Pots for the Taxman

Imagine having to send pots to the government as tribute. And imagine that these pots are used in festivals, banquets, and ceremonies hosted by the royal court and government offices. But there is a problem. The good people of your land steal the pots! So you are required to inscribe the name and seat of the office that takes your wares in tribute on each pot that you send. Vases, bowls, jars – everything! It would be like putting your governor’s name and city on each of your pieces. Horrors!

This was exactly the case with Korean Buncheong ceramics. Often 80% would go missing after a banquet until officials came up with the idea of having potters label the pieces. Today, looking at the lovely Korean Buncheong ceramics, you would not immediately guess that the writing – stamped, engraved, brushed with iron oxide – was anything other than decorative. It is a fun bit of history to think about as we try to get our tributes (taxes) to the IRS before the looming deadline Monday. Actually, I would not mind sending the governor a few bowls with his name written in iron oxide around the rim, if I didn’t have to send money.

Soyoung Lee, Associate Curator, Department of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Jeon Seun-chang, Chief Curator, Leeum, Samsun Museum of Art in Seoul share this story and more in Korean Buncheong Ceramics. They discuss Buncheong wares, which were made during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Korea, both aesthetically and historically.

The wares were thrown on the wheel and fired in efficient mud kilns to stoneware temperatures. Often slipped by dipping or by brushing and covered with sgrafitto peonies, leaves or vines, the pots are, as Lee and Seun-chang point out, startlingly modernist in appearance. “ One sees and feels the potter’s touch,” they write, “…[the pots are] defined by [the] extensive use of white slip…Buncheong design is characterized by its unconstrained, experimental spirit and minimalist look… these ceramics are fascinating because they defy simple dichotomies such as utilitarian object vs. creative art; low-tech and individualist handicraft vs. highly finished commercial product; rustic and naïve decoration vs. what a twenty-first century viewer might consider contemporary, even avant-garde…”

Wealthy Japanese of the Edo period fell in love with Korean pottery including and perhaps especially, Buncheong pottery. They imported Korean wares for use in the tea ceremony. Indeed, they were so enamored of Korean works that the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi captured Korean potters during the infamous “pottery war” and brought them to Japan to work. In time, Japanese potters were making their own Buncheong inspired works.

This is the kind of book that will bring you a feeling of calmness as you sit and slowly turn the pages and look at the photos. After you have done this two or three times and let the images seep into you, you will be ready to focus and read the erudite text.

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