View Comments
Gyeongju National Museum. Picture: Korea Tourism Organization

American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau believed "It's not what you look at that matters . . . it's what you see". And that's especially relevant to travel, particularly when taking a close look at a nation's artworks.

Shining examples of civilisation in South Korea

Two hours by fast train from Seoul, Gyeongju is the so-called City of Gold, the former capital of the sumptuous ancient kingdom of Silla.

Archaeological excavations have brought to light several thousand Silla artefacts - figures of Buddha, pottery and porcelain, weapons, ornaments, bronze and gold items - and hundreds of them are on display at Gyeongju National Museum.

We've all seen gold crowns but few would disagree that National Treasure number 188 is something rather different. Visitors gaze at its antler-like prongs and dangling chains and wonder how on earth such a crown would be worn, or how artisans managed such intricate metal-cast work in the 6th century AD - evidence of a kingdom that endured for almost a thousand years, from 57BC to AD935.

visitkorea.or.kr.

A House of Hogarth in London's Chiswick

William Hogarth was a celebrated engraver and satirist who observed 18th-century British society with the precision of a forensic psychiatrist. Prominent among his illustrations is A Rake's Progress (1733).

A Rake's Progress consists of eight scenes depicting the fall of Tom Rakewell, a young man who inherited a fortune from his miserly father. The first scene introduces Tom and reveals the astonishing extent of his father's wealth. The second scene shows Tom in his palatial new home. In the third he's attending an orgy. And on it goes, until Tom finally descends into madness and self-destruction.

These engravings, along with the most extensive collection of Hogarth works on public display, can be seen at his former home in London's Chiswick. The original paintings are part of the Sir John Soane's Museum collection, also in the British capital.

visitlondon.com.

Pushing the Singaporean envelope in new directions

Artists tend to draw on personal and cultural experiences. Hence contemporary art is frequently a mix of high and low culture, humour and irreverence, even in a conservative city such as Singapore.

Exhibitions at Singapore Art Museum often focus on changes occurring in our world. These artworks provide a lens through which we can examine and understand social and political issues associated with globalisation, escalating urbanisation and other pressures. For example, members of the Singaporean collective Phunk Studio tapped into the positive energy of their favourite megacities to produce a large-scale mixed media piece, Electricity (Neon) (2010). This work playfully celebrates globalisation and diversity with an imaginary city in which there's no distinction between East and West.

singaporeartmuseum.sg.

The art of war in Weimar Germany

Some artists, such as German artist Otto Dix at Sprengel Museum Hannover, show us what they've seen or experienced with devastating clarity. Dix and fellow artists George Grosz and Max Beckmann enlisted in the German army in 1914. Against a backdrop of the world's first mechanised war and the broken society of Germany's postwar Weimar Republic, they became exponents of the New Objectivity movement of social realist art.

Dix produced Der Krieg (The War), a portfolio of 50 etchings, aquatints, and drypoints decidedly at odds with the usual heroic depiction of battlefields and wartime heroes. For example, Evening on the Wijtschaete Plain (Nov 1917) (1924) shows dead, dying and shell-shocked soldiers in a bomb-cratered landscape. Dix sustained this stark reality in his postwar portrait painting and Parents of the Artist II (1924) depicts his parents with a pitiless realism.

Dix felt the need to plumb life's depths to comprehend the world. "I have to see everything with my own eyes in order to confirm that it's like that," he said in 1963 when asked why he volunteered to go to war.

sprengel-museum.de.

Degenerative or regenerative Art in New South Wales

Australian artist Norman Lindsay is renowned for his voluptuous nudes. In 1919, a visitor to his home - now the Norman Lindsay Gallery and Museum in the Blue Mountains town of Faulconbridge - gave an account of what she saw.

"There were no pictures save Lindsay nudes . . . Nudes to the right of me, nudes to the left of me . . . you could not get away from them," Rebecca Wiley said. And the house remains the same to this day.

Lindsay has been much maligned for his preoccupation with the female form. But could the idealised Lindsay woman be seen as a life force in contrast to the destruction of a war that had claimed his brother?

The concept isn't new, of course. The feminine form as the central force through which life is recreated first appears in the Venus figurines of European Stone Age art. Is Lindsay's idealised sexuality a reaction to his (well-documented) abhorrence of war? Why not?

normanlindsay.com.au.