Denver Art Museum Showcases the Politics of Korean Ceramics

Sungsic MOON 문성식, Summer Night 여름밤, 2022.

Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery. Photo by Chunho An. Image provided by Kukje Gallery.
Sungsic MOON 문성식, Summer Night 여름밤, 2022.
Uncovering the Multilayered History Behind Buncheong

Uncovering the Multilayered History Behind Buncheong

National Museum of Korea.

Bottle with Fish Motif 물고기무늬 병, late 1400s-early 1500s, Joseon dynasty (1392– 1897) Korea.

“That’s a unique character­istic of buncheong. It has a lot of human touch in the ceramics.”

Ji Young Park

At Denver Art Museum (DAM) a compelling ceramics exhibition showcases a longstanding tradition of earthenware objects made in Korea from the first century through contemporary times. Titled “Perfectly Imperfect: Korean Buncheong Ceramics,” the show— co-organized with the National Museum of Korea (NMK)— runs until December 7th, 2025.

The exhibit is the first fruit of a $900,000-plus art grant from the NMK to the DAM that will fund a series of Korean art exhibitions and programs over three years.

As its title indicates, the ceramics show spotlights sublime buncheong works, most from the 15th century. The exhibit’s two primary curators — Hyonjeong Kim Han, the DAM’s Joseph de Heer Curator of Arts of Asia, and Ji Young Park, the DAM’s National Museum of Korea Fellow of Korean Art — are women, but Korean ceramists are almost exclusively men. In galleries aglow with the gray-green pottery, the curators spoke to the importance of buncheong ware for Korean identity and history, as well as the progression of ceramics once freed from imperial mandates.

Courtesy of MMCA

KIM Whanki 김환기, 14-XI-69#137, 1969.

Production of buncheong ware began in the late 13th century, born from a political, economic, religious, and philosophical shift as the Goryeo dynasty gave way in 1392 to the Joseon dynasty. Simultaneously, Korean celadon (olive-green ceramics fired at lower temperatures) fell out of vogue, eclipsed by buncheong glazed in white slip and fired at higher temperatures.

The buncheong works are both elegant and rustic. The exhibit includes centuries-old rice bowls, barrel-shaped bottles, wine vessels, and a placenta jar with a domed cover that enshrines the afterbirth and umbilical cord of a child born to a royal family.

The objects complement one another, owing to the grayish Korean clay and the pallid white slip glaze made with the clay and water. Yet, the decorations demonstrate a wide array of techniques used by Korean buncheong potters. The designs are bold, abstract, and textured.

“That’s a unique characteristic of buncheong. It has a lot of human touch in the ceramics,” said Park. “It’s playful and tactile. You can feel the touch of the potters.”

While the objects are beautiful and graceful, the ceramics also testify to the effects of political corruption and war, as well as belief systems.

Han stated, “At the end of the Goryeo dynasty [918 to 1392 CE], there was a lot of corruption of the upper class that favored celadon. Also, the Japanese and Chinese revered celadon, so the new dynasty wanted a new aesthetic.”

The curators emphasized that celadon potters typically created utilitarian pieces for use at royal court, tea ceremonies, and other rituals of Buddhist monks. Potters sent ceramics to the government as a tribute, while the government squelched artistic expression, largely limiting ceramics decorations to labels.

“The government controlled buncheong production. It was political. Art is political,” Han said.

Buncheong ware’s popularity also resulted from the Japanese invasion on the southwest coast of the Korean peninsula. During the occupation, the Japanese destroyed many celadon kilns.

Barrel-Shaped Bottle with Peony Motif
National Museum of Korea

Barrel-Shaped Bottle with Peony Motif 모란무늬 장군 (액체를 담는 그릇), 1400s, Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) Korea.

Elephant-shaped Ritual Vessel with Tortoise Motif
National Museum of Korea

Elephant-shaped Ritual Vessel with Tortoise Motif 코끼리 모양 제기 (제사에 쓰이는 그릇), Joseon dynasty (1392–1897) Korea.

Flask-Shaped Bottle with Plantain Motif
Huh Sangwook. Photography Studio Ye.

HUH Sangwook 허상욱, Flask-Shaped Bottle with Plantain Motif 분청은채파초문편병, 2023.

Buncheong Mountain-Water
LEE Kang-Hyo. Photography KIM Seong-un

LEE Kang Hyo 이강효, Buncheong Mountain-Water 분청산수, 2020.

Summer Night
Courtesy of the artist and Kukje Gallery. Photo by Chunho An. Image provided by Kukje Gallery.

Sungsic MOON 문성식, Summer Night 여름밤, 2022.

Installation
Denver Art Museum

Installation

Installation
Denver Art Museum

Installation

Installation
Denver Art Museum

Installation

Installation
Denver Art Museum

Installation

“Without kiln sites and with no support from the government, potters were dispersed all over the Korean peninsula,” said Han. “They had ceramic pot-making skills, but they had to deal with a more coarse clay with sand. Potters disguised the clay with white slip.”

In the Korean transition from Buddhism to Confucianism, cultural values shifted toward humility and simplicity.

“Buncheong ware was used across several classes, including commoners,” said Park.

Confucianism also promoted reverence for nature. Organic, calligraphic fish and floral motifs — peonies, chrysanthemums, and lotus — lend grace to buncheong designs.

“Buncheong potters could have the freedom to advance many different surface decorations,” Han said. “They could incise, scrape out, impress seals or stamps, brush on the white slip or dunk pots in white slip.”

Park added, “The white slip was used as a canvas as well as design itself. It’s a core of buncheong design elements.”

Eventually, buncheong gained widespread favor. The Japanese imported Korean clay and Korean-made buncheong tea sets.

“The Japanese even kidnapped Korean buncheong potters,” Park stated.

“We wanted to show how difficult making ceramics can be.”
Ji Young Park

The ancient buncheong techniques and designs continue to inspire contemporary ceramists, as the exhibit demonstrates in a gallery devoted to modernists reinterpreting white slip.

The exhibition also includes a collection of shards excavated from kiln sites. Some vessels collapsed, others stuck together or cracked during firing.

Park shared, “We wanted to show how difficult making ceramics can be.”

The exhibit incorporates immersive experiences including touchable labels that allow visitors to partake in the tactile qualities of ceramic techniques. A 3-D puzzle with facsimile pottery shards invites guests to try their hands at archaeological reconstruction. A video provides a look at the ceramics process from kneading clay with bare feet, to firing glazed works. A display case shows an array of tools used by buncheong ceramists across centuries.

The collaboration between the DAM and NMK will commission an installation by the Korean-American artist Sammy Seung-min Lee, now working in South Korea as a Fulbright Scholar. Art & Object previously reported on her traditional Korean hanji paper works in her solo show at Denver Botanic Gardens.

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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