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Introduction to Korean Crafts

Native crafts are one of the most prominent features of traditional Korean culture.

The study of Korean craftwork sheds much light on the nation's cultural heritage. In this sense, "crafts" signify much more than lacquered boxes or pottery bowls, for craftwork is closely associated with the character of a people and thus reflects the dreams and aspirations of both producers and consumers. In Korea, there is a well-developed crafts tradition. Indeed, some foreign admirers of Korea, including Germany's Eckardt and Japan's Yanagi Muneyoshi, have went so far as to describe Korea as the " land of crafts."

Looking at crafts in order to understand the Korean artistic sensibilities these foreign scholars concluded that the distinguishing feature of the Korean aesthetic was to be found in its "natural beauty." This can be attributed to the general Korean character which has traditionally felt a close affinity to nature and thus prized natural beauty which was, as far as possible, devoid of human contrivance.

Korean crafts can be broadly classed according to medium as: metal crafts, wood crafts, ceramics, glass, dyed and woven goods and other miscellaneous craftwork. Since structurally weak materials such as cloth, leather and paper deteriorate rapidly, there are few old examples remaining, except for lacquerware, and wood crafts. Thus, it must be kept in mind that the modern research's focus on metal crafts and pottery has no bearing on the comparative importance or function of these particular crafts in the past.

Korean Metalwork

Believed to have developed around the beginning of the Bronze Age from 1000 B.C.-700 B.C., metalwork, along with pottery and woodwork, occupies a central role in the history of Korean crafts. Spiritual and political roles were not separate at this time; hence, metalwork was employed to make knives, spears and other weapons as well as implements used in religious ritual. Typical ritual implements of the time include bronze mirrors with geometric designs, assorted bells and bronze vessels with agricultural motifs. On the back of the latter, there were depictions of birds sitting on tree branches; hence, these are thought to have been used at the sodo-sacred sites where rituals were held. The sophisticated forging techniques used to create geometric-design mirrors at this time have been a riddle for scholars. Judging from the mirrors' fine designs, metalworkers from this era were already using the bees-wax smelting techniques that are still in use today.

During the Iron Age, metalwork was primarily used to create weapons and farming implements. Strong yet easy to shape, iron facilitated outstanding developments in tools used to make both everyday utensils and decorative articles. A good example is the development of the saw, which made the creation of wooden crafts possible for the first time.

The colorful, precious-metal articles discovered in ancient tombs indicates that Korean metalcraft had already attained a high level of development by sometime around the fourth or fifth century. Decorated using buffeting, serration and inlay techniques, metal crafts from this period were placed in tombs, which were thought of as the future domicile of the deceased person's spirit. Elaborate adornment such as crowns, earrings, necklaces, rings, belts and shoes were fashioned from gold, silver and other precious metals. In addition to their role as burial objects, these served to indicate a person's status as part of the ruling class.

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Metalcraft had initially been primarily employing precious metals, but during the Three Kingdoms and the subsequent Unified Shilla period, metal craftsman gradually began to use more practical materials such as copper and iron. As this trend became more widespread during the Koryo period, general craftwork and even Buddhist art was produced using copper. Examples include large bells, incense burners, metal drums, "cloud-plate" gongs and kundika (elixir bottles). Although gold and silver were not used as basic materials at this time, the art of gold overlay on copper became advanced. Other notable developments of this period include refinements in sculpturing techniques and the use of metallic threads to create detailed metalwork designs. Since silver threads were primarily used, the latter is often called unipsa (silver damascening). Along with celadon inlay and mother-of-pearl inlay, it was a decorative technique that became particularly advanced during the Koryo period. It reflects the grandeur of Koryo period religion as well as the elaborate tastes of Koryo aristocrats.

With the advent of the Choson period, the tendency towards intricate decoration in metal craftwork disappeared, while brassware, which had previously been valued more than even white-glaze porcelain, became an everyday household item. In accordance with ancient traditions, brassware continued to be the material used exclusively for ritual vessels. As brass implements became widely available, larger households used porcelain during the summer and brassware, which was better at retaining heat, during the winter.

The Choson period, with its practical outlook, signaled a general decline in metalwork technique. During this time, metalware, which had previously been used exclusively by the privileged class, became widely available to the common people.

With the development of copper and tin alloy, high-quality bowls and musical instruments were produced in large quantities.

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Korean Pottery

From early times, pottery has served both a practical function as a source of everyday utensils as well as an artistic medium of expression. The development of pottery techniques played an important role in the general development of Korean craftwork. During the prehistoric period, comb-pattern pottery, plain pottery, red-glaze and black-glaze earthenware as well as Kimhae-style pottery were produced. Looking at the gradual development of these pottery forms, one can sense the aspirations of Korea's prehistoric inhabitants as they struggled to improve their living conditions.

During the Three Kingdoms period, each kingdom developed a unique style based on Kimhae pottery. Typical examples include Koguryo pottery, which closely resemble the Kimhae style it was derived from, Paekche's gray tripod vessels and Shilla's stemmed cups (kobae) and vessel stands. Most of the extant pieces of ancient pottery and metalwork have been burial objects found in ancient tombs. Among these relics, one finds exquisitely crafted Shilla and Kaya pottery depicting ducks, houses, boats and figures on horses.

As craft traditions of the former Three Kingdoms developed during the Unified Shilla period, pottery forms and patterns began to change. The long-necked dropper and box with lid appeared at this time. In particular, developments in kiln structure allowed craftsmen to accumulate experience using natural-looking, green glazes. This period of experimentation served as an important stepping stone in the development of Koryo celadon.

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During the Koryo period, hard earthenware continued to be produced; yet the most representative pottery of the era is celadon. Korean celadon can be divided into two types: West Coast pottery was produced using the oxidation techniques of Northern China and Kangjin/Puan pottery was produced using the reduced firing techniques of South China. Of these two types, the latter was more influential. Korean celadon uses a delicate green feldspathic glaze with around a three percent iron content. This lovely pottery soon became popular both in Korea as well as internationally as one of the most representative genres of Korean art. For example, Xu Jing (Kor. So Kung), a twelfth-century Song envoy to Korea, highly praised the superiority of Korean celadon in his detailed work Koryo togyong (Illustrated Account of Koryo).

Scholarly opinions vary, but the first production of Koryo celadon must have begun by the late-ninth or early-tenth century at the latest. It reached its apex during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Around the twelfth century, potters turned their attention from the exquisite shapes and fine jade color of pure celadon to white and black porcelain featuring detailed inlay designs of cloud and crane motifs or chrysanthemums. The superiority of Koryo celadon is widely recognized, but inlay pottery also deserves credit for its creativity and formal beauty. Notably, Korean potters experimented with red copper underglaze before their Chinese counterparts.

During the late-Koryo period, oxidation firing techniques became popular.

During this time, glazes also underwent change while the formal tension of bowls was softened. Collectively, these changes led to the development of Choson punch' ong ware.

During the Choson period, punch'iong ware and white porcelain were the chief pottery styles. Punch'aong is classified according to production technique as: kamhwa (punch'aong ware with inlaid floral decorations), inhwa (punch'wong decorated with stamped floral designs), pakchi (Graffito), chohwa (bird and flower motif), ch'rorhwa (iron pigment) and paekt'o. Popular from the early Choson period to the period directly preceding the Hideyoshi invasions, paekt'o punch'hong used white slip designs which seemed to get smaller as the style developed. Comparable with the simple surface effect in minimalist art, these pieces agree well with modern artistic sensibilities. This pottery thus served as a transitional form between inlaid celadon and white porcelain (paekcha) and in spite of its rather common look, it was highly prized even by the royal house.

White porcelain, on the other hand, was an article of everyday use by all strata of society throughout the Choson period. During this period, specially-designated kilns under the strict supervision of the Saongwon (Bureau for Overseeing Ceramic Production) were able to ensure that the quality of white porcelain was maintained at a fixed level. During this time, red (iron) or blue pigments were also used to draw depictions of the "four gentlemen" (plums, orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo), dragons and auspicious symbols on top of milky-white porcelain. Sometimes, these pictures were painted by government artists. By the late-Choson period, the consumer class for pottery had expanded to include the lower stratums of society. As a result, pottery declined as it entered the modern era.

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Korean Wood Crafts

Since woodwork makes use of a natural, production of articles from wood, it is relatively simple. For this reason, it has been widely used in craftwork since ancient times. In Korea, the structure of the elegant, single-story, wooden houses and the custom of sitting on heated floors provided further impetus to the diverse and extensive utilization of wooden handicrafts.

Various tree-felling tools such as axes and saws indirectly attest to the existence of woodwork during the Bronze and Iron Ages. Particular examples include the wooden artifacts dating from around the first centuries B.C. or A.D. which were recently discovered along with a large basket in Taho-ri Village in Ch'angwon.

The nature of Koguryo furniture can be ascertained by looking at tomb murals from the period. Notably, the furniture can be distinctly divided into two categories. Depictions from the P'yongyang area show furniture influenced by Han China with many legs, while depictions of furniture from the T'ung-kou region show tables and trays with horse-hoof style legs. Since the Koguryo territory extended deeply into the Asian continent, the paintings at T'ung-kou-a more central region-are thought to be more representative of the basic Koguryo style.

The lacquered crown decorated with silver and gold that was excavated from the Paekche King Muryong's tomb, other Shilla artifacts and the existence of special government offices in charge of woodwork indicates that woodwork was not only used as burial objects but also used for a diverse range of everyday objects.

During the Koryo period, refined craftwork enjoyed its heyday. Particularly suited to aristocratic tastes, mother-of-pearl lacquerwork flourished at this time. Made by applying colorful abalone shell in designs on lacquered wood, Koryo mother-of-pearl was used to make a diverse range of objects including boxes for sutras or Buddhist rosaries. At one point, a special government office, known as the Chonham Chosong Togam, was temporarily created in order to make lacquerware for the Chinese royal house. This period also saw the production of colored tortoise shell using the Taemo technique. Stylistically, this is associated with the ox-horn decorations which became popular during the Choson period.

The representative furniture of the Choson period is of a practical yet appealing geometrical design. With a simple beauty, the pieces of this period incorporate the natural patterns of the wood. Due to the unique aesthetic sense evident in pieces from this period, Choson furniture is highly prized both in Korea and overseas. Furniture styles from this period were influenced by Confucianism which upheld a strict distinction between the genders, valued humility and frugality and sought a scholarly and gentile lifestyle. Furniture forms and styles of the period were largely determined by social status and use, with specific types of furniture placed in the sarangbang (reception room for male visitors) and other types used in the wife's areas such as the kitchen and anbang (bedroom). Notably, the furniture of the sarangbang was of a simple and natural construction reminiscent of the simplicity found in Choson-era white porcelain.

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Other Korean Handicrafts

Other handicrafts, including glass, leather, paper, stone and woven goods, also developed in Korea. The Kyongguk taejon, a treatise on government written during the early Choson period, lists 129 different types of crafts.

Examples include glass crafts of the Three Kingdoms and Unified Shilla period as well as hanji (Korean paper crafts) which were popular even in China. Weaving was developed as a practical craft, with the leftover pieces of cloth used to make ornate pouches. Appealing to modern tastes, the latter have enjoyed great popularity in recent times.

Korea's Crafts During the Occupation

In Korea, the process of modernization has been particularly turbulent, and Korea's crafts have suffered even more than other areas of society as a result. With the advent of modern manufacturing machinery from the West, there was a great reduction in traditional Korean handicrafts. This trend was exacerbated by a tendency to see traditional crafts as a stumbling block to modernization. As Koreans suddenly lopped off their long hair in favor of Western hairstyles, over ten traditional crafts became useless almost overnight.

Within these dire circumstances, organizations such as the Yi Wangjik Misulp'um Chejakso (Yi Wangjik's Art Production Center) and the Choson Misul Chollamhoe deserve mention for their efforts towards preserving and developing traditional crafts. Founded in 1908, the former sought to address the collapse of traditional handicrafts centers as well as the qualitative decline in handicraft products. It thus began production of handicrafts in search of "the essence of traditional Choson handicrafts." Known as the Hansong Misulp'um Chejakso when founded, it operated as Yi Wangjik Misulp'um Chejakso from 1911 to 1922, and then as Chusikhoesa Choson Misulp'um Chejakso until 1937 when it was abolished. As its name changed, so did its management as well as the designs in the crafts that it produced.

When operated as the Hansong Misulp'um Chejakso, the factory consisted of a design center, a manufacturing center and an office. Within the manufacturing center, there were departments dedicated to metalwork, woodwork and woven goods according to the traditions of the Choson royal house. During this time, the factory enjoyed a certain autonomy, but like the Yi Wangjik Misulp'um Chejakso, it came under Japanese management. As a result, its facilities were expanded and arranged into eleven departments devoted to: mother-of-pearl crafts, woodcraft, inkstones, casting, forging, jewelry, carving, wire-design metalwork, pottery, brass and weaving. However, the craft designs were gradually altered around this time to better suit Japanese artistic sensibilities. By 1922, the factory lost even its nominal autonomy and became a private corporation. Mainly devoted to producing mementos and trophies, the Japanese influence on its work became even more pronounced.

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In opposition to the original goals of these production centers, the Japanese managers encouraged the commercialism and the distortions of traditional designs. On the other hand, these centers produced figures such as Kim Chong-sop, Yi Hak-ung, Kim Chin-gap and Kim Pong-nyong, who went on to become leaders in preserving and developing Korean craft traditions after liberation.

The modernization process in Korea, circumscribed by Japanese colonialism, had certain inherent limitations. Most importantly, Korea was unable to develop an autonomous force capable of adopting its craft traditions to the modern world. Korean handicrafts were unable to fit in with the modern world in which design process took precedence over manual skill.

During the Tenth Exhibition of Choson Art in 1932 a crafts department was established, giving traditional craftsmen a modern venue where they could make their debut. However, the number of native Korean artists at the exhibition was limited. Mother-of-pearl and woodwork accounted for a full third of the pieces exhibited. This forms an interesting contrast with the Misulp'um Chejakso where metalwork was the main product.

Of the pieces presented at the exhibition, some strictly adhered to the tradition of Choson art while others introduced elements from Western crafts. Other artists, influenced by the occupation, incorporated Japanese elements into their art. At the same time, some neoclassicist craftsman studied Koguryo murals and Nangnang lacquerware patterns to create art resembling these ancient relics. This neoclassicist movement was based on the discovery and excavation of ancient tombs along with the active interest in ancient historical research. It received further impetus from the era's nationalist ideology.

Modern Korean Crafts

In the fifty years since liberation, Korean crafts have experienced significant change as they passed over the threshold to the modern world. In the 1950s, university crafts departments were established amid the rubble of the Korean War. These new departments naturally took their place within general arts departments which were organized around painting and sculpture. Traditionally, Korean crafts had developed within a teacher/disciple relationship, but as crafts entered universities, scholars of traditional crafts began to provide systematic education that reflected the major trends of modern craftmanship.

Needless to say, modern art studies from this era were based on Western aesthetic values introduced via Japan and Japanese artistic sensibilities. This alienation from traditional Korean artistic values largely resulted from the misconception that "Western" was synonymous with "modern."

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1) With the introduction of industrial design in the 1950s, handicrafts' social role was reduced. The era is characterized by the creation of a national crafts department, the founding of various organizations devoted to traditional crafts and an increase in popularity of special regional goods. In particular, the struggle between leftist and rightist political factions splintered the native crafts movement into over ten distinct craft organizations.

Leading figures of the national exhibition, initially known as the Kukchon and as the Sonjon during the Japanese occupation, include woodwork craftsmen such as Kim Chin-gap, Kang Ch'ang-gyu and Chang Ki-myong, stoneworkers such as Yi Sun-sok and potters such as Kim Chae-sok.

2) The 1960s saw the development of a number of important galleries such as The Design Center, Taehan Min-guk Sanggong Misuljon and Kungnip Hyondae Misulgwan. During this era, there were numerous foreign exhibitions and international exchanges and thus the era is characterized by the rapid expansion of Korean craft production. Each year, there were about ten private and group exhibitions and around ten new craft organizations were formed.

One of the most important developments during this decade was the gradual reemergence of metalcraft and pottery from the stagnation of the previous decade.

This renewed interest was stimulated by increased information on Western crafts.

3) During the 1970s, there was a new interest in all aspects of traditional Korean culture. Systematic efforts were made to preserve and develop traditional crafts, many of which had previously been on the verge of disappearing in the wake of modernization. In order to preserve traditional knowledge, the government gave talented artisans official support, designating them as "Important Intangible Cultural Treasures" or "Human Culture Treasures." Around this time, the mother-of-pearl artist Kim Pong-nyong and lacquerware artist Kang Ch'ang-gyu both established galleries for traditional works.

Another important development during the 1970s was the creation of private crafts exhibitions at galleries. This stemmed from attempts to incorporate traditional crafts into the formative arts. Pottery was a leading force behind this movement.

Influenced by American and Japanese pottery, Korean potters began to experiment with non-functional pottery forms. This purely formal emphasis had entered the mainstream by the late 1980s.

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4) Since the 1980s, formalism has become a leading influence on Korean craftwork.

Initially, there were a few textile and pottery craftsmen experimenting with formal works, but by the late 1980s, the trend has swept through every traditional genre. In addition to individual artists, universities were influenced by this trend, leading to the development of curriculums teaching the techniques and theory behind formal art. Yet, as interest turned towards purely formal works, there was less interest in making traditional crafts for practical, everyday use.

From the mid-1980s to around 1990, on the other hand, various artists and groups began to take express an interest in a revival of works more suitable for everyday life. In the mid-1980s, college craft majors established small studios where they produced and supplied everyday items appealing to a wide spectrum of society. In the 1990s, exhibitions began to appear in which the theme was practical. This new trend had a significant effect on artists preoccupied with solely formalistic works. In the 1980s this movement was chiefly centered around young artists in training, but by the 1990s, the movement had matured, with many prominent artists joining its ranks.

As it comes to the late 1990s, the purely formalistic movement seems to be faltering, while the movement towards practical crafts seems to be gaining wide support from consumers and cultural circles.



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