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