An 18th-Century Temple Buddha Painting Returns to Korea after an Epic Journey
Left: Korea, unknown artist, Five Buddhas, 1725, conserved by Robert and Sandra Mattielli. Right: Detail of Five Buddhas.
In the early 1970s, Robert Mattielli walked into a dusty carpentry-cum-antiques shop in Seoul’s Insadong district, known for its hole-in-the-wall emporiums overflowing with relics. In the back room, he spotted a scrunched-up but spellbinding painting depicting five floating Buddhas. Mattielli went home with the work for a mere $10. Five Buddhas, as it’s become known, stayed with the American collector for over 40 years. Until 2014, that is, when a group of Korean scholars discovered that it was stolen property—and uncovered the painting’s dramatic journey.
“If you think about it, almost every artwork has undergone some kind of journey through time and space. But very often, we can’t trace it,” explains Maribeth Graybill, curator of Asian Art at Oregon’s Portland Art Museum (PAM), where Five Buddhas is currently on display until it’s repatriated to its home country. “In this painting’s case, there’s a gap—we don’t know how it got from Songgwangsa, the temple where it originated, to Seoul, where Bob bought it. But the fact is that an American collector, who deeply loves Korean art and culture, saved it from certain destruction. This painting’s story is one of wonderful karmic events.”
Mattielli, known by his friends as Bob, arrived in Asia in the 1950s after taking a job with the U.S. military as director of its “Arts and Crafts” program in Korea. The young American supervised a string of craft shops—which offered classes in woodworking, painting, ceramics, and more to GIs—from the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone) clear down to Busan. (The program was part of the U.S. military’s widespread effort to raise army morale during and after World War II.) It was a demanding gig, but it allowed Mattielli just enough free time to feed his lifelong collecting habit.
“I think I was born a collector,” explains the now-91-year-old Mattielli from his home in Portland, Oregon, where he’s lived since leaving Korea in 1985. “Ever since I was a small boy, I’d pick up rocks, bits of brass and copper, animals, birds, you name it. So for me, it was an exciting time to be in Korea.” With the Korean conflict over, Mattielli’s new home was rapidly modernizing, and its residents were eschewing reminders of their nation’s fraught past—including decorative, devotional objects, and art. “Koreans were responding just like my parents did in the States a decade before: getting rid of their old furniture, traditions, and moving on,” says Mattielli. “In Korea, I saw that many of the objects that were connected to the old ways were going to be lost, and I wanted to help preserve them.”
When Mattielli discovered Five Buddhas in the back room of the Insadong shop, it was “crumpled up like a bedsheet, partially folded and flaking,” he remembers. “I thought we’d at least be able to save certain portions of it—the faces or bodies of the Buddhas.” But the collector’s go-to conservator, Ki Jung-myon, suggested otherwise. The gaping holes in the painting’s surface (created by wear and the green malachite used to paint areas of the composition, which can eat away at hemp canvas) were left as is, and the work patched back together, stretched, and preserved in its full form, as opposed to chopped into fragments. Today, while damage is still visible, Five Buddhas retains a lot of its original splendor. Across the canvas, elegant lines and details, swelling with rich blues, reds, and greens, animate the rare arrangement of five seated Buddhas.
Five Buddhas is one of over 2,000 artworks and objects that Mattielli and his wife Sandra, an Oregonian who he met in Seoul, amassed over the course of their nearly three decades in Korea. But the painting always stood out among the sprawling collection for both its meticulous, graceful workmanship and its prominent placement within the Mattiellis’ Seoul home—over their dining room table. “There, many visiting scholars and all sorts of cognoscenti saw it,” explains Graybill. “Of course, no one had any idea that it had been stolen.”
When Mattielli retired in 1985 and made his way back to Portland with his family, his prize collection came in tow. “His goal was to eventually share it with fellow Oregonians and Americans,” explains Graybill. “They’ve donated numerous important works to our collection.” (Mattielli also notes that pieces from his cache have made their way into the Seattle Art Museum’s and the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art’s holdings.) Five Buddhas, however, didn’t land within PAM’s walls until yet another fateful development in the painting’s story, when a group of Korean scholars came to Portland.
“Korea’s National Research Institute for Cultural Heritage (NRICH) sent a group of scholars to PAM, as well as to other institutions in the Pacific Northwest, to do thorough collection surveys of our Korean holdings,” explains Graybill. “But they would only publish works that were in the collection—not loans—so I said to Bob, ‘This is our opportunity to have these works researched by a top team of scholars in Korea and published, so if there’s anything in your collection that you think you might give us in the next five years, I want it in the museum when NRICH is here.” Five Buddhas arrived at PAM, along with several other top-notch pieces from the Mattielli collection, and became the subject of a week-long, intensive study.
It was then that the painting’s origins were unearthed, and its contraband nature revealed. As proof, NRICH sent scans of two documents—“the evidence”—to the museum. According to Graybill, one was pulled from a 1970 government survey of Buddhist paintings housed in Korean temples; it included a listing for Five Buddhas, along with an image of the work. The second, dated 1999, was a white paper organized by a consortium of Buddhist temples to document missing paintings. Five Buddhas appeared there, too. “I knew that Bob would never buy something stolen, so after I received the email, I tried to be a buffer between the Korean government and the Mattiellis. They’ve been such incredible advocates for Korean art, and I didn’t want the government to barge in and accuse them of untoward behavior,” explains Graybill. “So I spoke with my director, and we came up with a proposal.”
When the Mattiellis immediately agreed to return Five Buddhas to Korea, PAM suggested to Korea’s Cultural Heritage Administration (CHA) that they recognize the Mattiellis’ role in preserving the painting. According to Graybill, CHA quickly agreed to the plan, which also proposed that PAM exhibit and organize a symposium around the piece and its story before it embarked on its journey back to Songgwangsa, its original home.
The return date has yet to be set, but until then, Five Buddhas will hang in PAM’s Korean gallery not only as a stunning example of 18th-century Korean Buddhist painting, but also as an emblem of the importance of cultural preservation—both in the hands of individuals and governments that establish laws to protect their nations’ treasures. Then, sometime after a December symposium during which scholars Robert Buswell and Maya Stiller will discuss Songgwangsa and the rare painting’s iconography, respectively, Five Buddhas will begin its long journey back home.
There, in a mountaintop temple nestled in a remote area of southwestern South Korea, the painting will be reinstalled on the left-hand wall of Songgwangsa’s resplendent “Hall of the Fifty Buddhas,” which will once again brim with almost 50 representations of Buddha across paintings and sculptures. (According to Stiller’s original research, the temple originally boasted a total of 53, but another painting depicting five Buddhas remains missing.) Fate isn’t always so kind to unprotected art, but Five Buddhas has been lucky. Perhaps, as Graybill suggests, it had karma on its side.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.