Freer Exhibit Illuminates the Korea-Japan Link

Posted December 11, 2009 at 3:24pm

The old saying goes that every picture tells a story. In a new exhibit at the Freer Gallery of Art, so does every handcrafted vase and bowl. From military conquests to innovations in pottery techniques, the show tells the tale of Japanese-Korean relationships in the 16th century through a fusion of their art.

“Cornucopia: Ceramics from Southern Japan— highlights the shifting styles of pottery-making at the time, from the use of dark and muted clays to the bright white porcelain that became a popular Japanese export. The display spans the 16th through 19th centuries.

The Kyushu style, named for the Japanese island where it was developed, was derived from the work of 15th-century Korean potters, who were brought to Japan after their native country was defeated by the Japanese military. Many of these potters were resettled on Kyushu, a southern island of Japan that sits in close proximity to the Korean peninsula.

The Japanese were well aware of the sophisticated techniques used by Korean potters, as ceramics had been a major Korean export to Japan. Kilns were set up in Kyushu so the Korean potters could continue their work, which could be used as a commercial commodity.

As the Freer exhibit makes clear, many of the original Korean pieces were made with dark-colored clays and were then decorated with a lighter clay, known as white slip.

The slip was applied using small wooden stamps, by filling depressions made in the still-soft clay or brushed on to enhance the darker colors.

The Japanese embraced this technique themselves, then made it their own by creating more elaborate designs on their bottles, plates and bowls.

One piece in the Freer display shows two cranes painted in the center, with several rows of intricate design stretching to the edges of the plate. Another noteworthy item is a large, round bottle once used for holding sake. It is brushed with a typical white slip mixture, but one can see smudges from handprints at the base. These are likely from the artist, who would have had to lift the damp bottle from his potter’s wheel in order to make room for his next assignment.

Many of the bowls and bottles fashioned in this style were used in the Japanese tea ceremony. In fact, much of the Freer exhibit consists of ceramics that would have served this purpose. Most are made of the typical dark clay, although there is one bowl that is more stylish and unique: It’s a white porcelain with a brown design painted on the outside. Curator Louise Cort said porcelain is generally not used in tea ceremonies because the material becomes too hot from the tea, so this bowl likely came from a period when artists were beginning to experiment with it.

This shift into the use of porcelain is also attributed to Korean artists. In 1615, a Korean potter familiar with the material found a supply of white porcelain clay and began crafting porcelain pieces in Japan, or so the story goes. Cort said that explanation is widely accepted, but there is no evidence about whether the process actually began with one Korean potter or if that is traditional lore. The porcelain technique became popular throughout the region and in 1640, Japanese artists began taking the process a step further by adding enamel coloring to create new designs on their pieces.

One such piece, a large vase featuring a red, green and blue pattern, is included in the “Cornucopia— exhibit. The vase is typical of the types of ceramics that became quite popular among European collectors.

While many kilns were established for commercial use for exports and domestic sales, “secret— kilns were also established in remote locations, Cort said. This is where particularly important pieces were made to be sent to Edo (present-day Tokyo) as a tribute to the central government. The locations were kept secret so no one could spy and steal the designs, which were meant to be uniquely crafted for the government.

After the 15th and 16th centuries, “Koreans forgot about it, but the Japanese were enthralled— by the style, Cort said. In fact, the use of white slip stamps, brushing and detailing continues to be seen in contemporary Japanese pottery.

“They picked up the techniques and styles and worked them out through the next several hundred years,— she said.

All of the pieces being shown come from the Freer collection. Cort said this is an exciting opportunity to show off some of the museum’s rarely seen holdings.

“One of the enjoyable aspects is that these pieces usually live in the storeroom,— she said. “I’ve known them well for many years in that setting, and getting to bring them up here, where they’re placed in a certain light and there’s a sense of importance, it’s always fun to see them— in that way.

“Cornucopia— opens Saturday and will run through January 2011.