Heritage and Diversity: the transit of Ceramic Ideas from Korea to Europe to Korea.
The transmission of knowledge and sensibility across cultures leaves a complex trail of objects and ideas that invite exploration. In my researches, I could find no real evidence concerning the knowledge of handmade European ceramics in Korea until very recently; the advent of trade and importation of industrially produced pottery from the factories of Europe in the 18th. and 19th. centuries, commenced an awareness of the otherness of ceramic traditions elsewhere in the world. By contrast, in the West, the concept of Korean ceramics featured powerfully in the narratives of early 20th. Century studio ceramics, these ideas were brought centre-stage, as an idea, by the self-appointed (pottery) representatives of two imperialist nations: Bernard Leach from Great Britain and Soetsu Yanagi from Japan, who travelled to the peninsula together. They constructed a narrative for Korean ceramics of an uncorrupted vision of innocence, which became the currency of the dominant discourse until Korean scholars commenced their own writings. In his seminal text The Unknown Craftsman, Yanagi described his encounter with Korean pots, in almost breathless tones – describing the “serene beauty”, “unpretentious beauty”, and “humble beauty” of the “peasant” pottery he encountered. Korean commentators in recent years have sought to distance their ceramic tradition from this sentimentalizing perspective and emphasized instead the “natural beauty”, through its respect for the nature of the material, and “simple beauty”, in its lack of complexity and lack of extravagance. Many of us in the West grew up with the texts of Leach and Yanagi as formative influences; it was through these books that we had access to cultures that had a continuity of ceramic tradition; a way of working that had all but disappeared with the advent of factory production. The ways of Eastern potters while no longer secret, were mediated by these cultural commentators, who had their own (perhaps unconscious ) agendas.
The provenance of a way of doing, making or thinking is very hard to demonstrate; and often these have evolved in different countries at the same time. Nonetheless, the list of techniques that we in the West have adopted and modified, that originated in the Far-East, is a long one. Despite the fact that clay is well distributed across the Earth, most of the essential developments, exemplified in this exhibition, in technology and the consequent aesthetic developments that derived from them, commenced in Korea, China and Japan. Yet it was the division of labour and the introduction of the factory system, from European nations and the USA which nearly led to the disappearance of hand-made production in both West and East.
Towards the end of the last total war (WW2), which itself was a culmination in various responses to industrialization, these new models of production had all-but extinguished the old ways of training potters in the UK. These essential modes of communication, of passing haptic and tacit knowledge through practice, training both the hand and eye through direct experience of working with a master had been lost. In response to the destruction of war a new generation of “artist-craftsmen/craftswomen” looked to the moral qualities of small-scale pottery production as a means of healing through the intrinsic values of hand-making for the practitioner; additionally, the life-enhancing Arts and Crafts values of “the Handmade” could be communicated to the new owner via the purchase of hand-made utilitarian ceramic wares. There was nonetheless a problem, for in Britain there was hardly anywhere that one could acquire the traditional skills and knowledge necessary to the small-scale pottery making of the “artist-craftsman/craftswoman”. The ceramic industry, which at that time was involved in mass-manufacture, had such extreme division of labour, separating the different elements of the trade that an individual could not acquire the comprehensive range of skills necessary for success in solo production.
At the beginning of the war, in 1940, Bernard Leach published a small book in an orange jacket; with hand–drawn illustrations and a conversational style of writing, A Potter’s Book was essentially the very first primer for studio potters. The craftsmen who bought this book in Europe and America were the first generation of practitioners in clay who had not necessarily had the benefits of the apprenticeship system, or familial connections to the profession of potting.
This book was not heavily laden with technical detail, but it contained the germs of knowledge that Leach had acquired in his travels in Japan and Korea. Its existence in print and in words gave it a force and importance that underlined its unique status. The book was read, and then adopted as a creed – it almost assumed the power of holy text: Disputes in the British magazines Ceramic Review and Studio Pottery were impassioned, as the followers of the Leach-inspired ways of working, and particularly the requirement to adhere to his aesthetic “standards”, were regarded as incontrovertible. When I came, in turn, to study his texts I was part of the next generation, most of whom were not trained in pottery workshops, but in the colleges and universities. The standards that Leach asserted were unfamiliar Far-Eastern cultural values; I knew no-one in Britain, at that time, who had ever visited the Far-East, whereas I was very well acquainted with travel to the mainland of Europe. We were directly influenced by the theories of the Bauhaus, that had originated in Germany and had spread its message cross Western art schools through the dispersal of its teachers after the rise to power of the Nazi regime. The Bauhaus inculcated a complementary Modernism to Leach’s, which placed emphasis on a non-hierarchical range of studies where art and craft had equal status, and theoretical concerns underpinned all disciplines. To me Bauhaus teachings seemed familiar, after all they were European, but the exotic nature of the information that Leach had started to disseminate was enticing.
Leach used A Potter’s Book to advance a set of values, that were themselves an amalgam of Eastern and Western ideas, while informing the reader about techniques and materials. The book’s narrative follows the historical developments in ceramics from low temperature technologies to vitrification at white heat, that were significant in the development not merely of a water-tight clay body, but also in the development of new qualities of glaze; from fly-ash through ash glazes to celadons and porcelain. The techniques and methodologies described by Leach became a default range of expression for many potters; many of them were derived, to some extent, from their developments in Korea.
The first chapter in A Potter’s Book was an account of a raku-style firing, where a Japanese potter brought the kiln and a supply of bisque fired pots for Leach and his literati friends to decorate; the potter then fired them in the kiln he had built on site. Japanese raku is a development of ceramic techniques that were highly dependent on the qualities of Korean aesthetics communicated through the special mode of manufacture. These influences probably arrived in Japan in the 16th. and 17th. Centuries, brought by Korean potters who were often captured and kidnapped in raids and brought to the Japanese mainland. This was an appropriation of intellectual and spiritual knowledge by an aggressor. In Japan the Koreans, particularly a potter known as Chojiro who may have been a second-generation descendent of Korean parents, developed a way of creating work for the Japanese tea-ceremony (Cha-no-yu), that was the antithesis of the previously dominant modes of manufacture in Japan, which themselves had been derived from Chinese models. (Leach describes Chojiro as Korean; on the Japanese Raku family website he is purported to be Chinese! Morgan Pitelka in Handmade Culture suggests that much of the narrative of Raku is myth-making. It is nonetheless most instructive to examine the ceramic works of that medieval period, where one can see quite clearly the elegance, expense and striving for perfection in the Chinese and Japanese models, and the freedom and spontaneity evidenced in the unpretentious Korean pots of that time – these latter qualities which have proven so influential in the development of Tea-Ceremony and its utensils, under the influence of the Zen-Buddhist master Sen-no-Rikyu; they were created employing an aesthetic diametrically opposed to the dominant models of luxury that had previously existed in tea-connoisseurship.) It has only been in the second half of the 20th.century that the American form of raku has proven so influential
England had been the first country in the world to commence industrialization. Much of Europe followed soon after. Much of the intention and desirability of the industrially produced ceramics was in their seeming perfection, as well as their very low price. Thus fifty years ago scientists in the ceramics industry had perfected a quality of surface that was completely protected from the direct contact with flame. The firings were predictable – there were no surprises when the kiln was opened, and the same products could be sold this year as last. Leach suggested an alternative aesthetic: he evoked aspirations amongst us to engage with the techniques of medieval Korea and Japan which had persisted in those countries into the 20th. Century. They celebrated the accidental effects of flame. In Japan the products of many of these traditional kilns were desired for their applications in Tea-Ceremony, and attracted a high price for ceramics; the Korean potters did not have such an avenue to market their wares and consequently did not manage to preserve as many of the traditional pottery workshops as in the neighbor country. In the West, in the last century, the task of mass-production was embedded in factories; the studio pottery, promoted by Leach was to produce utilitarian wares for a new discerning market. There was in addition the development, in art-schools and universities, of ceramic as a way of thinking and learning – that is, clay as a means to asking questions. Thus in our exhibition emphasis is placed on the expressive potential of the material and the accidental qualities, created in Oriental kilns, which could be co-opted to pursue our aesthetic goals.
The range of work we have curated for this exhibition reveals a profound research into the making, decorating and firing techniques employed by Korean ceramicists, mediated through our European consciousness and hands. The raku work in the show is from a group of artists whose work I first critically examined in 1999. It is evident that they (and I) have continued exploring with this sharply defined focus, and have deepened our investigations. The work has a very high level of precision in form and applied decoration, before exposure to the variabilities of the American interpretation of the raku method. Thus our raku- and saggar-firing represent extremes of control, combined with the accidental products of the kiln. The ceramic artists using porcelain are another significant group. This material historically had a rarity value and conveyed a concept of purity and refinement. In the exhibition there are a number of ways artists choose to exploit porcelain, many of them highly articulated and controlled. There are pieces that use the range of subtle hues by mixing colour into the body to create objects of great delicacy. There are also potters featured whose use of soft clay exploits free ways of throwing on the potter’s wheel to create expressive vessels, as well as sculptural applications. A close examination of the types of celadon employed by the practitioners shown also highlights the uses of very translucent bright glaze that has been asserted as a Korean development of that glaze. Some potters have chosen to re-interpret classical Korean forms, like the moon-jar. Firing in Oriental-inspired kilns where the ware is exposed to the direct contact with flame has become a significant contemporary mode of expression. Thus this exhibition, examining heritage and diversity, shows ways in which European clay artists have learnt and understood from Korean exemplars; we have developed the forms and techniques into new modes of expression, while at the same time, showing critical respect for the Korean context in which they originated, and to which they are now returned to be exhibited.