Khushi Sharma, New Delhi
“What amount of art would be needed to produce an artless art?”
In regard to the answer, Korean ceramics are the perfect example for marking effortlessness. By just looking at the piece of pottery one can feel the essentials it carries in its intentions. Korea- “the land of morning calm” possesses a long history of clay and its beauty. Living through different dynasties the interplay of clay, glaze, and temperature became eternal. Thus, eternity is not only a part of Korean culture instead it imparts a lot about the culture within.
For art and its functionality, there is no first moment and nor the end yet to bridge where we are today. Let us begin with the Neolithic Age, (1008 BCE), the era of earthenware. The techniques that were used were carnations of pinched clay and spiral incisions for vessels. In the 10th century, the arrival of the Bronze Age marked the variety of shapes added to the beauty of Korean pottery. Some of the most popular works from the era include black burnished wares, bowls with pedestals, long-necked jars, and red burnished jars.
In 194 BCE with the expansion of the Gojoseon Iron Age was adopted by the leader ‘wiman’. The social disarray created by migration and instability provided a space for the ‘Korean’ aspect of pottery. The heart of the beauty of what is called fine pottery begins to set its rudiments. Iron Age came with some autarchy as well as sustainability. The time was bestowed with dexterous hands, originality, design, and artistry exceptional works like round bottom jars with horned handles, square cup sets on pedestals were motifs of ambition carried by potters of this age.
With the substructure of fundamentals and favored technology, Korean pottery took its turn towards the density of stoneware. The three kingdoms produced one of the best pottery of all times including Gaya, Baekja, and Silla. High-fired works were common to produce. Some of the ceramics of time were lidded cups, wide stand bowls (kobae), Changyong ho, Kurut Pachim, bell cups, lamps, bulbous vases. The categories can clearly define where Korean ceramics sets its dichotomy with the importance of its functionality. Gaya confederation was rich in metal and its artistry was even passed to Japan which led to the production of well-known work of ‘seuki’. The unique ways of techniques evident from this era were that of latticework effect given by auxiliary clay. Spouted figures of boats, temples, warriors, and animals brought cultural symbols under the limelight. Along with these high-fired works baekja potters also produced low-fired brown works sharing similar shapes. Huge production of Maejon black wares in south-western Korea was eminent as a ‘prestige good’. Since the majority of them were consumed at the political center (Pungnap Toseong).
Bridged to the Silla dynasty, this kingdom produced idiosyncratic stoneware and ceramics. The idea of the afterlife, as well as firm functionality, drove most of the aspects of pottery. Well-known historian Mr. Kim Chewon stated that “Silla pottery may well be the most genuinely indigenous of all Korean art forms. In spite of the formal influences from outside which were brought to bear upon it. It varies from near-primitive to the sophisticated but it invariably has about it a natural quality which bespeaks its specifically Korean origins.”
Forms of pottery from this dynasty were kobae with wide stands which might be used for serving food on special occasions, long-necked jars, bell cups, cups with the wheel attached, and horned cups. The most impressive and magnificent Silla work is that of two figurines in form of horsemen, two-wheeled chariot, temples, and houses. This symbolizes the religious use in the ceremonies to pour liquids. Two of these exceptional works were found at Gyeongju in 1924 along with miniature ceramics of animal figures from the tomb at Hwangnamui, Gyeongju itself. There was room for artistic creations, techniques, and aesthetic values at this time which provide us with a door opening to the daily life of Silla people from modern perspectives. Technical embellishments, incisions of geometry, 3d figures, illustrations, explain what other aspects of the social practices like symbols of shamanism in ancient Korea were seen in some works. Till now religion gained a prominent role in artworks.
Unified Silla i.e. the 7th century was characterized by the incorporation of Buddhism in everyday pottery. It moved towards the austere degree and decorations were kept for the special occasions. It not only gives us insight into life but also the different (Buddhist) way of life. Motifs as stamps pictured clouds, flowers, lotus buds which were evident to Buddhism. The beauty of the first ash glaze was also pioneered during this time. Important practices like cremation necessitated the manufacture of urns for ashes with Buddhist motifs.
Coming up to ‘Goryeo Dojagi’ (Goryeo cheong ja), the well-known art of porcelain belongs to this dynasty by the name of ‘celadon’ or ‘greenware’. The admiration of the celadon culture lies in its green colour called ‘Bisaek’. Ingrained with the roots of China, virtuoso potters of the 12th century laid the foundations of the ‘Native Korean’ style. High-quality porcelain was the forte of the time, and the industry flourished parallel to the rise and fall of the dynasty. 12th-century Celadons, often called as ‘zenith of Goryeo celadon’ the unique purity is associated with the thin glaze balanced with the right amount of elegance. Many celadons from Goryeo Dynasty are part of the ‘National Treasure’ of South Korea. A short film titled ‘Koryo celadon’ (1979) documents the living national treasure Ye Geun-hyeong and his exceptional works of Goryeo, its purity and intensity of art that celadon carries.
The recent end of this long interplay of clay is Porcelains from ‘Joseon Dynasty’. One of those few art forms which are included in the history of every region despite the fact that what part of the world is it. If pottery can be represented as a painting porcelains would rank as those golden tints. Out of Porcelains, white porcelain would hold the highest crown. It was praised the most. Early Joseon (1300-1500) had thin-colorless glaze and simple compositions. The middle period of Joseon was trapped by the Japanese invasion and Korean potters were sent to Japan. Pottery took a different turn during this time and Chinese master potters immigrated to southern Korea. There was disarray but the beautiful part was the sense of defending one’s own art.
Turning away to imitate the Chinese enamel imitation Korean potters took their side of simpler and military traditions. Late Joseon (1700-1910) came up with the possession of art under government and subsized kilns near Seoul. Wares and white porcelain were swayed towards the traditional axis. Korean Confucianism was the vital force of society at this time and the kernel of its high culture was absorbed in the works. Compositions according to local need, purer, less pretentious, subtle toned, light decorations with less complexity marked the Porcelains of the era.
Koreans have an exceptional ability to subsume little things and turn them into something outstanding and ceramics portray this quality effortlessly. Depth of the artworks coming from nonconsistent topography speaks nothing but elegance and creativity. The contemporary road of pottery is surrounded by every possible path of clay. 1000 years old celadon was made of grounded clay from mountains, extraordinary techniques like buncheong sagi and preparing non favourable Kaolin by firing it at high temperature to achieve the quality speaks itself for the passion that Korean potters are carrying. Father of British studio pottery Bernard Leach mentioned that “Korean work is merely the natural result of the artisan’s state of mind, which is free from dualistic man-made rules”.
Contemporary potters are the master sailors of both, recreating traditional pottery and positioning the western influence with free utilization of materials and techniques. Along with overcoming what is not there constant research and development provide the dynamics for the future of pottery.
The artistry of any art lies in its perpetuation and the collaboration of science and art. Modern artists like Lee Kang-hyo, Won Dal-jong, Jin Jang, Reed Song-jong, Sun Koo-yuhare are the choicest hands of the legacy of potters. The “master hand” of ceramics Mr. Kim Se-yong who was awarded by the Korean government in 2002 shares his long way of trials and errors for 50 years to recreate Goryeo celadon. This particular instance flawlessly explains the respectful take towards the rich heritage of Korean potters.
For the modern practicing other than the exhibitions and museums Korea is a step ahead. The take is not only to preserve the art but to experience. Cafes and workshops are not unfamiliar places for experiencing artworks. These are the best options to familiarize oneself with Korean aesthetics of subtle details, elegance, and simplicity. Korean pottery is growing each day and the legacy of clay is illimitable. Assiduous efforts stand in the need of those beautiful ceramics. To summarise:
“A clay pot sitting in the sun will always remain a clay pot, it has to go through the white heat of furnace to become a porcelain.”
We hope this article added to your learning about Korean pottery and its history. Share your thoughts in the comment section.