Finding beauty in the simplest of things

by Yoko Haruhara

The Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo’s Komaba area was founded by Muneyoshi Yanagi (1889-1961) in 1936 and built in the style of a traditional Japanese house. With natural light filtering through shoji screens, its unusual setting enhances the wonderful displays from its collection of folk-craft items from Japan and around the world.

Its current exhibition, “Ceramics of the Joseon Dynasty: Korea and Her Art, a View by Muneyoshi Yanagi,” offers an array of skillfully crafted, functional objects from 1393-1910 that complement their surroundings. Focusing on ceramic tableware, calligrapher’s tools and ritual utensils that Yanagi himself collected, it showcases 270 pieces.

Yanagi recognized that such everyday objects possess a simple beauty and aesthetic purity. In “The Unknown Craftsmen,” his 1972 ode to mingei (handicrafts) and the world of the craftsman, he wrote, “The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy . . . the articles are to be lived with every day.”

It is this notion of intimacy that is central to understanding these objects, which have both a charming and familiar presence. Among the most beguiling items are the 18th- and 19th-century porcelain water droppers that show off the whimsy of their creators. They fill a room of the exhibition. Water droppers are used in calligraphy to dilute ink, and this collection includes ones shaped like frogs, turtles, birds, and rabbits, each with a tiny spout at its mouth. Displayed in a Joseon Dynasty style sarangbang (scholar’s study room), the items represent the world of the Korean intellectual, replete with hanging scrolls and scholars’ wooden desks that double as display areas for the items referred to as “scholar’s friends.” These include water droppers, brush stands, ink stones, ink brushes, paper and other essential calligrapher’s tools. The room’s backdrop of scrolls and screens displaying motifs from nature and folk tales is meant to inspire intellectual engagement: the writing of poetry and the appreciation of one’s surroundings.

What strikes the viewer at first glance is the simplicity, functionality and sculptural qualities of the objects. Each desk is typically adorned with several water droppers of different designs. Scholars were known to trade their prized water droppers with friends, creating an informal exchange system for these valued items. One of the most common shapes was the frog, portrayed in a fanciful array of designs. Tinted in various tones of off-white, ranging from bluish gray to a creamy color, these were sculpted or molded with eyes often painted in an underglaze of iron brown. More unusual is the peach-shaped one that is uncharacterstically large but curved so that it still fits into the palm of the hand. A symbol of longevity, the peach in this instance both possesses the potency of its symbolic content and the reassuring familiarity of a domestic item.

Another popular motif of this exhibition is the tiger and the magpie — the tiger an emblem of power and the magpie a bearer of good tidings. One of the highlights of the show is an 18th-century white porcelain jar that uses these motifs, painted in a contrasting copper-red underglaze, which is displayed in the main exhibition room. The jar vividly depicts a tiger on the front and a magpie on the back, and it demonstrates the craftsman’s mastery of the brush. An ever-present talismanic companion to the magpie, the tiger uses his powers to repel evil spirits. This felicitous pair often adorned scrolls displayed on the outer gates of Korean homes during New Year’s celebrations, which were hung to protect people from potentially harmful spirits.

The intimacy that one experiences with these treasures is an enduring characteristic of Korean artistry, which is integral to the work of contemporary Korean potters today. A renewed appreciation of handicrafts has led to a newfound recognition of the beauty of handmade tableware. At the forefront of this contemporary “boom” in pottery is ceramic artist Yi Yoonshin, a leading figure in the popularization of Korean ceramics. Her Yido Gallery, which opened this January, is located in the Gahoe-dong district near the Gyeongbok Palace, one of the only neighborhoods of Seoul to preserve its historic traditional Korean-style houses.

In an interview with The Japan Times, she remarked that “the items are made to be used, and it is only then that one recognizes their beauty.” Like Yanagi, Yi is a strong proponent of the appreciation of handicrafts, and she notes with pride that “in the past 10 years, Koreans have been paying more attention to handmade ceramic tableware, preferring crafted items to products manufactured in a factory.”

Just as Yanagi’s legacy is the passion he had in advancing public recognition of the skills of the unnamed craftsmen who devoted their lives to everyday objects, Yi is creating a new legacy in Seoul for future generations: valuing the handmade and providing it a place of prominence in contemporary culture.

“Ceramics of the Joseon Dynasty: Korea and Her Art” at The Japan Folk Crafts Museum, runs till June 27; admission ¥1,000; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Mon. For more information, visit www.mingeikan.or.jp