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The round well-proportioned jar formed of two parts joined at the belly, set with a slightly everted short neck, covered with a lustrous and translucent glaze, set on a circular upright foot with deep recessed base
17 3/4 in. (45.1 cm.) high
Private Collection, Japan

Brought to you by

Takaaki Murakami (村上高明)
Takaaki Murakami (村上高明) Vice President, Specialist and Head of Department | Korean Art

Lot Essay

Moon Jar, Dal Hangari
18th century moon jars
Fine 18th century moon jars are extremely rare, and this gentle white sphere is a superb example. Between the everted mouth and the high, narrow foot, the entire outer surface is covered with a translucent glaze. On close examination, areas of crackle are discernible, especially around the central seam where the two parts of the jar have been joined together. Minute traces of impurities in the glaze have produced variations in the smooth surface. Judging by marks made when the jar was used in ceremonial or domestic settings, it was cherished and displayed for much of its 300- year existence. It is both imposing and practical. Its noble, monumental form was made by an anonymous potter, patiently working clay, glaze and fire to produce fine porcelain.
Plain white porcelain dominated Korea’s ceramics throughout the five centuries of the Joseon dynasty. Top quality pieces came from a network of government-sponsored kilns in Gwangju, near Seoul, known as Bunwon. Tableware was made, alongside everyday bowls, ritual vessels, jars and bottles. A small number of vessels were decorated with blue, red or brown pigment. During the reigns of Kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo, 1726-1800, large, plain jars between 35 and 50 cm in diameter were commissioned by the court and educated élite. White ceramics such as these found favour because they were neither vulgar nor ostentatious.
Ever since the founding of the dynasty in 1392, Joseon scholars and ministers had followed the teachings of Confucius, and more particularly the school known as neo-Confucianism, based on the teachings of the Song dynasty philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200). In Korean society, the superior classes lived and studied according to Confucian rules, setting an example for the farmers, labourers and the general public. After the devastating military invasions of the 1590s and the 1630s, the 18th century was a time of recovery and reconstruction. Korea enjoyed a period of growing prosperity and confidence, as part of the Sinitic realm, sharing numerous contacts and cultural references with neighbouring China and Japan. The Manchu conquest of China, and the founding of the Qing dynasty in 1644, had cut Korea adrift from its earlier position of unswerving respect for the laws, customs and cultural practices of Ming China. A new era had begun.
Where ceramics were concerned, the official kilns now had authority to do business with wealthy individuals and families. Moon jars suited the times perfectly, with their plain surfaces, generous proportions, and adaptability for domestic or ceremonial use. The élite developed a heightened sense of Korean identity, one which followed its own taste. They disdained the bright polychromes in fashion in China. In response, potters began to produce the substantial rounded jars we know today as moon jars.
Potters and their work
The official kilns operated as an industrial enterprise, with workers specializing in various stages of production. Clay was shipped from different sites around the country. After refining it, the potters would form their large jars on a wheel, building up the walls with their hands, while using their feet to kick the wheel around. It was a two-part process, with the upper and lower sections formed separately. The upper and lower halves were then carefully joined together at the middle and left to dry in the air until they were leather hard. Bisque firing at 850 – 900 degrees C often preceded glazing and full firing at 1250 degrees C.
Before the final firing, the potter immersed the jar in a lime-alkali glaze, one which readily revealed the tones and individual qualities of the clay. After long weeks of preparation, the potter could finally carry his pot to the kiln. He knew that tiny, unpredictable changes in temperature or air flow during firing might produce spots of yellowish or pinkish colour, the result of impurities in the glaze. Inside the kiln, different areas of the jar might fire at slightly different rates, resulting in an attractive asymmetrical shape in the finished piece. In our jar, the walls curve to different extents, allowing varied views and interactions between viewer and object. Around the join seam, an area of crackling resulted when the clay body expanded more quickly than the glaze mixture. Later, during cooling, the glaze would crack, to relieve pressure. A glimpse of clay shows at the join of neck to wall. In the lower section, a small circular patch is evidence of glaze and dust fusing together in the heat. The Korean word yobyeon, ‘change in the kiln’, evokes the elemental effects of fire, air, clay and ash as they interact in the searing heat of the densely packed kiln.
Each individual moon jar has unique features, ranging from size and shape to the relative proportions of foot and mouth. When appreciating and closely studying different moon jars, connoisseurs will examine the height and profile of the mouth (earlier jars have a compressed, rounded mouth profile while later ones have a higher, straighter mouth). Glaze qualities including tone and lustre are also closely studied, along with their responses to changing light conditions. Jars produced at Geumsa-ri between 1721 and 1752 are renowned for their milky-white tones, and it seems possible that our jar was produced there.
In 1709, Yi Ha-gon (1677-1724) observed a private firing at a government kiln, and recorded his impressions in a poem ‘…Clouds over the river become rain in the night/Strong winds pass through the trees of the valley/Potters living together at the corner of the mountain/Endure hardship of forced labour/They say they went to Yeongnam/For fine clay to ship by sea/Clay white as snow/Is best for firing royal vessels/Although potters did their best/ Many vessels were rejected/Clay as soft as cotton/Wheel moving when touched by foot/A thousand vessels shaped on the wheel/Bowls, plates, bottles, jars, smooth and gentle/As many as 30 names for bowls/As many as 400 vessels from a royal kiln/Cannot express the beauty of shape, colour and quality/All are precious beyond measure.’
In Yi’s lines, some fascinating facts about porcelain production emerge. Clay was sourced from far and wide, and shipped to the government kilns. Potters used the distinctive Korean kick-wheel to form vessels. The potters were low class and were compelled to work in trying conditions. In the rigid social system of the time, it was highly unusual for an upper-class gentleman to write about the lives of artisans.
Moon jars for Korea and the world
Since the 1950s, Koreans have been drawn to the moon jar, because its complementary qualities of heaviness and refinement seem to capture the easy, natural beauty of their country, and the elegant taste and lifestyle of the Joseon dynasty educated élite. By contrast, in the early 20th century, most Japanese and Western collectors had dismissed Joseon porcelain as low quality and unworthy of attention. They preferred the green-glazed ceramics of the Goryeo (918-1392) dynasty and viewed the Joseon era as one of stagnation and decline.
Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), the founder of the Mingei movement, opposed the prevailing view that Joseon ceramics were unattractive and mediocre, stating that Joseon porcelain was ‘immortal’ and arguing that a full understanding of the beauty of art would bring an end to disagreements between nations. Yanagi also criticised Japanese militarism and expressed hopes for a bright future for Korea. Although his views on Korean art have been challenged on a number of counts, Yanagi’s championing of Joseon porcelain played an important role in drawing international attention to an overlooked period of Korea’s artistic past. Yanagi’s friend, the British potter Bernard Leach (1887-1979) also admired Joseon porcelain. Leach bought the moon jar that is now a highlight of the British Museum’s collection while visiting Seoul in 1935 in Yanagi’s company.
After the Korean War, many fine Korean works of art had been taken to Japan, where private and museum collections hold outstanding pieces to this day. Korean historians re-examined their nation’s history, setting straight the story of Korea’s past. The art historian Ch’oe Sun-u (1916-1984) praised the 18th century as a time when a fully Korean creative spirit animated fine and decorative arts. The influential artist Kim Whan-ki (1913-74) often depicted moon jars in his paintings, particularly during the 1950s when living in Seoul. Kim collected porcelain jars, and wrote extensively about them, coining the term ‘moon jar’ to draw attention to the elusive beauty of a ceramic form that calls the moon to mind. Previously, large plain jars had simply been known as baekja daeho ‘large white jars’.
In addition to ceramic artists who have researched and responded to the moon jar in their practice, creative artists in various media have incorporated its shape into installations, photographs, and ceramic sculptures. Bohnchang Koo’s tender, evocative photographs of Korean white porcelain in international museum collections translate the austere beauty of the Joseon era into peaceful, contemplative images. The painter Younghoon Ko’s practice includes huge, quiet images of moonjars apparently floating in space. Ko has written that ‘potters created their own pottery in the past; now I am creating my own pottery by brush’.
More than three centuries after large plain jars started to emerge from the kilns serving the royal household, the moon jar has become an icon of modern Korea, embodying multiple layers of historic and emotional meaning. Ceramic artists in Korea and around the world are making moon jars, and new generations of collectors and enthusiasts are emerging. One example is the BTS artist RM (also known as Kim Nam-joon), who in 2019 tweeted a picture of himself hugging a contemporary moon jar, prompting a follower to comment ‘RM is exactly like a moon jar: with an imposing presence, but ever so harmonious with his surroundings.’ The love of plain white moon jars in our times has its roots in appreciation of surviving Joseon-dynasty examples. Korea’s 18th- century golden age lives on through the gentle presence of plain white ceramic moon jars that – like the moon itself – bring comfort and pleasure to those who take time to look closely .

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