Celadon Pottery Leaves Visitor With Glazed Look

Rudolph is a free-lance writer living in Irvington, N.Y.

About 80 years ago a Korean farmer returning from work noticed a curious object half-hidden along a red dirt path near his home. He thought the item was a piece of jade--it had the right texture and color. But once he had picked up the curio and rubbed it clean, he found a green ceramic duck instead of a precious stone.

The duck was in good condition, and its charming shape showed the whimsical intent of its maker.

People in the country had no use for such items, so the farmer went to town the next day and sold his prize--a perfect Koryo Dynasty (AD 935-1392) celadon water dropper.

Serendipitous discoveries such as this were almost routine in early 20th-Century Korea. The story of the duck-shaped calligraphy instrument is not unique. It was just one of several finds that exposed a cache of ceramics unlike anything the art world has ever seen.

Celadon is to Korea what Sevres is to France, Ming to China and Delft to the Netherlands. Until 1910, however, the grayish-green porcelains, symbolic of South Korea's Golden Age, remained largely forgotten--buried in aristocratic tombs for about 600 years--until unearthed when occupying Japanese began to dig a network of highways throughout the peninsula.

Since their rediscovery Koryo celadons--items such as water droppers, hair ornaments, square pillows, rice bowls, teapots and wine vases--have delighted connoisseurs.

In South Korea's capital of Seoul, merchants lug wooden carts piled high with intricate new inlaid maebyongs (vases with a gourd-shaped top) through crowded streets of Insa-dong, Seoul's exclusive antique district, where shops show off medieval ceramics from water droppers to wine bottles.

A few blocks south in the deluxe hotel region of Myong-dong, expensive galleries in underground arcades lure buyers with one or two flawless Koryo Dynasty copies.

For a first-time visitor the concentration is dizzying. After a while, however, saturation gives way to appreciation. And before you know it, a love affair with the soft green ceramics begins.

Part of what distinguishes Koryo celadons is their elegant simplicity. Unlike the more flamboyant Mings and Imaris, effects rendered by a celadon maebyong are as subtle as a Japanese garden.

The maebyong does not reach out and dazzle the observer as does a Ming; instead, it waits. Its appeal stems from an uncontrived balance of color, motif and form--as well as the quiet impression this leaves upon the intellect and senses.

South Korea's antique celadons are rare and expensive. Prices vary according to quality and demand, but an authentic Koryo Dynasty bowl, even in poor condition, is certain to bring $3,000 or more. Foreigners can buy flawed but charming antique celadons at Insa-dong galleries.

(You must have government approval if you want to take any curio more than 65 years old home with you.)

But if it is perfection you want, do not despair. Reproductions crafted in mountain kilns using the ancient process make fine substitutes. At city galleries and even department stores you can buy copies that rival original Koryo ceramics found in the National Museum of Seoul.

But they do not come cheap. Vases from potters such as Chi Sun-t'aek and Yoo Keun-hyeong--both national living treasures--could cost $8,000 or more.

If your schedule permits, there is a less expensive way to acquire a celadon souvenir. For one-third the cost and three times the fun, you can travel to a country kiln and discover what South Koreans mean by "Chosun" or "Morning Calm."

South Korea's most popular pottery region is this mountain village of Ichon--about 20 miles south of Seoul, where famous kilns of Koryo-doyo and Haegang-doyo, craft splendid Koryo celadon reproductions.

In early fall, country dwellers string red peppers atop roofs in preparation for the kimchi festival (when Korea's staple of hot and spicy pickled cabbage is celebrated) as workers push for an abundant celadon harvest before the frigid winter sets in.

Ichon's kilns keep busy, and when its storerooms bulge with pots, you can seize a masterpiece for a fraction of its gallery value. And better yet, the beauty of the Korean countryside is there for the seeing.

Fluffy white clouds cap mountains and pepper hills with shadows as if imitating subtle designs on a 12th-Century celadon vase. In the valley, the harvest nears and the rice stands tall.

Farmers dressed in white carry heavy loads of produce on their backs and gracefully walk red dirt paths as if being carried down terraced hills on a wave of grain.

Part of what distinguishes South Korean celadon from that of the Sung Chinese lies in these simple pastoral scenes. The graceful lines and sensuous forms come from familiar objects--a melon, a gourd, a bamboo shoot, a reed. The spirited motifs--ducks playing among reeds, cranes soaring through clouds--arise from landscapes lyrical and naive.

Good celadon reproductions follow the same painstaking process of the Koryo period. First, the best clays are selected and taken to the kiln site. Preparation of the clay is important, for unless a suitably plastic condition is achieved, the finished product will appear rough.

Also, without the proper mixture of clays containing kaolin and petuntse , a Chinese discovery called the "bones and flesh" of porcelain, celadons would crack at the high firing of 1,300 degrees centigrade, and the soft, green glaze would never fuse with the body.

Twisting up and down Ichon's mountain roads, you encounter kiln upon kiln.

In one room, an artisan with Popeye-sized forearms throws a slab of gray earth onto a spinning wheel and--presto--a shape is born. In another, 12-year-old apprentices carve intricate designs onto "leather-dried" pots, while older artists inlay chiseled crevices with white or black slip, depending upon the master potter's whim. The day that storerooms fill with trimmed pots the real feat begins--the glaze.

Of Koryo celadon's three distinguishing features (shape, design and glaze) the latter is the most important and the hardest to achieve. It is perhaps the delicate serenity of the celadon glaze--never opaque, always soft and transparent--that most distinguishes the beauty of Koryo pieces.

How a color so lush could emerge from elements as common as flower petals, red clay and wood ash is a factory secret. While the precise composition of the iron-oxide-based glaze varies from kiln to kiln, all masters share in one tradition--they reveal their formulas only to their heirs.

The best celadons bake in pine-burning kilns that arch like dormers onto Ichon's wooded mountainsides. Some reproductions are fired in electric ovens, but modern methods, while more predictive, fail to capture the luster of medieval Koryo--especially the soft sparkle caused by melted particles and bubbles imprisoned within the glaze.

Master potters preferring ancient ways heat with pine even though only one in 10 of their intricately prepared pots will survive. Those that do are expensive.

If you visit Ichon, you might want to take along a rabbit's foot or two. When the kilns begin to smoke, a cloud of superstition wafts across the hills.

Believing that spirits reside not only in humans but in natural forces and inanimate objects, Korean potters call on ancient shaman symbols to ensure a successful outcome. Some hire mudangs (sorceresses) to perform ceremonies (kuts) to shake off demons. Others offer food--pig's heads on tridents--to get good spirits on their side.

Spells notwithstanding, fall firings are festive occasions. Besides good buys (especially on pots judged imperfect for gallery sale), Ichon offers insights and experiences not shared in Seoul.

-- -- --

The best approach to Ichon, 35 miles southeast of Seoul, is via bus tour or private car. Your hotel concierge can put you in touch with one of the many Korean travel agents who offer day trips to Ichon and nearby Kwangju (Kyonggi-do province).

If you are not the bus-tour type, a chauffeur-driven car can be arranged through your hotel. Most car-rental agencies, such as Seoul's Hertz-affiliated Daehan Rent-a-Car, provide drivers. The daily rate (10 hours) for driver and car is $80, plus tolls for the first 77 miles. After that, the rate changes to 50 cents a mile, plus $6 an hour.

While foreigners can obtain rental cars without drivers, most do not--especially when traveling outside Seoul. Country road signs are only in Korean, so persons not fluent in Hangul are advised to pay the modest chauffeur's fee.

About 40 kilns are spread out along the Kwangju-Ichon highway. Most feature showrooms in addition to factories. The most famous are Chi Sun-t'aek's at 409, Sugwang-ri Shindun-myon, Ichon, and Yoo Keun-hyeong's at 323-4, Sugwang-ri, Shindun-myon, Ichon.

In addition to pottery, Ichon is noted for its hot springs. Just off the main highway at 313-5-Anhung-ri, Ichon-up, is the town's famous resort spa--Hotel Seol Bong.

Besides offering some of Korea's best spa facilities, the hotel features both Western and Korean cuisine.

For more information on travel to Korea, contact the Korea National Tourism Corp., 510 West 6th St., Suite 323, Los Angeles 90014, (213) 623-1226.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°