NEW YORK — While Japanese and Chinese ceramics and porcelain have risen to unprecedented heights at auction, achieving multi-million dollar prices, other worthy Asian wares have been overshadowed. Though they haven’t yet soared to the level of the Chinese phoenix vase that attained $41 million in June 2021, Korean ceramics and porcelain have held their own and long delighted ceramics aficionados. A white moon jar made in the Joseon dynasty (circa 1390-1910) set an auction record when it fetched more than $2.5 million in June 2019. The elegant appeal of celadon-glaze wares, Joseon whiteware, and the signature moon jar form continue to bewitch collectors with their craftsmanship and beauty.
Korean ceramics and porcelain have been made for centuries, as far back as the Neolithic area. Chinese ceramics have had a great influence on Korean artistry and there are some blue and white porcelain items that can be difficult for buyers to pinpoint which country they were made in. While Korean celadon was inspired by Chinese styles, it evolved and took on its own unique characteristics. Around the 10th century, during the Goryeo dynasty (circa 920-1390), Korean artisans began making celadon green and white porcelains. In the following era, the Joseon dynasty, the design aesthetic shifted toward the bold and earthy buncheong (a term that translates to “gray-green ceramics decorated with powder”) wares. By the 15th century, white porcelain was prized for its pure white appearance and minimal decoration (though it grew more elaborate in the 16th and 17th centuries). By the 18th century, large, bulbous-shaped moon jars were fashionable. The term “moon jar” did not arrive until the early 1900s, however. In 2005, an exhibition at Seoul’s National Palace Museum was apparently the first at a national Korean museum to have “moon jar” in its title.
Today, these forms and styles are still among the most sought-after examples of Korean ceramics and porcelain. “If green is the operative word in Korean ceramics during the Goryeo dynasty, then white becomes the preferred color under the Joseon,” according to an essay on the website of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. There was a small amount of whiteware created during the Goryeo period, but once it was dubbed the “king’s vessel” in the 15th century, it was produced in the imperial kilns in great numbers. Whiteware became the most beloved and the most mass-produced ceramics form in Korea during the Joseon dynasty. Whiteware decorated with images rendered in iron brown slip is especially desirable.
While Korean vases can have geometric or scrolling band decoration, naturalistic motifs are more common, ranging from flowers, to stylized birds, insects and fish. Ceramicists often used inlay techniques to highlight design motifs with different colored slip decoration that would turn white or black once fired in the kiln. Mother-of-pearl inlay adds to a vase’s intrinsic value. Korean potters also developed a technique called sanggam inlay back in the 12th century; it featured incised decoration that was filled in with white or red slip before the piece was enrobed in a translucent celadon glaze.
Classic Korean vase forms range in shape depending on the intended function, from bulbous moon jars and melon-form vases to those in the maebyeong style, which represents a takeoff on classic Chinese meiping plum vases. Maebyeong vases could be used for wine or flower clippings and were characterized by a short neck, a round shoulder and a tight waist.
The linked art traditions of Chinese and Korean ceramics cannot be ignored, and the maebyeong vase, perhaps more so than other vases, clearly shows the influence of China. This type of vase started out fairly tall and slender and later became more rounded. So too, the link from Goryeo to Josean and contemporary ceramics in Korea transcends time and shows the continuity and evolution of the country’s ceramic traditions.