The Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) "moon jar" currently displayed at the British Museum / Courtesy of British Museum
By Lee Hee-kyung
There has been a growing global demand for Korean culture, a phenomenon termed "hallyu,'' or the Korean Wave. The popularity has been driven by music, movies, television shows and video games.
But about a century ago, it was the country's exquisite traditional pottery that became exposed and celebrated internationally. When the British Museum established the Korean Foundation gallery in November 2000, curator Jane Portal chose a white, minimalist porcelain jar from the late Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) to be featured in the poster promoting the new space.
The jar _ distinctive for its white color and simple, round shape ― was a conventional style of pottery produced at the kingdom's kiln complexes in Gwangju, southeast of Seoul, during the 17th and 18th centuries. Critics now commonly call these jars "moon jars'' because of their voluminous shape and milky-white glaze.
In explaining the quality of the jar, the British Museum included descriptions like ''lack of self-consciousness'' and slight ''imperfections'' in the clay and glaze, such as in the bulge around the center that marks the join between the upper and lower halves of the body. This made its choice to pick the jar to be the face of the Korean gallery all the more interesting.
By the 1950s and ‘60s, white porcelain was agreed upon by Western artists, critics and collectors as the signature image of Korean traditional craft. It could be said that the history of the moon jar could convey substantial information on how white porcelain became the main style of ceramics during the Joseon era, and also how it gained respect in the international community of art.
The jar at the museum was originally owned by Bernard Leach (1887-1979), a British potter and a pioneer in studio pottery. Leach was born in Hong Kong and lived for a time in Japan before studying at the Slade School of Fine Art and London School of Art.
In 1909, he returned to Japan where he experienced two important events of his life. One was his friendship with Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), with whom he eventually developed his admiration of traditional East Asian folk craft, later reflected in the social movement called the "Mingei (folk crafts) Movement.''
The other was his learning about the techniques of firing "raku.'' Raku was a popular type of ware used in ceremonial tea vessels in Japan during the 16th century. These vessels were created by "accidental'' chemical reactions induced by the specific ways they were fired. Their shapes and colors weren't dictated by the artist and that was the essence of their beauty.
Leach later recalled that the experience influenced him to switch his lifetime goal from being an "artist'' to being a "potter.'' His interest in ceramic ware eventually led to an affection for the high-fired stoneware and porcelain from Joseon, an admiration he shared with Yanagi.
With his knowledge of the Arts and Crafts Movement led by William Morris during the late 19th century, Leach provided Yanagi with useful references. Together with Yanagi and two other potters, Hamada Shoji (1894-1978) and Kawai Kanjiro(1890-1966), Leach naturally became an influential figure in the Mingei Movement and contributed in promoting the movement to the wider world.
The Mingei campaigners cherished the value of simplicity and naturalness and rejected the artificially and excessively decorated works that were produced at rapid speed by modern machinery. The minimalist, white porcelains of Joseon _ functional and conveying a sense of comfort and warmness _ were close to what they thought as ideal.
The Mingei Movement, as well as Leach's personal views, had a strong and continuing impact on artists, critics and collectors in Japan and beyond. In 1920, Leach returned to Britain and established a studio at St Ives, Cornwall where he attempted to incorporate the East Asian aesthetics from into English earthenware. His works gradually gained acceptance in Britain and his studio eventually became a Mecca for studio pottery.
Leach continued to visit Japan for inspiration. In 1952, Yanagi and Hamada accompanied Leach on a lecture tour in the United States and successfully promoted the ideas of the Mingei Movement.
The jar depicted on the poster for the British Museum's gallery was purchased by Leach in Korea in 1935. The jar embodies many virtues that Leach desired from pottery _ functionality, simplicity in design, artisanship and also slight imbalances and flaws in its shape and colors that show flexibility.
In 1943, Leach gave the jar to one of the most influential potters of the post-war period, Lucie Rie (1902-95). Upon her death, Rie bequeathed it to Leach's widow, Janet (1918-97). The British Museum acquired the jar in 1999. Together with the pot was a letter from Leach to Rie. It reveals that Leach had asked her to collect the jar from a friend's house and look after it during the Second World War (1939-45). Later, upon seeing the jar in Rie's studio, he felt that it should remain there.
Today, the moon jar quietly exposes its sincere historical biography and its aesthetics to the world at the corner of the British Museum, inspiring contemporary artists, critics and collectors all over the world.
Lee Hee-kyung, who obtained her Ph.D. at the University of London and M.A. in Seoul National University, is a scholar specializing in the art history of East Asia. She lectured at the Department of Ceramics, College of Design at Seoul's Kookmin University and is currently a visiting fellow at Seoul National University. ― ED.