Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Jeon Seong Keun: In The Context of Korea’s Ceramic History of Open-Work

Jeon Seong Keun
Placing an artist’s work in the context of Korean ceramic history should not be undertaken with every ceramic artists. Although we as ceramic artists personally perceive ourselves as being innovative or unique we still all stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us. Even with all of the individual innovative work that is being done by ceramic artists internationally it is rare that a contemporary ceramic artist would stand out to the point that such an attempt to place that artist in the context of the ceramic history of that artist's country could or should be made. Jeon Seong Keun was such an artist.

Jeon Seong Keun Double Walled Bottle
Korea has a long history of ceramic open-work.

Silla Kingdom (3 Kingdoms Period) 1
This includes the open work of the 3 Kingdoms Period (삼국시대) (57-BCE - 668 CE abt) of Silla, Baekje and Gogureo and also includes particularly the Gaya Confederacy (42-532 CE).

Gaya Confederacy 2
It continued through Unified Silla (668-935 CE) and was followed by the magnificent open work created during the Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392 CE)

Goryro Dynasty Brush Stand 3

Goryro Dynasty Teapot with Warming Bowl 4

Then came the striking white porcelain openwork of the Joseon Dynasty that inspired Jeon Seong Keun.

 Joseon Dynasty Dragon Brush Holder 5

Joseon Dynasty Double Walled Vase 6

Detail Joseon Dynasty Double Walled Vase 6a

Today, Many Korean contemporary artists include open-work as part of their ceramic repertoire.  Open-work has endured throughout much of Korea's ceramic history. 
Although many Korean ceramic artists are truly masters of open-work, in my opinion, none have mastered the full range of this work, including three dimensional sculptural carving, to the degree achieved by Jeon Seong Keun.

Freshly Carved Double-Walled Bamboo Bottle Jeon Seong Keun

 Detail Freshly Carved Double-Walled Bamboo Bottle Jeon Seong Keun

Seo Jung Gul Chief Director, World Ceramic Exposition Foundation said, 
"Jeon's work goes beyond open-work. Regardless of size and shape, highly wrought carving spreads over the whole body evenly in his work.  Compared with general open-work, his skill has a striking difference because of the 3 dimensional mass."
 Detail Partially Dried Double Walled Flower Design Jeon Seong Keun

This piece is not the finished piece of the one in process above but is of similar topic

Indeed, Jeon Seong Keun's work does surpass most traditional open-work.  Ambrogio Possi, the famous Italian designer who participated in the 2003, 2nd World Ceramic Biennale Workshop, said about Jeon's work:
"I couldn't imagine that such a feat was humanly possible."  
Chief Director Seo Jung Gul reported that Possi felt sorry that during the workshop the right circumstances were not created to highlight Jeon's work enough.  High praise indeed.

Double Walled Teapot Jeon Seong Keun

With the combination of traditional open-work skills and sculpture carving skills Jeon Seong Keun was able to take porcelain openwork to another level.  We know the techniques gained through woodcarving are not directly transferable to porcelain clay.  That transfer Jeon had to do by himself. Jeon Seong Keun was able to master both open-work and three dimensional carving on porcelain, the most difficult of clays with which to work, is as the Italian Possi exclaimed truly unimaginable.

 Double Walled Bottle Jeon Seong Keun

In my opinion, after personally researching Korean ceramics for at least 4 decades, Jeon Seong Keun achieved a level of understanding and skill that stands out as among the finest in Korean ceramic history.  I personally believe Jeon Seong Keun was the most skilled open-work carver in Korean history.
That we have lost Jeon Seong Keun at such a young age is truly tragic.  We join his family in mourning this great loss, and are thankful for his life and work.  

1, 3, 4, 5, 6 National Museum of Korea - Seoul
2 National Museum of Korea - Gimhae

Note on 4: There is a debate as to the purpose of this type vessel.  Some have suggested it is a wine ewer with warming bowl.  However others argue that the lotus blossom bowl, a symbol of Buddhism would not be used for wine. The drinking of tea was at its height during the Goryeo Dynasty and was enjoyed by all from peasant to palace.

Note on 6: This national treasure sculptural double walled open-work has both slumped and cracked during firing. It is seldom seen from this angle as most often photographers take its image from a angle that doesn't expose that it has slumped. There is a great degree of loss in firing open-work.  Add to that sculptural open-work with its various degrees of thickness and one is always courting with disaster during the firing. It is one thing to carve sculptural open work in jade that is not drying and shrinking and quite a different thing to carve in porcelain.
Where are the other large open-work vessels made during the Joseon Dynasty?  One must remember that Japan annexed Korea for nearly 50 years during the first part of the last century. In the process they sold thousands of Korean treasures to museums and private collectors world wide and took thousands of pieces to Japan. Only a few remain in Korea.      
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  1. This is truly magnificent work! now that I have started pottery lessons, I can appreciate how hard this is to do!

  2. Thank you for commenting Sigrid. We must realize that these vessels are double walled and pierced. The work often took a month of more while controlling the drying to the precise moisture content for carving. Then he submitted these to the whims of the kiln. In my opinion this type work is among the most difficult in ceramics. No matter our personal aesthetic preference we must admire what Jong Seong Keun achieved.