Two days before Splendor and Serenity: Korean Ceramics from the Honolulu Museum of Art opened on Aug. 13, visiting curator Ga Young Oh stood quietly in the gallery as installation crew members entered and exited to remove tools, sweep, and lower protective Plexiglas cases over the displays. Tranquil piano music emanated from nearby speakers as Oh spelled out words on her palm with a finger, her method of self-translation, to formulate an answer to my question: Which works best exemplify the goals of the exhibition?

“I think we should introduce this piece, because it’s the first piece visitors will meet,” she said, gesturing to a vase standing alone just inside the entrance. “This was a gift of Anna Rice Cooke—a great supporter of Korean art.” Cooke’s collection, which she acquired mostly from Japanese dealers during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea (1916-1945), formed an impressive Korean gallery when the museum opened in 1927.

“This maebyeong object is very representative of Korean celadons because of the shape, techniques, and patterns,” Oh says. Asian art curator Shawn Eichman further explains that a maebyeong is a type of vase, often made with Korea’s signature celadon jade-green glaze.

“One of the things that is important about Korean ceramics of the Goryeo period [918-1392] is that there were a lot of technical innovations happening,” says Eichman. “They were very much at the forefront of ceramic technique. I think one of the reasons Ga Young selected it as the visitors’ first ceramic encounter is because of the fine inlay.”

'Plum Blossom Vase (Maebyong) with Crane and Cloud Design.' Goryeo dynasty, 12th century. Stoneware with celadon glaze, black and white slip inlay. Gift of Anna Rice Cooke, 1927.

‘Plum Blossom Vase (Maebyong) with Crane and Cloud Design.’ Goryeo dynasty, 12th century. Stoneware with celadon glaze, black and white slip inlay. Gift of Anna Rice Cooke, 1927.

Eichman points to the clouds and flying crane decorations—especially difficult inlays to produce, as the white inner color and black outline required separate processes of applying liquid clay slips and repeat kiln firings that threatened the perfect reduction of the green celadon color. During the Korean War some American officers like Lt. General Oliver S. Picher (USAF) gained an appreciation for this perfection and started to collect Korean ceramics. The museum’s collection includes a half-dozen works donated by Picher.

Oh moves across the gallery into a group of whitish-gray buncheong pieces from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The works from that period are marked by an artistic inventiveness that resulted from a series of Mongol invasions that decentralized national ceramic production in the 14th century.

“We actually have one royal example,” Eichman says, “a jar that was produced to keep the placenta from a royal birth, which would have been placed in another jar and buried in a sacred shrine area.” While that jar was quite rare, the collection shows the contrast among buncheong ware, including the “spontaneous and free ceramics that would not have been produced by the court,” Eichman explains, but would have been offered as royal tribute from the independent kilns in the countryside.

“In 1467, the royal court built one royal kiln operated by the government,” Oh adds, shifting to a simple yet elegant white bowl. “The ceramic production was centralized again and the provincial kilns then made common ceramics for common people.” Artisans developed pioneering high-fire techniques at that royal kiln, producing refined pieces that were reserved first for the royals and then trickled down to other élites.

As we walk around the gallery, it becomes clear that within just a few feet of floor space centuries of cultural changes and national power struggles are represented by the still pieces on these pedestals. One object with exceptional gravitational pull is the large off-white “moon jar” in the middle of the room. Like several other pieces in the show, “this moon jar would probably be considered on a national treasure level,” Eichman says. “These are really representative of the aesthetic for the late Joseon period.”

'Moon Jar.' Joseon dynasty, 18th century. Porcelain. Gift of the Estate of Wilma Fitts, 1994.

‘Moon Jar.’ Joseon dynasty, 18th century. Porcelain. Gift of the Estate of Wilma Fitts, 1994.

Why is the moon jar so special? “Because it’s imperfect,” Oh says. “This kind of big jar was very difficult to make. They made two big bowls and combined them together, and because people used wheels to make the big bowls, the clay body can remember the direction of the wheel. The bottom bowl can remember this direction, and the upper bowl can remember this direction. In the kiln the body of clay twists, so after the final firing it became this imperfect shape. In the early 20th century the Korean aesthetic scholars said this is a Korean aesthetic because it’s a natural perfection.”

“We’ve gone from starting off with a great consideration for technical control with the celadons, to a real appreciation for the lack of control and the aesthetic that results in the moon jar,” Eichman says.

That immense cultural shift took more than 1,000 years to come about in Korea, and visitors to the museum can now see it in one serene collection.

Splendor and Serenity: Korean Ceramics from the Honolulu Museum of Art is on view through Nov. 8.