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Celadon Pottery Leaves Visitor With Glazed Look

July 09, 1989|MAREN RUDOLPH | Rudolph is a free-lance writer living in Irvington, N.Y.

ICHON, South Korea — 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.

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