Visitors can embark on a journey tracing the lives of the Korean bourgeois through the longevity of their pottery. Running up until Nov. 6, University of Michigan Museum of Art exposes visitors to 18 centuries of Korean culture in “The Enduring Art of the Korean Potter.” The form and function of the pieces, which were gathered and funded by the Hasenkamp and Nam families, are indicative of the change with social context.
“The 250 pieces of Korean pottery were carefully collected over time by Bruce Haskenkamp” said Museum educational director Pam Reister. “He sought to build a comprehensive collection that would be ideal for a teaching institution.” Hasenkamp sold the pottery collection to the University, each piece reflecting different cultural and societal trends in Korean history from the first to the 19th century. The acquisition of this collection signifies an important addition to the museum’s Asian art collection.
The collection is divided into three periods, displaying pieces that reflect cultural and aesthetic trends indicative of each respective time. The earliest pieces are characterized by their earthen, unglazed surfaces and unembellished design, demonstrating that their purpose was foremost a pragmatic one. These pieces are notable for their thin and even surfaces, which were difficult to achieve. Visitors should also take special notice of the differing heights of these pieces, as height was an indicator of class status: the taller the piece, the wealthier the owner.
The second time period displays pottery from the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392). Buddhist values that became prominent in Korea at the time are reflected in these pieces. Korean potters developed a celadon glaze that remains popular. “Celadon was highly prized in China and Japan and was sought after in this most innovative time” said Reister. These pieces have an austere beauty with a subtle design quality, most notable in their green hue, which ranges from green accented with blue, yellow and even brown. “These pieces are functional in a ritual way,” Reister added. Nobility in the court coveted these pieces because of their richly accented glaze.
The last time period exhibits pottery from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) when Confucianism came into fashion. Ornate designs featuring animals symbolizing Confucian values, such as the crane, the symbol of longevity, the crane, reflect this development. These pieces borrow from the Chinese tradition of cobalt blue glazed onto white porcelain pottery.
Because the pottery is arranged in a chronological order, it’s easy to observe not only the changing features and designs exemplified by these pieces, but also the culture of each period.
For instance, the water droppers in the Joseon Dynasty portion give visitors an insight into the life of upper-class Korean males, who were expected to be competent in poetry and calligraphy. These whimsical items were used to add water, one drop at a time, to solid ink that was ground against an ink stone to produce the desired consistency. Water droppers were often specifically crafted for individuals as gifts and were prolifically collected and traded.
The exhibit offers a distinct taste of Korean culture and history that can appeal to both pottery aficionados and those looking to expand their understanding of Korean culture and society.