Dynasties that knew good living

From celadon wares to inlaid lacquer, Korea's Goryeo and Joseon aristocrats celebrated beauty

by Yoko Haruhara

Off the beaten path in the Kita-ku district in northern Kyoto sits a veritable jewel, the charming Koryo Museum of Art, which houses a collection of Korean traditional arts. Koryo is unique in Japan for its more than 20-year mission of exhibiting traditional Korean artwork.

Currently on display at the museum is a special exhibit of 100 pieces of decorative art from the Goryeo (918-1392) and Joseon (1392-1910) dynasties. Titled “The Dazzling World of Korean Craftsmanship: Inlaid Lacquer Ware and Celadon Ware,” the exhibit, which is showing till June 28, is a tour de force of exquisitely crafted objects.

The Goryeo Dynasty is considered the golden age of ceramics in the history of Korea, when the celadon ware produced for the aristocracy was elevated to an art form. Buddhism flourished during this period, and Buddhist temples and members of the royal court vied in their patronage of the arts. The ceramic wares of the Goryeo Dynasty court give a wonderful sense of the life they lived.

Goryeo celadon ware is renowned for its beautiful jade-green color, graceful shape, elegant floral motifs, and decorative inlaid designs, and was consequently highly prized by the nobility. Used for both ceremonial and utilitarian purposes, its production was limited to royal kilns. Buddhist monks had celadon ware items produced for use in ceremonies, including tea bowls, incense burners and kundika (ritual vessels that held holy water for purification). The ware’s practical application in the palaces included tableware, wine cups, ewers, plates and bowls, along with tiles that adorned palace roofs.

The techniques for the manufacture of celadon ware were first introduced from China in the 10th century. As Korean potters advanced their skills, they mastered the high-fire glazing techniques employed in the production of celadon. In the 12th century, innovations were developed, such as the use of the sanggam inlay technique in which designs were incised on the unfired clay body of a vessel, and those recesses filled with white or red slip. The piece would then be coated in celadon glaze, and, when fired and removed from the kiln, the inlaid design emerged beautifully in white and black from beneath the green glaze.

Of all the pieces in the exhibit, the tea bowls are among the most exquisite examples of celadon ware in the museum. A 12th-century tea bowl and saucer set demonstrates the overarching skill of its craftsman. The flower-shape tea bowl rests delicately on a raised stand carved in the shape of layers of a lotus petal. The saucer with its broad petals is reminiscent of a lotus blossom in full bloom. The lotus, always central to Buddhist iconography, symbolizes the purity found in Paradise. In addition to the lotus leitmotif, the cup and saucer display a profusion of other features, including a peony design in the saucer and inlaid white chrysanthemum blossoms on the tea bowl.

Such breathtakingly beautiful examples of celadon ware did not see the light of day for centuries until the 1880s, when they were first excavated from the tombs of the Goryeo dynasty kings. As a result of repeated Mongol invasions and the waning power of the kingdom, by the late 13th century, the age of finely crafted celadon ware had come to an end.

Another art form perfected under the patronage of court nobles and developed during the subsequent Joseon dynasty, was the use of mother-of-pearl to create inlaid designs in lacquer ware and lacquered furniture. This decorative technique was used in such diverse applications as the adornment of wardrobe chests, tray tables, wedding boxes, mirrors, cosmetic boxes and chess boards. Red lacquer was reserved for the use of royal families, while other members of the aristocracy were permitted to use black lacquer to embellish their furniture and other decorative items.

Inlaying started with the application of incredibly thin slivers of abalone shells that revealed their mother-of-pearl interiors. These pieces were painstakingly embedded into the surface of the wood, resulting in the creation of lovely images of flowers and birds. The next step in the process was to apply multiple coats of lacquer to the exterior surface, and then to finish and polish the surface by sanding away the excess lacquer. Once polished, the furniture glimmered with the iridescent colors of the shell pieces.

The exhibition showcases 36 pieces of inlaid lacquerware and lacquered furniture. Two in particular stand out in the Koryo exhibit, both dating from the 19th century. One is a black lacquered chess board, the other is a rare stacking chest. The chess board is lavishly inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and the sides of the board are decorated with depictions of a well-known tale of four white-bearded sages playing chess under a pine tree while a small boy nearby watches over a pot of water he is heating for the men’s tea. The scene evokes the image of the wise noblemen who, according to Chinese legend, escaped the pressures of everyday life in order to live peacefully in the mountains.

All the sides of the chess board are embellished with nature scenes that include motifs such as plum trees, bamboo, and rocks. The nature imagery affirms the noblemen’s sense of harmony with their surroundings, and the scene harkens back to the leisurely world of the aristocrats, who built open-air pavilions called jeongja overlooking gardens and ponds to fully appreciate nature. They pursued the most elegant pastimes with intimate friends, mainly playing chess, reciting poems, playing musical instruments and painting.

The stacking chest is equally striking; what makes it particularly rare is not only the design, but its adornment with inlaid tortoise shell, gold wire and shark skin in addition to the typical mother-of-pearl. The image depicts four dragon spirits, facing each other in pairs with wide open mouths. Their scales are ingeniously crafted from white shark skin subtly dyed with pink pigment, creating a stark contrast to the black lacquered background. Above their heads float talismanic yin-yang designs, emblematic of the complementary energies of the cosmos, and a ball of holy light — inlaid with tortoise shell — that gleams between their claws.

T he glamorous world of the nobleman of the Joseon dynasty was one of sublime refinement and appreciation of beautiful objects. For a glimpse at the furnishings and dwelling spaces of aristocrats of this period, it is well worth a trip to a reconstruction of a 19th-century nobleman’s living room at the new Korean Cultural Center of the Korean Embassy in Tokyo, which reopened on Wednesday at a new location in Shinjuku Ward’s Yotsuya. The room is modeled after the Yeon-gyeongdang House made for King Sunjo (1790-1834).

When viewed in juxtaposition, the celadon ware of the Goryeo dynasty and the fanciful furniture and lacquer ware of the Joseon dynasty collectively display the heights of the genteel lifestyle of the Korean royal family and aristocracy. These ingeniously designed items influenced later generations, for whom the advanced and time-consuming techniques used to produce them helped shaped the sensibilities of crafted everyday items for the general populace.

“Dazzling World of Korean Craftsmanship: Inlaid Lacquer Ware and Celadon Ware Exhibition” is at the Koryo Museum of Art till June 28 (15 Kamino-Kishicho, Shichiku, Kita-ku, Kyoto); admission ¥500; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Mon.). For more information, call (075) 491-1192 or visit www.koryomuseum.or.jp The new Korean Cultural Center of the Korean Embassy is at 4-4-10 Yotsuya, Shinjuku Ward. The center welcomes visitors to the royal living room modeled after King Sunjo’s residence (guided tours are by appointment only); admission free; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Sat. and Sun.) For more information, call (03) 3357-5970 or visit www.koreanculture.jp