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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Joseon Buncheong Ware: Between Celadon and Porcelain

Bold. Earthy. Dynamic. Modern. These are some of the words we associate with buncheong ware, the striking ceramic type produced during the first 200 years of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Curiously, this arresting ware lacked a designated name at the time, at least judging from its absence in contemporaneous documents. The term bunjang hoecheong sagi was coined in the 1930s by South Korea’s first art historian, Go Yuseop; it translates as “gray-green ceramics decorated with powder.” What we know today as buncheong ware is a loose group of ceramics with a relatively coarse gray body embellished in various fashion with white slip, and covered in green-tinted semi-translucent glaze.

Both the raw materials and the decorative vocabulary of buncheong ware owe much to the famed celadon tradition of the preceding Goryeo dynasty (918–1392). The clay and glaze of buncheong are essentially similar to those of celadon but less processed and refined. Buncheong‘s main decorative mode—the use of white slip under the glaze—adapts the inlay technique polished and popularized by the Goryeo potters. Indeed, it is important to recognize that buncheong ware evolved from a long-established tradition as a result of changes in patronage, manufacturing pattern, and aesthetic taste. Yet there is no mistaking the distinctive style of buncheong ware. If Goryeo celadon embodies classical elegance, buncheong ware represents experimental spirit.

Contrary to the popular impression of buncheong ware as ceramics for the commoner, large numbers of buncheong pieces, particularly during the fifteenth century, were manufactured for central and provincial governments. Many, predominantly dishes and bowls, bear the stamped names of the government bureaus to which they were destined. Two of the most frequently found names are Jangheung-go, the bureau in charge of mats and paper that supplied goods used at various government offices, and Naeseom-si, the bureau in charge of overseeing tributary products from the provinces to the royal palace, liquor for officials of second rank or higher, and food and textiles for Japanese and Manchurian visitors.

Buncheong ware exhibits distinctive regional characteristics. Representative of buncheong ware made in Gyeongsang Province are those with inlaid and stamped decoration, with regular, well-defined patterns. In contrast, buncheong from Jeolla Province typically has incised or sgraffito designs, which tend to be more freely executed and inventive. The kiln sites of Mount Gyeryong in Chungcheong Province is famous for its buncheong with iron-painted decoration. The tonal contrast of bold iron-brown against the white slip background is stunning. The incised (Jeolla) or iron-painted (Chungcheong) “drawings” are often whimsical and evocative; and whether representational or abstract, they are always visually compelling.

Unlike buncheong, the production of porcelain during the Joseon dynasty was centralized. A group of kilns known as bunwon, catering to and managed by the royal court, was operating not far from the capital of Hanyang (present-day Seoul) as early as the 1460s. Bunwon continued as the manufacturing center of porcelain until the second half of the nineteenth century, but already by the sixteenth century, the demand for porcelain expanded beyond the Joseon elite and the capital. Porcelain kilns in the regions multiplied, and even buncheong kilns eventually turned to making porcelain. Typical sixteenth-century buncheong ware, such as those brushed with white slip or completely dipped in white slip, undoubtedly represent less expensive alternatives to white porcelain. Yet their slightly irregular surface design endows them with a vibrant beauty.

Gradually replaced by porcelain by the end of the sixteenth century, the buncheong tradition was brought to an end with the Japanese invasions of Korea between 1592 and 1598. When the devastated ceramic industries of Joseon were rebuilt in the seventeenth century, only porcelain production was resumed. Revivals of buncheong ware sprouted in Japan, by both descendants of settled Korean potters and Japanese natives. Today, contemporary potters in Japan and Korea alike are turning to the old buncheong tradition and rediscovering its modern aesthetic.