Earth, Fire and Soul - Masterpieces of Korean Ceramics

Stephanie van den Hende
Apr 7, 2016 10:21AM

This exhibition is co-organized by the Réunion des musées nationaux - Grand Palais and the National Museum of Korea.

Throughout the entire world, ceramics are made using earth and fire, but the style and characteristics of ceramics in various regions are quite different. Certainly, Korean ceramics embody the uniqueness of Korea—the mind and spirit of the country—and thus occupy their own exclusive domain. This exhibition features numerous masterpieces from the collection of the National Museum of Korea, many of which have been officially designated as Treasures and National Treasures, allowing visitors to explore the full history of Korean ceramics while immersing themselves in the inherent spirit that it contains. 

The exhibition provides an inclusive overview of Korean ceramics, ranging from ancient times of the Three Kingdoms Period, through the Goryeo Dynasty and the Joseon Dynasty, and up to the contemporary era. For example, notable early works include elaborate vessels shaped like people and animals, which were often entombed with the deceased in order to guide the soul into the afterlife, thus reflecting funerary beliefs of the time. Meanwhile, the thriving aristocratic culture of the Goryeo period is evoked by celadon vessels with sumptuous forms and lavish coats of brilliant jade-colored glaze, demonstrating the high tastes of the upper class. The optimism and energy of the early Joseon era can be felt in the free and creative designs of buncheong wares, while the austere beauty of pristine white porcelain conveys the Neo-Confucian principles promoted by the Joseon society. 

Furthermore, everyday items made from celadon and white porcelain—including tableware, women’s cosmetics containers, and literati stationary items—offer a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives of people of their respective period. The true aesthetic sense and sentiment of Korea is said to be epitomized by “moon jars,” large round white porcelain jars that resemble a full moon. With their color that is white, but not perfectly white, and their shape that is round, but not perfectly round, moon jars carry a distinctive charm that never fails to captivate the viewer.

Traditional ceramics have always been a rich source of inspiration to contemporary artists. Hence, along with traditional masterpieces of Korean ceramics, this exhibition also introduces major works by some of Korea’s most renowned contemporary artists, all of whom are active in the international art scene. Examples include a collaborative work by Lee Ufan and Park Young Sook, which utilizes the style of blue-and-white porcelain; a video work by Kimsooja - entitled Earth, Water, Fire, Air - which examines the four prime elements of the universe (and of ceramics) from a new perspective; and a new video work by Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho - entitled A modern moon, life within a vase -, whose previous work News from Nowhere (presented at Documenta in Kassel, Germany) received great attention.


General curator: Dr. Kim Youngna, ex-director of the National Museum of Korea

Co-curators: Im Jin A, Kim Kyudong, Kim Hyunjung, Park Hyewon and Yoon Sangdeok, curators at the National Museum of Korea 

Scientific advisor: Stéphanie Brouillet, curator at Sèvres - Cité de la Céramique, Head of Asian collections

Stephanie van den Hende