- Traditional Korean Ceramics: A Look by a Scientist by Carolyn Kyongshin Koh Choo
As can be surmised from its title, this book is a comprehensive survey of traditional Korean ceramics written by a scientist. Its author, Carolyn Kyongshin Koh Choo, is a scientist who has taken an unusual career path. Trained as a physical chemist at MIT, she turned her research focus to traditional Korean ceramics in the early 1990s, establishing the Department of Science of Cultural Properties at Chung-Ang University as the institutional base for her extraordinary project to “understand the beauty of [Korean] ceramic wares from a scientific point of view” (9).
The guiding motive of this book is not especially different from that of the prominent 20th-century connoisseurs of Korean ceramic arts. Like Yanagi Muneyoshi, Ko Yusŏp, and other modern art historians, Koh Choo also searches for the uniqueness of the Korean ceramic tradition by identifying its subtle differences from the grossly similar but technically more sophisticated Chinese tradition. To this common search for Korean uniqueness, she adds her own “scientific point of view.” She presents the microscopic and chemical analysis of ceramic shards excavated from major kiln sites as a new way to investigate the unique technical and aesthetic characteristics of Korean ceramics.
Reflecting the author’s self-positioning as a scientific connoisseur of Korean ceramic art, this book takes a different approach from that of ordinary art history works. Rather than following the conventional historical succession of the main ceramic types, from Koryŏ celadon to Chosŏn white porcelain, she [End Page 257] arranges its four parts (each consisting of three chapters) according to major decorative methods employed by Korean potters (15). After giving an overall introduction to Korean ceramics in Part 1, the remaining three parts are devoted to discussions of major techniques that characterize Korean ceramic art: underglazing and inlaying (sanggam 象嵌) (Part 2), various decorative methods applied to Chosŏn punch’ŏng wares (Part 3), and finally, uses of pigments (iron-rich clay, copper red, and cobalt blue) in brush painting on ceramic surfaces (Part 4). This arrangement of topics according to decorative techniques enables the author to freely commute between the two realms of art and science in her discussion of specific methods. She thus connects the prominent aesthetic features, imparted to the ceramic wares by certain techniques, with the scientific analysis of the ceramic bodies, glazes, and pigments that were employed in the technical processes.
In order for readers to follow this oscillation between artistic and scientific discussions, it is essential to rely on the introductory Part 1, which offers a well-arranged and highly enlightening overview of the book’s contents. Chapter 1 presents the aesthetic characteristics of Korean ceramic arts, compared with those of China. Unlike the Chinese ceramic tradition, which developed a technically sophisticated overglazing method as a response to ever increasing international demands, the Korean tradition remained in isolation from global market trends, continuously relying on the underglazing method. This was the technical base upon which Korean potters imparted to their wares the “subdued and restrained beauty” (25) which, according to many modern connoisseurs, came to represent the “quintessence of the Oriental spirit” (18). Chapter 2 portrays the historical process of how Chinese ceramic techniques were imported and assimilated, while identifying the major sociopolitical and philosophical environments that shaped the fundamental characteristics of Korean ceramics. The high concentration of ceramic production into a few government-controlled centers (Kangjin and Puan in Koryŏ, and Kwangju in Chosŏn) explains the lack of diversity in the Korean ceramic tradition. Philosophical trends of the ruling class, especially Chosŏn Confucianism with its emphasis on frugality and simplicity, discouraged technical sophistication and colorful decoration, thus giving birth to what might be called the minimalist aesthetics of Chosŏn punch’ŏng ware and white porcelain. In Chapter 3, the author introduces an entirely new, scientific way to view the methods of traditional ceramic arts. For the careful reader, discovering how certain aesthetic features of ceramics can be explained by the chemical composition of the raw...