The Moon Jar: A Piece of Happiness

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The Moon Jar: A Piece of Happiness represents a new departure for the gallery. The moon jar is not only a quintessentially Korean art form, but has also become a source of inspiration for potters worldwide. The exhibition seeks to explore the moon jar’s position in contemporary culture by placing work by British-based potters alongside that from counterparts from South Korea. The result is a fascinating dialogue between East and West.


The UK-based potters included are Lisa Hammond MBE, Adam Buick and Michel François. The three South Korean potters are Shin Gyung-kyun, Kim Syyoung and Song Gijin. Whilst Shin, Kim and Song are major figures in the world of Korean ceramics, they are likely to be unfamiliar to a UK audience. Shin’s moon jars have been exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and presented as diplomatic gifts by President Moon Jae-in. He uses locally-sourced clay, oak ash glaze and a wood-fired kiln to imbue his pieces with a distinctive character. Kim’s jars are covered with a glaze that incorporates soil from a forest surrounding his kiln. Hisjars are black or bronze and often iridescent. Kim experiments with the traditional form, adding to the drama of his pieces. In contrast, Song explores the buncheong tradition, dipping his jars in white clay slip and glaze; the pieces are fired a total of three times.


The exhibition’s title refers to a (possibly apocryphal) quote from Bernard Leach, the father of British Studio Pottery. On a visit to Seoul in 1935, he purchased a large moon jar. He is said to have likened owning the jar to “carrying a piece of happiness”. That jar’s journey is described by Professor Simon Olding of the Crafts Study Centre in the catalogue. It now resides in the British Museum, a stone’s throw from the gallery. Buick remembers being struck by its presence when he saw it in an international arts and crafts exhibition at the V&A in 2005.


Hammond recalls: “I first saw photos I think in books of Moon Jars, and I guess we had Bernard Leach to thank for bringing such treasures from the east to the west, and of course the wonderful example he gave to Lucy Rie in the British Museum. However, my real up close encounter came many years later in Korea, whilst exhibiting at a tea bowl festival. My lasting impression was in the many interpretations, the beauty in some that were an imperfect moon shape.”


The moon jar is the iconic Korean ceramic form. They were produced from the late 17th century and remained popular until the mid-18th century. Their white, undecorated surfaces radiate a sense of calm that perfectly chimed with the Joseon Dynasty’s neo-Confucianist ideology, whichembraced purity and virtue. The term ‘moon jar’, dal hangari in Korean, is firmly embedded in our consciousness, so it comes as a surprise to realise that it was coined relatively recently. Kim Whanki (1913-1974), hailed as one of the pioneers of abstract art in Korea, was an avid collector of antique Korean ceramics, including moon jars. They also appeared in his paintings and poetry, linked to imagery of the moon. Kim was a good friend of Choi Sun-u (1916-1984), a former Director-General of the National Museum of Korea. Both have been credited with coining the term. However, the first printed record appeared in a newspaper column written by Choi in 1963.