Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Joseon Buncheong Ware: Between Celadon and Porcelain

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Bold. Earthy. Dynamic. Modern. These are some of the words we often associate with buncheong ware, the striking ceramic type produced during the first 200 years of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Curiously, this arresting ware lacked a designated name at the time, at least judging from its absence in contemporaneous documents. The term bunjang hoecheong sagi was coined in the 1930s by South Korea's first art historian, Go Yuseop; it translates as "gray-green ceramics decorated with powder." What we know today as buncheong ware is a loose group of ceramics with a relatively coarse gray body embellished in various fashion with white slip, and covered in green-tinted semi-translucent glaze.

Both the raw materials and the decorative vocabulary of buncheong ware owe much to the famed celadon tradition of the preceding Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). The clay and glaze of buncheong are essentially similar to those of celadon but less processed and refined. Buncheong's main decorative mode—the use of white slip under the glaze—adapts the inlay technique polished and popularized by the Goryeo potters. Indeed, it is important to recognize that buncheong ware evolved from a long-established tradition as a result of changes in patronage, manufacturing pattern, and aesthetic taste. Yet there is no mistaking the distinctive style of buncheong ware. If Goryeo celadon embodies classical elegance, buncheong ware represents experimental spirit.

Contrary to the popular impression of buncheong ware as ceramics for the commoner, large numbers of buncheong pieces, particularly during the fifteenth century, were manufactured for central and provincial governments. Many, predominantly dishes and bowls, bear the stamped names of the government bureaus to which they were destined. Two of the most frequently found names are Jangheung-go, the bureau in charge of mats and paper and supplied goods used at various government offices, and Naeseom-si, the bureau in charge of overseeing tributary products from the provinces to the royal palace, liquor for officials of second rank or higher, and food and textiles for Japanese and Manchurian visitors.

Buncheong ware exhibits distinctive regional characteristics. Representative of buncheong ware made in Gyeongsang Province are those with inlaid and stamped decoration, with regular, well-defined patterns. In contrast, buncheong from Jeolla Province typically has incised or sgraffito designs, which tend to be more freely executed and inventive. The kiln sites of Mount Gyeryong in Chungcheong Province is famous for its buncheong with iron-painted decoration. The tonal contrast of bold iron-brown against the white slip background is stunning. The incised (Jeolla) or iron-painted (Chungcheong) "drawings" are often whimsical and evocative; and whether representational or abstract, they are always visually compelling.

Unlike buncheong, the production of porcelain during the Joseon dynasty was centralized. A group of kilns known as Bunwon, catering to and managed by the royal court, was operating not far from the capital of Hanyang (present-day Seoul) at least by the 1460s. Bunwon continued as the manufacturing center of porcelain until the second half of the nineteenth century, but already by the sixteenth century, the demand for porcelain expanded beyond the Joseon elite and the capital. Porcelain kilns in the regions multiplied, and even buncheong kilns eventually turned to making porcelain. Typical sixteenth-century buncheong ware, such as those brushed with white slip or completely dipped in white slip, undoubtedly represent less expensive alternatives to white porcelain. Yet their slightly irregular surface design endows them with a vibrant beauty.

Gradually replaced by porcelain by the end of the sixteenth century, the buncheong tradition was brought to an end with the Japanese invasions of Korea between 1592 and 1598. When the devastated ceramic industries of Joseon were rebuilt in the seventeenth century, only porcelain production was resumed. Revivals of buncheong ware sprouted in Japan, by both descendants of settled Korean potters and Japanese natives. Today, contemporary potters in Japan and Korea alike are turning to the old buncheong tradition and rediscovering its modern aesthetic.

Soyoung Lee
Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bottle in the shape of a Rice Bale, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 15th–16th century
Stoneware with iron-brown decoration of bird, fish, and lotus under buncheong glaze; h. 6 1/8 in. (15.5 cm)
The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka

The popularity of rice bale-shaped bottles in the Joseon period is attested by the large number of surviving examples in both puncheong stoneware and white porcelain. The bottle was formed on the wheel and fired in a vertical position, resting on what is now one end of the vessel. The finished bottle rests on its side, probably originally supported by a circular stand made of wood or straw.

The body of the bottle was coated with a white slip, which was applied with a brush, and then painted in iron oxide before being glazed and fired. On one side of the bottle a kingfisher swoops down to catch a fish swimming in a pond from which two lotus flowers grow; on the opposite side, a lone heron stands in a pond, flanked by lotus flowers, with another bird flying in the distance.

Buncheong ware painted with iron-brown decoration was produced primarily at the kilns of Mt. Gyeryong, Hakpong-ri. This piece is especially outstanding for its lively and appealing design.

Ritual Vessel, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), 16th century
Stoneware with white-slip coating under buncheong glaze; h. 5 3/8 in. (13.5 cm)
The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka

The Joseon government's promotion of Neo-Confucianism as the official state ideology in place of Buddhism (which had flourished during the preceding Goryeo dynasty under the patronage of the court and aristocracy) led to an increased demand for ritual vessels. These objects, used to hold offerings of food and wine to spirits and ancestors, were indispensable implements in Confucian ceremonies.

This distinctively shaped rectangular dish, datable to the sixteenth century, is patterned after the ancient Chinese bronze ritual food container known as a fu. The vessel's lid, now lost, would have formed an almost exact match with the body. Although made in imitation of a Chinese bronze ritual vessel, this piece is thoroughly in line with the character of buncheong wares. The shape is irregular, and the slip was applied without concern for perfection, with the impression of finger marks still visible on the surface. Yet its robustness effectively conveys a sense of dignity and spirituality.