"First Under Heaven," a new exhibit at the Sackler Museum, is an excellent and broad-based showcase of the rich tradition of Korean ceramics. Composed of pieces from the recently acquired Henderson Collection, the show features the most extensive and complete display of Korean ceramics in the West.
This show is tremendously important for a Western viewer for many reasons. As most Americans base their conceptions of Korea on what they've seen on M.A.S.H., they are ignorant of Korea's grand artistic tradition. While Korean art takes form in many media, Korean ceramics are perhaps the most highly renowned form. For most Western viewers, the art and particularly the ceramics of Korea are often overshadowed by those of China and Japan. Yet the tradition of Korean ceramics, while not as ancient as China's, is equally rich and innovative. The Henderson Collection not only offers examples of excellent ceramic wares, but it also has representative wares which show the technical progression of ceramics in Korea.
While Korea's ceramic tradition is as impressive as China's, the smaller country naturally has a more monolithic tradition. The exhibit creates a coherent chronology by dividing the tradition into its four historical periods: the Three Kingdoms Period (57 B.C.A.D. 668), the United Silla Period (668-935), the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) and the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910).
The first gallery shows wares of the Three Kingdoms and United Silla periods. The Three Kingdoms Period shows little Chinese influence, but part of what makes Korean ceramics of this period so successful is the technical proficiency that only Korean and Chinese ceramics of the period were able to achieve. The wares of the Three Kingdoms Period are generally made of grey stoneware, a high-fired ceramic ware impervious to liquid. The Henderson Collection has many fine examples of these early wares, particularly ceremonial stands and food containers known for their large scale and cut-out bases. These dramatic pieces of near technical perfection should not be missed. The other wares of the Three Kingdoms Period show the influences of different media on the ceramic tradition; perhaps Korean ceramics should not be examined in a vacuum but rather in conjunction with other arts of Korea as well.
As Buddhism started to flourish in Korea during the United Silla Period, ties between Korea and China strengthened. The ceramic wares of the Silla Period show a closer similarity with those of China. With Silla wares the first experiments with an ash glaze that may have formed in firing occured. The shapes of Silla wares are influenced by Chinese ceramics, as the decorated bases are supplanted by Chinese style footrings. The wares of the Silla Period also take on more organic shapes. While the wares of the Silla Period are not the most exciting objects in the "First Under Heaven" exhibit, they are important for charting the development of Korean ceramics.
In the subsequent two periods, the Koryo Dynasty and the Choson Dynasty, Korean ceramics start to look like what most Western viewers would expect of Oriental ceramics. The collection of wares on display from these two periods are truly magnificent, and they stand as premier examples of the differing traditions of Korean and Chinese ceramics. In the Koryo Period, Korean potters perfected the technique of celadon glazing. Celsdon wares, glazed in a blue to green glaze, started in China and traveled into Korea. The celadon glazes, which gain their color from iron compounds contained in the glaze, were well suited as glazes for the grey stoneware used in Korea. Decorative techniques such as carving, incising and molding were employed in these Koryo ceramics as well. Later in the Koryo celadon tradition, in a complete departure from Chinese ceramics, Korean potters so mastered the celadon technique that they incorporated inlaid black and white slip--or liquid clay--designs into the grey stoneware bodies for added decoration. The inlaid celadon wares of the Koryo Dynasty in the Henderson Collection are breathtaking examples of a uniquely Korean art.
Finally, the last period of Korean wares covered in the Henderson Collection date from the Choson Period. Varied and inventive, the ceramics of this period are the most diverse in artistic style. And there are more types of ceramics. In addition to the traditional stoneware, some ceramics are made of porcelain, a high-fired ware that is translucent when held up to the light. In the Choson Period, porcelain wares are painted with a blue underglaze, but they are also carved and glazed with a light celadon glaze. While similar traditions can be seen in contemporaneous Chinese porcelains, the shapes of Korean porcelains are more inventive. The porcelain wares of the Henderson are excellent representatives of the tradition. Finally, another ceramic tradition of the Choson Period is that of punch'ong stoneware. These wares are made from stoneware covered in a layer of white slip and then applied with various means of decoration, from stamped to painted designs.
"First Under Heaven" is a treasure Harvard is very lucky to have. It is an exhibition which should be of interest not only to the art historian, but also to the artist and those curious about the science of ceramics. Free from the conventions of Western art, the show gives us the rare opportunity to appreciate not how the artist has manipulated the viewer to an idea, but how the artist has manipulated earth to make it into such a beautiful thing.