'Moonlight Crowns:' crowns for everyone
The first exhibition of masterpieces from the stocks of the National Museum of Korea – Wind in the Pines. 5000 Years of Korean Art, presented in the Hermitage in 2010 – included over 350 items: paintings, sculpture, ceramics, pieces of applied art, examples of writing and books. The new exhibition of Korean art is devoted exclusively to ceramics.
Korea is a country with long pottery traditions. The art of ceramic-making travelled a long path of improvement and mastery of new techniques. The exhibits presented span a period from ancient times to the works of contemporary craftspeople from recent decades. It thus shows the development of Korean ceramic art from classic examples to innovative artistic creations produced in our own time.
The early stage is represented by articles from the period of the three Korean states: Goguryeo (57 BC – AD 668), Baekje (18 BC – AD 660) and Silla (57 BC – AD 668) and also the proto-state of Gaya (AD 41–562) and the state of Unified Silla (668–935). Each of them had its own style of ceramics with distinctive features.
The items presented in this section reflect the views of Koreans of that time on life and death. There are domestic utensils and grave goods, placed with the dead. The artefacts uncovered during the excavation of the burials of the rulers of the states and the nobility testify to the increasing complexity of religious conceptions and the improvement of the technologies used in working various materials. Ceramic vessels in the shape of an animal or a human figure appear which were used in the burial ritual or during a ceremony worshipping the spirits of ancestors. It is assumed that they expressed a desire for a successful ascent to heaven by the soul of the deceased and after the ceremony they were placed in the grave.
The Goryeo period (918–1392) that followed is associated with the zenith in the development of Korean pottery. Ceramics were to be the highest artistic achievement of the age. In the 10th century celadon was produced in Korea for the first time, appearing under the influence of Chinese models. Thin-walled vessels of various shapes and purposes were coated with a pale bluish-green glaze. In Korea this shade became known as pisek – “kingfisher colour”. Later, in Europe, such pottery was given the name celadon. By the 11th century, the Goryeo celadon had embarked on its own course of development. A striking example of this is the sangam inlaid Goryeo celadon. To this day Korean celadons are prized for their unsurpassed beauty that expresses itself in the refinement of shape and range of colour. Besides inlay, other methods used to decorate celadons included relief moulding, stamping and underglaze painting with iron- and copper-based pigments.
The next stage in the development of ceramic art was Buncheong ware, an intermediate link between the Goryeo celadon to the porcelain of the Joseon era (1392–1897). Buncheong vessels have a grey or greyish white clay; the surface of the piece was coated with an engobe (white clay slip) on which decoration was either painted or incised. In comparison with the celadons of the Goryeo era, Buncheong vessels display greater simplicity, freedom and picturesqueness in the decoration. Buncheong ware was popular for almost 200 years, in the 15th and 16th centuries, after which porcelain supplanted it. The porcelain for the Joseon court was produced in the official potteries of Gwangju in Gyeonggi-do province. The distinctive decoration of porcelain pieces is based on the contrast of a white ground and one-colour pattern executed in underglaze cobalt blue or iron oxide. The finest artists of the Dohwaseo official academy of painting worked on the decoration of porcelain articles. The discovery of the method of making hard-paste porcelain led to the creation of magnificent pieces that are considered the peak of the craftsmanship of the Joseon-era ceramists.
The traditions of Korean ceramic art, founded upon a distinctive artistic taste, a subtle understanding of the specifics of pottery shapes, their constructional peculiarities and relationship with the decoration, have found continuation in our own time. The master ceramists of present-day Korea are rethinking the classic forms and the style of the native pottery. The works of modern artists included in the exhibition reflect the profound influence that Korean ceramics still continue to have on art.
August 12, 2021