Published: May 3, 2011
If you liken fine Asian porcelains to Shakespearean sonnets, each a masterpiece constructed within strict rules of form, then the organic and unrestrained Korean buncheong ceramics are analogous to e.e. cummings’ free verse. That, at least, is the premise behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Poetry In Clay: Korean Buncheong Ceramics.”
The collection of white slip works, many of them Korean National Treasures, makes a compelling case for the title.
Although buncheong pushed the limits set for stoneware long before the age of Modernism, the term is a Twentieth Century coinage, perhaps a result of renewed interest in the form. It is short for bunjang hoecheong sagi, which means gray-green stoneware decorated in white. If there ever was another name for the genre that flourished during the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries of the Joseon dynasty (1392‱910), it has been lost.
The result of a four-year collaboration between two young, dynamic curators, Soyoung Lee, associate curator of Asian art at the Met, and Seung-chang Jeon, chief curator of Leeum Samsung Museum, the exhibition features 70 works of art, including 60 masterpieces from the Leeum Museum. Examples of Japanese Edo period ceramics from the Met’s permanent collection and works by contemporary potters demonstrate the far-reaching influence on buncheong.
“Poetry In Clay: Korean Buncheong Ceramics” is on view at the Met through August 14. It then travels to San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum.
Buncheong is a distinctively Korean phenomenon made for purely practical uses. It descended from sophisticated Goryeo-period inlaid celadon. Although buncheong was created for the upper classes as a substitute for white porcelain, the establishment of government-sponsored regional kilns in 1460 soon made it available to commoners.
Unfettered by dynastic or imperial mandates, Korean potters allowed self-expression to direct their work. Forms, though frequently informed by ancient iron designs, came off the wheel looking rustic and organic.
Buncheong potters deconstructed iconography, frequently reducing it to something akin to gestural expressionism. They utilized techniques of chiaroscuro and negative to good effect.
On a Fifteenth Century bottle, a peony is conjured through a few graphic flourishes. A black lotus pushes through white slip on a Fifteenth or Sixteenth Century flask-shaped bottle. In another, a lotus blossom rendered in reverse inlay emerges from negative space.
At its sleekest, buncheong was sheathed in white slip. Whether painted, dipped or brush dipped, these elegant forms draw the eye to the tactile nature of the surface. Minimalism in buncheong is the signature of kilns in Korea’s Joella Province, whose more renowned kilns dotted the Goheung region.
Complex surface decorations were frequently created with inlay. The process involves incising designs onto still-moist clay bodies and filling the grooves with slip before firing at 1,100 to 1,200 degrees.
White slip incising is cool and sleek. Red slip, pigment derived from iron oxide that turns black when fired, resonates with drama. One bottle bound to draw attention is painted in white slip and incised in a series of roughly executed, flowerlike arcs that are overpainted with iron-based pigment. As a result, the white flowers pop against a dark background that looks as if it could have been created today. Similarly, an iron painted jar offers robust and untamed peony sprays.
As versatile as potters anywhere, the buncheong artisans used many techniques to create their art. Stamping was generally used to produce multiple images on an item. In fact, a Fifteenth Century drum-shaped bottle with stamped rows of dots offers one of the more startling moments in the show. Its counterpoint, a contemporary stoneware vase by Kondô Yutaka with the white design stamped on a black surface, is indicative of the current revival of interest in buncheong techniques.
The use of sgraffito, the carving away of surface layers to produce a high relief, further enhanced the forms. While several objects demonstrate creative use of sgraffito, one of the outstanding examples is a jar with a rendered peony. The result is a bolder depiction of decoration than could be achieved by incising the design.
Buncheong artisans reinterpreted traditional iconography, often allowing only the essence of the image to emerge. Asian floral designs, peonies, chrysanthemums and lotus were defined in linear motifs. Animals, too, such as the tortoise on an elephant vessel, were also interpreted as a swash of lines. Occasionally, mythical animals change form under the artist’s guidance. For instance, a dragon and fish are joined as a “dragon fish,” the enigmatic emblem of an anonymous artist.
Another jar, a whimsical-looking bird that has been reduced to essential contours, exhibits a relaxed and slightly awkward gait. On still other pieces, plantlike forms, calligraphic in nature, approach the gestural and expressive abstraction of Robert Motherwell and Franz Klein.
A small Fifteenth Century dish with rows of stamped dots is absolutely edgy. The inscription indicates that it was made for the Jangheung government office and another indicates that it was produced in Gyeongsang Province. A similar dish with serrated edges and rows of stamped dots inscribed with the symbol for fruit was likely used for ritual offerings.
As viewers come face to face with the creations and customs of the early Joseon potters, it becomes clear that the pottery bespeaks much about the life and times of Koreans. This is especially true of a fish-shaped bottle that carries an incised fish decoration filled with white slip. Besides being a staple of the Korean diet, the fish is appropriately associated with fertility and harmonious familial relations.
In the Sixteenth Century, the vagaries of war and history converged to spread artistic influence. Buncheong got a second life in Edo-period Japan, where it was adopted by connoisseurs of the tea ceremony. Korean immigrant potters who had been relocated following the Japanese invasion of Korea, 1592‹8, helped establish or expand important Japanese ceramic manufactories. These included kilns in Kyushu that were producing Karatsu and Yatsushiro ware and kilns in Kyoto.
Japanese ceramics from the Metropolitan’s collection on display, many for the first time, exemplify the creative revivals of white slip decoration in Japan. As in buncheong, a combination of antiquarian and of-the-moment tastes arose to please consumers.
Buncheong production ceased when white porcelain became readily available. It was all but forgotten when Twentieth Century Korean artisans simultaneously discovered their heritage and buncheong’s bold aesthetic. The duality was potent and inspired an exploration of buncheong’s idioms that continues today among potters in Korea and Japan.
The impulse to refine complex images to gestural or expressive abstractions or action paintings is no longer surprising. Yet when the works of living Korean painters and clay artists are juxtaposed with the works of anonymous and intuitive artisans of the buncheong movement, as they are in the Gallery of Korean Arts at the Met, the experience can range from comforting to disturbing. Perhaps the lesson of buncheong is that the traditional can be as surprising as the contemporary. If that was the intent of the curators, then Soyoung Lee and Seung-chang Jeon have achieved their goal.
The exhibition is accompanied by a 176-page publication, Korean Buncheong Ceramics from Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art , published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in association with Yale University Press. It is available in the museum’s bookshops ($45, hardcover).
To complement the exhibition catalog, the Met will release its first interactive e-publication. This digital publication contains highlights from the exhibition catalog, including the director’s foreword and essay excerpts. Additionally, content can be viewed from multiple perspectives and in a range of sizes, and includes special features, such as 360-degree views. The digital publication will be available soon as a free download through the Met’s website.
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