The Best under Heaven, the Celadons of Korea
2012 Special Exhibition
The Best under Heaven, the Celadons of Korea
From October 16 to December 16, the National Museum of Korea (Director Kim Youngna) presents its 2012 Special Exhibition: The Best Under Heaven: Korean Celadon. This is the first NMK exhibition in the last 20 years to be dedicated exclusively to Goryeo celadon, since the 1989 Special Exhibition Masterpieces of Goryeo Celadon.
Research on Korea’s long and distinguished ceramic tradition has advanced remarkably since the 1990s, and such research forms the foundation of this special exhibition, which outlines the origins and development of Goryeo celadon, including the creation and application of its unique inlay techniques. Furthermore, the exhibition illuminates the role, production, and circulation of celadon during the Goryeo Dynasty, as well as its relationship with other metal crafts and lacquerware.
The exhibition includes 350 intact celadon wares, which have been carefully selected from collections in Korea and abroad for their quality and significance. This unprecedented exhibition of celadon masterpieces is the largest of its kind in history, bringing together 29 of Korea’s designated cultural heritage items (18 National Treasures and 11 Treasures) and two of Japan’s designated important cultural assets.
The title of the exhibition comes from the book Su Jung Geum by the Song Dynasty writer Taepyeong Noin, who listed the “luminous jade-green color of Goryeo celadon” as one of the “best [things] under heaven.” This reference proves that Goryeo celadon was internationally acclaimed in its day, even surpassing the ceramics of the Song Dynasty. Also, after visiting Goryeo as a Song envoy, Suh Geung (1091-1153) recorded in his book Sun Hwa Bong Sa Goryeo Dogyung that “Goryeo people refer to the bluish color of the celadon as luminous and mysterious,” again demonstrating the exemplary quality and beauty of Goryeo celadon.
Rather than simply presenting the items in chronological order, the exhibition was organized in four parts to effectively and comprehensively explicate Goryeo celadon, in terms of its history, uses, inlaid technique, and masterpieces. This arrangement allows visitors to selectively view and appreciate each section from a different perspective. Also, the exhibition was carefully designed to allow visitors to enjoy the unique characteristics of celadon in three dimensions, rather than in a simple line-up.
The first part, “Origin and Development of Goryeo Celadon,” explores the history of Goryeo celadon, from its birth through its peak and eventual decline. The objects are arranged by period, to help visitors easily follow the 500-year history of Goryeo celadon, starting with its origins from the import of Chinese ceramic culture, its early production in brick kilns, and later production in clay kilns. The invention of the inlaid technique and the perfection of the jade glaze marked the pinnacle of celadon production, which later declined after shipments of Inyang and Ganjimyeong celadon wares sank on the way to Gongsung.
The second part, “Celadon: A Window to Goryeo,” examines the relation of celadon to Goryeo’s dining culture, leisure activities, religions (Buddhism and Taoism), and burials, and also looks for the first time at the various ways celadon was used as an accessory for women. The high-quality celadon wares made in Gangjin (Jeollanam-do Province) and Buan (Jeollabuk-do Province) were mainly consumed by the royal palace and the noble class, so they offer valuable information about the daily lives of the upper class. The items range from ornate cosmetic bottles and cases for women to ordinary items like chairs, wine pots, glasses, and stationary objects. The highlights of this section include the celadon wine pot shaped like a person (National Treasure #167, National Museum of Korea) and the celadon seated arhat with dot design in iron-brown underglaze (National Treasure #173, private collection).
The third part, “Sanggam: The Essence of Goryeo Crafts,” focuses on the inlaid technique that was invented in Goryeo, known as sanggam. As the dynasty’s unique technique for ceramics, sanggam maximized the beauty of the design by contrasting the white and black colors of two different clays. Along with the characteristic jade glaze, the sanggam technique is representative of the extraordinary craftsmanship of Goryeo celadon. At first, the inlaid designs were just a small part of the overall production, but by the mid-12th century, the entire surface of vessels was being decorated with beautiful inlaid patterns. The works in this section emphasize the fine artistic sensibility and exquisite craftsmanship of Goryeo celadon.
The fourth part, “Defining the Best Under Heaven,” presents a selection of 22 Goryeo celadon wares that are regarded as the absolute best quality in the world. These superb masterpieces epitomize the ultimate ceramic beauty achieved by Goryeo, which remains the great pride of Korea. The works are displayed in a separate room, where the gorgeous color of the celadon can be illuminated by natural sunlight. Highlights include National Treasure #60, the celadon incense burner with a lion-shaped lid, and National Treasure #61, the dragon-shaped celadon wine pot, both of which demonstrate the influence of China, and yet exemplify the distinctive artistry of Goryeo with their perfect proportion and the harmony of the colors. National Treasure #95, the celadon openwork incense burner, shows how Goryeo constantly strived to adopt elements from foreign cultures into their own highly unique and original artworks. Also of note are two of Japan’s cultural assets that are being displayed in Korea for the first time: the celadon kundika shaped like nine dragons (Museum Yamato Bunkakan), and the celadon water dropper shaped like a girl (Museum of Oriental Ceramics in Osaka). Visitors may never have another chance to examine and enjoy so many outstanding Goryeo celadon vessels in one place.