Jules Does

Jules Does K-Pop Academy: Bonus Work – the Moon Jar

Posted on: October 24, 2014

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Hi all,

For this week’s homework, I did a presentation on Song Byeok, a North Korean defector turned pop artist. The other options for homework were to visit the current exhibition at the KCC and write a review or to make a version of an artwork we’d seen on Saturday and give it some art historical background. As you may remember from previous homework, I am not the best at art, so I gave up on the second option fairly early, and as I don’t live in London it was hard for me to get to the KCC’s exhibition, so I chose the third possible choice.

However, there was one piece we looked at in the British Museum’s collection that really stuck with me, so I’d like to write a piece on it here so that I could share it with all of you.

The Moon Jar

The picture above (it’s linked to the artefact’s page on the British Museum’s website) shows a white porcelain jar, or ‘moon jar’, in the British Museum. It’s 47 cm high and was made in the Joseon Period, between the 17th and 18th century AD. It was formed in two halves, then joined in the middle, glazed and fired. The joining of the two halves forms that odd waist in the centre of the jar. Owing to the complexity of construction, not many jars would have survived the firing process. The jar in the British Museum is one of 20 moon jars left in the world from this period, and it’s easy to see how the jar, with its pure white glaze and spherical form, resembles the moon. The jars would have been used to store goods such as soy sauce or rice, or potentially used to display flowers.

Its History and Philosophy

The jar may appear fairly simple and straight-forward – it’s a white jar, what’s the big deal, you may be asking – but in its simplicity it reflects a lot about the prevailing culture. As you may remember from my earlier post, the Joseon Period was characterised by Confucianism, which had an emphasis on learning, purity and simplicity. The simple, unadorned pot was Confucianism in action, as is its slightly slumped form – if a pot subsided on the wheel or in the kiln, that was nature (and gravity) taking its course. Imperfection was perfection. Moon jars were popular both among common people and the royal court, which prided itself on its Confucian intellectualism.

In the period in which this jar was made, Korea was still recovering from two invasions – one by the Japanese and one by the Manchu. As in all times of persecution, it was important for the people to re-assert their cultural identity through whatever means they found most iconic – language, literature, history, music, art, etc. White porcelain (and thus the moon jars) were an excellent cultural touchstone for their visibility and their many layers of meaning. White porcelain may also have been relatively inexpensive, though I don’t know this for sure – moon jars now sell for over $1 million. If goods made of white porcelain were inexpensive, it would have meant that white porcelain generally and moon jars in particular could be enjoyed by all strata of society, binding elite and low-class alike into one community against their enemies.

In 1935, the jar was bought from an antiques shop in Seoul by Bernard Leach, a British potter who was raised in Japan and Hong Kong. Wikipedia refers to him as ‘the father of British studio pottery’. Leach was very interested in the utilitarian function of pottery, preferring simple forms over the more ornate decorations used by many other potters (think of a fussy Edwardian teapot or soup bowl). He was also very involved with the folk crafts movement in Japan, which also emphasised the role of chance in art and the importance of naturalness and simplicity. In 1943, Leach asked his friend in England, fellow potter Lucie Rie, to take care of the jar in her studio in Hyde Park during the war, and reportedly gave her the jar outright when he saw how perfect it looked in her studio. Lord Snowdon, the former husband of Princess Margaret, photographed Rie in her studio sitting next to the jar, also dressed all in white.

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When Rie died in 1995, she left the jar to Janet Leach, Bernard Leach’s widow. In 1997, Leach herself died, and in 1999 the British Museum acquired the jar from her estate.

Its Impact

The moon jar has affected artists from the East and West alike, which may have been part of the reason why the British Museum selected it to feature on the poster for the new Korean Gallery (Room 63) when it opened in 2000.

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In 2007, the museum hosted an exhibition centered around the moon jar, its place in Joseon society, and its lasting impact among Korean and Western artists. One such artist is Koo Bohnchang, who photographed many Korean white porcelain vessels in museums around the world, including several moon jars. Below is the moon jar shown in a photograph from his series ‘Vessel’ from 2006.

Koo Bohnchang's 'Vessel (BM 07 BW)'

Koo Bohnchang’s ‘Vessel (BM 07 BW)’

The KCC also did an exhibition centered around the British Museum’s example of a moon jar and its ongoing artistic influence in 2013:

Adam Buick, who exhibited at the KCC in the same show, is a Welsh potter who makes moon jars from the local clay of Pembrokeshire. His jars are timeless in the same way as the Korean moon jars, with a dash of modern Welsh personalisation as well. These moon jars are miniature (only 9 cm high) but they show the great variety that can be achieved from a mixture of techniques on objects of similar size, origin and dimension.

Miniature moon jar 1280

Personally, the white blankness of the moon jar reminds me of an art project by Rutherford Chang, who has collected almost 700 copies of the Beatles’ ‘White Album’. He had an exhibition in Liverpool recently (how fitting), but I saw an iteration of it in the modern art museum in Brisbane in March, and I found it really affecting. Every album, although it was made in exactly the same fashion originally, had now gone through the passage of time gaining marks, colours, written notes, artwork, doodles and so on, rendering each piece distinct from its neighbour and totally unique, an interesting counterpoint to Andy Warhol’s reproduction of forms and images which eventually rendered those images meaningless through overexposure. It made me think that everything that happened to an object was, in a way, art. We’re so keen to conserve and preserve art precisely as it is – to put it in a gallery and leave it untouched – but the truth is that whether an object sits peacefully for decades in the same spot or gets thrown away by a cleaner or destroyed by vandals, everything adds to the piece and its history. This made me think further that perhaps everything that happens to *us* is art too – every scar and freckle, every upset or joy, every stretchmark or chipped tooth. We may look all the same from a distance, but closer up we are so varied and beautiful, and everything about our lives combines to make us a totally irreplaceable and unique person. In a sense, we are living art works, going around bumping into things and changing hands and affecting different people differently.

The moon jar is not perfect. There are bits of paint missing, places where the glaze is not a uniform thickness, it’s far from being a perfect sphere or even symmetrical, but everything about its history has made it what it is now.

Sources

Adam Buick’s website

Article on Korean ceramics from London Korean Links

Article on the KCC exhibition from London Korean Links

BBC report on Rutherford Chang

British Museum press release on the 2007 exhibition

Koo Bohnchang’s website

Korea Times report

The Korean Moon Jar

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1 Response to "Jules Does K-Pop Academy: Bonus Work – the Moon Jar"

A lovely piece of writing, which added infinitely to my knowledge of moon jars. Thank you.

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