Last year, visiting curator of Korean art Ga Young Oh shared insight on the museum’s prized Dragon Jar—a highlight of our Korean art collection—including the fact that these royal works were produced in official kilns called Bunwon (분원), located in Gwangju, Gyeonggi-do province.
Two weeks ago—thanks to a few well-placed phone calls by Oh, and an already-planned vacation to Korea—I had the opportunity to visit the Gyeonggi Ceramics Museum—where she is assistant curator—as well as a few kiln sites in Gwangju.
Gyeonggi Ceramics Museum director Chang Ki Hoon gave me a personal tour of the museum, then offered a viewing of a dragon jar in their collection. I heard from Oh was that their jar was very similar to the one in our collection, and when I saw it, I had a hard time disagreeing with her. See for yourself.
After picking my jaw up off the floor, Chang generously brought me to see the bunwon sites.
After a 30-minute drive, we arrived at the Beoncheon-ri No.5 kiln site. These days what is left are tiered tunnel-like impressions where the kilns used to be, but they had a few renderings on-site that showed what the kilns looked like hundreds of years ago.
“There were 321 Bunwon sites in Gwangju,” explained Chang as we looked over the remains. “The kiln site moved on average every 10 years because the kilns exclusively used wood. When a kiln site was established, workers would harvest nearby trees, and after about 10 years when the trees in the surrounding area were depleted, the Bunwon would move on and start again.” By 1752 in the late Joseon dynasty, however, the government established its official kiln at a permanent location and had the wood brought in from other locations.
The kilns could range from four to six chambers (see a four-chamber kiln above), where different stages of firing take place. Once the ceramics are shaped and completely dried, they go through a bisque firing in the kiln’s uppermost chamber, which can reach 800˚C, this process helps the paint and glaze adhere to the surface, and prevents the ceramics from melting in the second firing, in which temperatures reach up to 1200˚C. In this firing the clay vitrifies and the glaze melds to the surface resulting in a finished ceramics. The slightest change in variables—the type of wood used, the structure of the kiln, and even the date of firing—can have a significant impact on the quality of the finished product.
Now back, I view our dragon jar with new eyes, having seen where and how it was made.
You’ll be able to see Korean ceramic wonders for yourself in the upcoming exhibition Splendor and Serenity: Korean Ceramics from the Honolulu Museum of Art, on view August 13 to November 8.