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The many personalities of Buncheong ware: Joseon-era ceramic technique was used by royals and commoners

Oct 24,2018
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Two of the 10 gourd-shaped Buncheong ware (greyish-blue ceramic covered in coarse white glaze) bottles made using the dipping of the Dumbung technique, rear, and the Gwiyal technique, fore. [HORIM MUSEUM]
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Left: A Joseon-era Buncheong bottle made using the Gwiyal technique, in which the surface is decorated with a white slip using a coarse brush. Right: A Buncheong box by artist Ryo Kyung-jo using the Gwiyal technique.
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A Joseon-era Buncheong bowl made using the Dumbung technique, in which the vessel is dipped in white clay slip.
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At left is Choi Sung-jae’s “Riverside” (2008) using the Dumbung technique. At right is Yoon Kwang-cho’s “Mountain Dreams” (2009) using the Gwiyal technique.
Ten gourd-shaped Buncheong (greyish-blue ceramic covered in coarse white glaze) ware bottles are displayed in a line inside a dark exhibition hall at the Horim Museum in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. The bottles look identical at first glance, but when taking a close look, their white glazed exteriors each turn out to be different. The first five bottles used the so-called Dumbung technique, which is simply dipping the vessel in white clay, while the next five used the Gwiyal technique, which is decorating the surface with white using a coarse brush.

“We call Gwiyal technique the slip-brushed design and the Dumbung the slip-coated design,” said Suh Jee-min, the curator of the Horim Museum’s latest exhibition titled “Shades of Nature, Buncheong.” It runs until Feb. 2 of next year.

“When you look at these two techniques of creating Buncheong ware, you’ll see the charm behind the beauty of lines for Gwiyal Buncheong and the beauty of surface for Dumbung Buncheong wares,” Suh added. “The dynamic strokes of the Gwiyal technique and the composed weight of the Dumbung technique resonate with abstract and expressive modern paintings. By looking at different Buncheong wares with the layers of different textures from the gray and white clay and the variation of patterns created through exaggeration and elimination, visitors to the exhibition will be able to see the true essence of Buncheong ware.”

“Shades of Nature, Buncheong” displays some 70 pieces of Buncheong ware from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) on the third floor, which are all collections from the Horim Museum. On the second floor, there are about 50 modern works of Buncheong by nine artists.

Buncheong pottery first appeared in the early Joseon Dynasty. Buncheong was produced all across Korea, unlike some ceramics that are specific to certain regions. Since it was also mass-produced, Koreans, regardless of their social class, frequently used Buncheong ware as everyday objects. Because of its widespread use, Buncheong was able to “convey unrestrained, creative, sculptural beauty as well as differentiate itself from fancy celadon and sleek porcelain,” Suh added.

Usually, when museums display artifacts, they place small placards beside each piece of art to inform visitors about the history behind it. But Horim Museum decided to break from that custom and not include any information except for the piece’s name and period of creation.

“Those who would like to study the history behind each Buncheong ware may be disappointed,” Suh said, “but we decided to take out the information tags on purpose so that visitors can fully be mesmerized by the aesthetic aspect of the Buncheong ware in this exhibition.”

Since Buncheong wares were widely used in the Joseon Dynasty, there is a wide variety of items made using the process. The exhibition displays bottles, bowls, and plates in a wide variety of designs. Visitors will enjoy discovering the handprints of the artisans on many of the pieces.

The Horim Museum rarely organizes exhibits of contemporary art works. However, this time, the museum decided to display modern Buncheong wares along with Joseon Dynasty artifacts to “be in line with the abstract beauty of contemporary art,” said Suh.

The section displaying contemporary works is titled “Nature and Freedom,” as the two words seem to inspire the participating artists, explained Suh.

“When I visited their workshops, they were all located near the mountains and the sea or the river,” she said. “The artists also said they decided to work with Buncheong because you can be free from any kind of formalities.”

The contemporary works, therefore, go beyond simply creating bowls and plates. For example, Cha Kyu-sun’s “Landscape” created Buncheong plates to look like a canvas and painted his version of “landscapes” using the white slip.

BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

“Shades of Nature, Buncheong” runs until Feb. 2. Admission is 8,000 won ($7) for adults. The Horim Museum’s Sinsa branch opens from 10:30 a.m. and closes at 6 p.m. It is closed on Sundays.