How remarkable that a simple piece of undecorated, fired white clay can be a riveting work of art.
Yet there it is, beckoning quietly from a vitrine near the start of "Treasures From Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910." The large and lovely show opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The work in question is "Moon Jar," a 16-inch porcelain vessel of a distinctive and highly coveted type. Porcelain was a global sensation in the 18th century, when this jar was made, and royal and other kilns in Korea produced sought-after works in different styles. Many are in the show, where their exceptional quality is a highlight.
One style was exquisitely austere.
Moon jars were made by joining two wheel-thrown porcelain hemispheres, lip to lip. (Look closely, and you can just barely see the joinery around the circumference.) The vessel's dimension at its widest point roughly equals the jar's height. Complicating matters is that the round vessel is not a perfect sphere. Rather, the form is slightly egg-shaped across its body.
That means the unknown artist had to produce two virtually identical, asymmetrical halves to fit them together. The result is an object whose organic quality is not depicted in any decoration on its surface, such as spiky reddish-brown bamboo shoots or a jaunty pair of undulating blue dragons chasing each other's tails, which adorn exceptional ceramic vases installed nearby.
Instead, the organic quality is inseparable from the form. Move around the moon jar and the shape subtly, almost magically shifts, like a moon going through phases.
The vessel feels almost alive, its milky whiteness neither crisp nor bright but soft and warm. It invites touch rather than ascetic display. Marks of hands that held it over centuries are recorded in a network of tiny scratches around the jar's lower perimeter.
Even the moon's cosmic symbolism — calm and deliberate yin to the sun's energetic yang — emerges from commitment to meticulous observation. Earth's celestial neighbor, when looked at with care, is not perfectly round. The artist built a visual wobble into his moon vessel, but it is less an abstraction than an observant naturalist's acute description of what's really out there in the night sky.
Pragmatic, not showy, conceptually rigorous and exquisitely realized, "Moon Jar" is an embodiment of fundamental principles of Neo-Confucian ethics.
That systematic reformulation of Chinese Confucianism was absorbed into the Korean state, beginning in the 14th century. Its dynastic rise is chronicled in the LACMA exhibition — jointly organized with the National Museum of Korea, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it travels after closing in Los Angeles on Sept. 28.
Traditional Korean art is not widely known in the U.S. LACMA has been seriously acquiring it for only about 15 years (the collection today numbers some 400 objects, several of them included in this show) and is on its way to becoming a major player.
Other notable museum holdings are in Boston, San Francisco and Cleveland. Korea's National Museum is lately helping to spread the word, having also jointly organized "Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom," a powerful show of early Buddhist art recently at New York's Metropolitan Museum.
The Joseon Dynasty being surveyed at LACMA represented a profound social and cultural transformation. Buddhism had been the official government religion on the Korean peninsula for a thousand years. Now, religious authority gave way to secularism. A large, bureaucratic government was led by royalty.
Buddhism wasn't forbidden for private practice, but the religion was no longer officially sanctioned. Joseon introduced a separation of temple and state. Civil service employment, not unlike going down to the DMV for a driver's license, now required passing a regulatory exam.
A painted 10-panel screen dated 1784, long after the personal, humanistic doctrine of Neo-Confucian philosophy had become the civic norm, shows what that meant. The 500-year Joseon Dynasty spanned the lives of 27 kings, and the screen celebrates the birth of a new crown prince.
An aerial view over a sprawling, compartmentalized architectural cutaway of the palace is a vision of orderly calm both inside and outside the royal walls. Eight painted panels encompass the landscape, framed by two panels of calligraphy dutifully listing the names of officials according to rank.
Hundreds of tiny courtiers celebrate. Yet they are like a single figure repeated over and over in linear patterns and grids. Even trees along the ridge of a distant mountain seem to march in a disciplined procession toward the palace. Nature dutifully lines up to greet the future monarch. A place for everything and vice versa.
A European system of spatial perspective had been showing up in Asian painting by then, just as Asian motifs were turning up in European art. (Remember that global sensation for porcelain?) This screen shows subtly employed perspective — albeit in reverse.
Rather than receding like train tracks off into an illusionistic distance, these architectural lines would eventually converge in front of the screen, not behind it. This perspective merges in the actual space where the viewer stands or sits. It's as if the fictive scene celebrating the crown prince's birth is a projection of the actual world outside — a projection encompassing and sweeping you along into its tidy representation.
A second spectacular 10-fold screen shows a profusion of peonies, symbol of wealth, interspersed with elegantly craggy rocks, sign of longevity. No two panels are alike, yet all 10 read visually as elegant variations on a single pictorial theme. Difference entwines with continuity.
A helpful wall text notes that, thanks to Neo-Confucian principles, Joseon society developed specific hierarchies of power: ruler over subject, husband over wife, parent over child. A strict separation of the sexes pervaded class stratification.
Aristocrats stood at the top, followed by professionals (including artists), peasants and, at the bottom, slaves. Not surprisingly, the exhibition presents art and artifacts related to the first two classes.
It includes nearly 150 screens, scrolls, ceramics, costumes, ritual objects and more. (Given their fragility, many works are being exchanged during stops on the nearly yearlong exhibition tour.) They are usefully organized into five sections that explain the court, society, ancestral rituals, Joseon Buddhism and the dynasty's end.
The first and fourth contain the most powerful works. That's probably because objects made for members of the court and for individuals' private religious devotion are the most reliably singular products of aesthetic negotiation between patron and artist.
It all fell apart at the dynasty's end, of course. As the 20th century approached, Joseon Korea's relatively insular world gave way to the pressures of modernity.
Those pressures included travel and photography. Camera pictures and personal mobility are inevitable enemies of rigid isolation, and the show's final gallery takes a precipitous plunge. The emblematic dryness of a preparatory drawing for a portrait of the emperor is traceable to the stiff, formal photograph on which the drawing is probably based.
And while the white porcelain dinner set commissioned for the imperial family is lovely, it's a long way from the great porcelain "Moon Jar" at the show's start. Perhaps that's because of its origins: One part of the dinner set was made in Japan and the other part was made in France, and both were imported to Korea.