Character of Korea enfolded in its ancient ceramics

August 03, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

The text that introduces the Walters Art Gallery's just-opened exhibit of Korean ceramics quotes an unnamed Korean scholar who characterizes his country's art as "meagre yet decent and dignified. . . . The harmony is perfect -- something that gains in the savoring, like the taste of good rice." After seeing the show, it's hard to imagine a better description.

Judging by this show of about 75 objects dating from the second to the 19th century, Korean ceramics do not offer the most accessible kind of visual gratification. They take some understanding, so appreciating them may indeed be something like savoring rice -- a quite different experience from savoring, say, a multi-course Chinese dinner with its kaleidoscope of colors, textures and flavors. Getting the most out of these Korean works requires an adjustment of sensibility.

Yet for those willing to take the trouble, there are rewards. Ask Walters curator of Asian art Hiram W. Woodward to pick some of the special wonders, and he will point out a diminutive, plain brown bowl of the late ninth or 10th century, much less handsome than the two celadon-glazed bowls with which it shares a case.

This one, it turns out, is important because it dates from one period yet the shape is of the succeeding period -- a rare transitional piece. And an accompanying label tells us that the three bowls in this case, although very much alike in shape, show the technical advances that took place between the ninth and the 12th centuries. It is that kind of distinction one must be prepared to appreciate in order to savor this show to the full. Like the taste of good rice, yes.

One should be prepared to respond to the extreme delicacy of decoration of a 12th-century bowl whose lotus petal decoration is formed of scarcely visible incised lines. And to reflect on the skill it must have required to create the lilting design of phoenixes and flowers on a 13th- or early 14th-century bowl by an inlay technique rather than by simply painting it on.

One should take quiet delight, as Mr. Woodward does, in a 15th-century bowl whose white slip decoration was brushed on with a free hand, terminating in a jaunty brush stroke that runs right up to the top of the bowl. And admire the shape of an 11th- or early 12th-century copper bottle -- one of the few non-ceramic pieces here -- whose gradual broadening from base to shoulder, ringed neck and cup-like mouth give it a combination of strength and personality.

One should be able to see the distinction, as Mr. Woodward points it out, between the pattern on a 15th century Korean bowl and a 19th century Japanese imitation of it: the Japanese version is just a little more regimented and formulaic.

How unfortunate that some of Mr. Woodward's comments referred to here came from a pre-opening tour of the show, and not from its labels.

The latter are informative, but the show would benefit from the infusion of more of the curator's reserved but genuinely felt enthusiasm. Perhaps that's considered unprofessional in curatorial circles; but some exhibits need a little discreet pumping up, and this is one of them.

Is there such a thing as national character and, if so, do a country's arts reflect it? This show argues a yes answer to both nTC questions, by including other material that pertains to aspects of character one might see reflected in Korean ceramics: a text on the influence of Confucianism, a 10-part panel with scenes extolling the virtue of filial piety, a huge photograph of the mountainous terrain of the country, together with a text suggesting the terrain, too, has an effect on the people who live there.

Well, then, can one define this character? Perhaps not adequately, but the show as a whole brings to mind such words as quiet, undemonstrative, dependable, steadfast. The kind of character that might well produce a phenomenon such as the 17th century poet Pak Illo, who celebrated the unmoving rock:

Unfeeling rock standing here,

You seem so welcoming!

Even men, lords of creation,

Find it hard to stand firm.

Having stood alone from times past,

You have never changed your stance.


What: "Like the Taste of Good Rice: Art from Korea"

Where: The Walters Art Gallery, 600 N. Charles St.

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, through Sept. 12

Admission: $4 for adults; $3 for seniors; free for students and those 18 and younger

Call: (410) 547-9000

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