This is the nickname by which Europeans still called Korea at the end of the nineteenth century, which had consciously remained isolated from the rest of the world for a very long time.
Knowledge in Europe at that time about the history, customs and artistic manifestations of the Korean people was therefore limited to the scanty information first reported by Marco Polo in Il Milione, and then by the Jesuits who carried out their mission in China and Japan from the 16th century, including Matteo Ricci who was in Asia when in 1592 the Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi made a violent attempt to invade Korea. Since then, numerous reports on the peninsula were written, at first rather vague, if you think that the first correct description of the geography of that territory dates back only to 1655 with the map inserted by Martino Martini in the Novus Atlas Sinensis. More detailed information is instead found in the text entitled Description of the Kingdom of Korea (1668), compiled by the Dutchman Hendrick Hamel who lived as a prisoner in Korea from 1653 to 1666, after his ship had accidentally wrecked near the peninsula.
The first step toward opening up Korea was the signing in 1876 of a modern treaty with Japan, which had also just emerged from centuries of isolation. In the space of a few years, most of the nations of the world came into contact with the government of that still mysterious country, and many agreements were signed that in the majority of cases were unfavorable to the Koreans, who nevertheless urgently needed confrontation to try to overcome a disastrous social and economic situation. An important step was the construction in 1883 of the port of Chemulpo (now Incheon), not far from Seoul, where foreigners began to arrive in increasing numbers, including many travelers in search of unknown places to explore. In the course of a few decades, until the Japanese occupation in 1910, hundreds of volumes on Korea were published, thanks to which knowledge of that strip of land became more detailed. Isabella Bird Bishop's text entitled Korea and Her Neighbours (London 1898) was a great success, because of its approach that mixed popularisation and anthropological research. Moreover, it seems interesting to mention in this context Korea or Cho-sen: the land of the morning calm by Henry Arnold Savage Landor, published in 1895 on the basis of memories of a trip in 1889. Born in 1865 in Florence into a family of Anglo-Saxon descent, Savage Landor, at the age of twenty, set out on a long journey around the world with artistic ambitions. However, in Far Eastern Asia he discovered himself as a storyteller: he then began to write books about his travels, which he often illustrated with reproductions of his paintings and drawings, executed in a Macchiaioli style and with a marked attention to the narrative aspect.
Until the final decades of the nineteenth century, knowledge about Korean art was therefore practically nil, and Western intellectuals of the time often dismissed the issue by downgrading the peninsula's artistic manifestations to rustic filiations of Chinese art or modest reworkings of Japanese aesthetics. Stephen Bushell, author of a pioneering volume on Oriental ceramics (1899), simply elided the section on Korea, as it was deemed uninteresting, to his writing.
On the other hand, in his time - while much was already known about Chinese art and the way was then opening for the appreciation of Japanese arts - Korean art was really something for a few, very few connoisseurs. Consider, for example, that the first Korean artefact to enter the collections of the British Museum was a black ceramic vase donated in 1888 by W.G. Aston who had lived as a diplomat in Asia between 1884 and 1886 (inv. 1888,1221.2). In that same year Charles Varat went to Korea on behalf of the French government, which only two years earlier had signed a peaceful treaty with Korea after the violent clashes of 1866 as a result of the killing of seven Christian missionaries by the Koreans. With the help of Victor Collin de Plancy, the first French diplomat to be sent to Seoul, Varat explored inland areas of the peninsula never before seen by a European. On his return to France, the collection he had acquired formed the first section of Korean art in the then-forming Musée Guimet. The study of this collection was entrusted to Hong Jong-u, the first Korean to set foot in Europe, where he arrived in the retinue of Emile Guimet who had travelled to Japan in 1876 with the painter Félix Régamey.
These first musealized nuclei were followed in 1900 by the organization of a Korean pavilion at the Exposition Universelle in Paris, set up with pieces from Seoul and works from Collin de Plancy's private collection, and in 1910 by the inauguration of the first exhibition of Korean art in London.
Until the end of the Second World War, there were very few public and private collections of Korean art in Europe and the United States. In addition to the oldest collections mentioned above, we can mention that of Mr and Mrs Fischer, now in the Museum für Ostasiatische Kunst in Cologne, assembled in the early years of the twentieth century while they were living between Japan and Korea, and that of George Eumorfopoulos, collector and connoisseur of Far Eastern art, who proudly exhibited works of Korean art in his house-museum in London in the twenties and thirties of the twentieth century, which later joined the collections of the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The other major collections of Korean art, at first private and then sold to museum institutions outside the Asian peninsula, were thus mostly assembled in the second half of the twentieth century, including the Henderson Collection at Harvard, the Poulsen-Hansen Collection in the British Museum, and the Kalbak Collection in the National Museum in Copenhagen and the National Museum in Stockholm.
From the point of view of the history of collecting, Korean art in Italy unfortunately has very little to tell, with the exception of the interesting nucleus conserved at the Museum of Oriental Art in Rome. Its origin dates back to 1960, with the gift of some objects by the Republic of Korea, to which were added in the same year the pieces given by Giacinto Auriti, who had been ambassador in Japan before the Second World War, later sporadically increased thanks to purchases and donations.
Writing about Korean art without coming to terms with its cumbersome neighbour is an arduous task, or rather an impossible one. On the other hand, there is no East Asian culture that in one way or another, with greater or lesser intensity, has not had relations with the Chinese empire. However, even if we take for granted the introjection of cultural and artistic data from China, we can highlight the specific features of each individual tradition. In other words, Japan is in some ways the 'child' of China, but it shows its own 'Japaneseness' which is the result of centuries of reworking and reflection, and this applies to Vietnam and Mongolia. It certainly also applies to Korea, despite the fact that - for more exquisitely geographical reasons - it has been influenced by China in a more decisive manner.
The question of cultural relations between Korea and Japan is different, since the notion that it was Korea that stimulated Japanese artistic production, and not the other way around, seems to be accepted, although from a political point of view, on several occasions and for several periods in the past, the Japanese empire dominated the Korean people.
What is it, then, that distinguishes Korean art from the art of its neighbouring cultural giants, first and foremost China? Does a 'Korean-ness' exist? Or is it just an intellectual stretch?
An attempt can be made to answer this difficult question by analysing the history of Korean ceramics, since it is one of the artistic fields that best expresses the refinement of that country's aesthetics and, moreover, it is the area on which many of the collectors of Korean art in Europe and the United States have concentrated their interests since the late nineteenth century.
The history of ceramics in Korea begins very early, some millennia before the Christian era. However, indications of aesthetic research can only be traced back to the so-called Three Kingdoms period (300-668), during which furnishings destined for funerary use were produced in a grey ceramic body without glazing, with elegant forms on which simple but refined 'comb' decorations, undulating motifs or diagonal lines are arranged. These characteristics are certainly reminiscent of the contemporary Japanese production called sueki, testifying to the close relations that already existed between the two countries.
This production constitutes the starting point of the successive evolutions of the Silla Unificato period (668-935), during which the decorative repertoire is broadened and diversified and a green glaze makes its first appearance, which becomes a recurrent note in later periods. The introduction of celadon glazing is certainly a debt to Chinese production, in which it appeared in the first millennium B.C. and remained a constant until very recent times.
It was precisely in the field of green glazed ceramics that Korea made a notable contribution in the Goryeo period (918-1392), starting from the end of the 10th century. Korean céladons from this period, and in particular from the 12th-13th centuries, are certainly an aesthetic milestone, important not only for the history of Korean ceramics. Initially intended for exclusive use by the court and produced in the kilns of Gangjin and Buan, Goryeo céladons are characterised by a glaze of such chromatic intensity that the Chinese themselves were fascinated by them, as reported, among others, by the envoy Xu Jing in 1123 in his Xuanhe fengshi Gaoling tujin ("Illustrated description of the embassy in Korea during the Xuanhe period"), who did not hesitate to compare them to the celebrated Ru ceramics, stating that they have "the radiance of jade and the crystalline purity of water".
In addition to the brilliance of the feldspar blanket - obtained by firing in extreme atmospheric reduction at a temperature of over 1300° - Korean ceramists over time added decorations obtained with the inlay of white or black engobe, a technique never before experimented in Asia, in some cases enlivening everything with the addition of touches of copper red, another of the many innovations introduced in the Goryeo period.
The success of this extraordinary production was undoubtedly due to a repertoire of forms of exceptional elegance, in which a simple and sober linearity prevails, less angular and softer than in Chinese pottery, both in the open forms - bowls, plates - and in the closed forms (bottles, vases and pourers). The dynamic and harmonious impetus of some of these pieces is not afraid of comparison in terms of balance of proportions with some sublime inventions of the Song period (960-1279), a period which in some ways marks the apogee of Chinese ceramic art.
Another variant of Korean ceramics from the Goryeo period can be traced back to China, in particular to the northern production known as Cizhou. It was made in kilns different from those in which céladons were produced, and is characterised by a green glaze that is certainly less bright, under which are placed lively floral decorations painted in brown iron enamel, with a compositional compactness that at times exceeds the originality of the Chinese models.
The most characteristic forms of the celadon glazed tableware are also found in a parallel Korean production of black ceramics, not intended for the court but equally remarkable in the results achieved, which, if on the one hand is a continuation of the tradition of the Silla Unificato period, on the other hand marks the complete absorption of autochthonous stylistic elements into the ceramic repertoire. So much so that similar forms are also found in bronzes from the Goryeo period, almost exclusively intended for the clergy. Moreover, the final part of this period is marked by a progressive enlargement of the users of quality ceramics. Even céladon pottery could be purchased by a wider section of the population, a sort of 'democratization' that resulted in a certain impoverishment of quality and the consequent search for new technical and formal solutions.
With the establishment of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), a type of pottery known as buncheong (literally "light green pottery") came into vogue. This term was coined by the scholar Ko Yu-sop in the 1930s to identify artefacts of generally coarser workmanship than those of the Goryeo period, despite the fact that they were also covered with a glazed glaze and the decoration was mainly made by carving, engraving, moulding, painting (also in iron-brown) and scratching the white engobe that covered the ceramic body. However, although less fine, Buncheong ceramics - whose production was abruptly interrupted at the end of the 16th century due to the Japanese invasions - perfectly embody a more properly Korean aesthetic, in which the final rustic appearance actually betrays an absolute mastery of the technical means available at the time.
According to fifteenth-century sources, at that time there were eighty-five kilns producing buncheong pottery, while one hundred and thirty-six kilns - located mainly in Gwangju in Gyeonggi province - produced white porcelain, which was initially intended for the exclusive use of the court, and in particular for service in the complex neo-Confucian rituals that marked the administration of public affairs. Korean ceramists certainly learned the ways of producing porcelain from China, where the kilns of Jingdezhen had begun to experiment with this special material towards the beginning of the 14th century, during the central phase of the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1279-1368).
It was a complex and expensive production, especially if the decoration was applied using enamel made from cobalt blue, which, in the first decades of the dynasty, came from central Asia. The discovery in 1464 of a local vein of this mineral allowed a radical reduction in costs, but rigid suntuary laws prohibited the use of this precious pottery outside of the court, at least until the late eighteenth century. This situation stimulated the start - in the period immediately following the Manchurian invasion attempts in the fourth decade of the seventeenth century - of a cheaper, but equally intriguing, production of porcelain tableware with brown iron oxide enamel decoration. In the nineteenth century, not infrequently, the two shades were combined in a single object with a rather remarkable overall effect. Rarer, due to the difficulties involved in its production, is instead the porcelain decorated under glass with red copper enamel, whose brilliance contrasts in an exciting way with the whiteness of the ceramic paste.
The austere white porcelain of the Joseon era represents another of the high points of Korean ceramic production. Whether undecorated or painted in cobalt blue or iron red, it expresses the excellent technical and aesthetic level reached by Korean craftsmen. The object that most enchants for the extraordinary formal propulsive force it emanates is certainly the large globular jar, poetically known as the 'Moon Jar' because - in the best examples - the measurements of height and diameter correspond perfectly, giving the impression of a full moon. There are no objects of this kind in the repertoires of ceramists in countries close to Korea, neither in China nor in Japan. Just as perfectly recognizable is the cursive and automatic style of the blue and brown decorations, despite the fact that the themes of the ornaments are very often of Chinese origin, such as the dragon, the phoenix and all those plant motifs - such as bamboo - closely connected with Confucian doctrine.
The development of a more authentically Korean aesthetic in the field of ceramic production in the Joseon period was undoubtedly stimulated by the fact that the pottery was almost exclusively destined for domestic use, unlike in China and Japan where large quantities were produced for export. In retrospect, therefore, it can be said that the isolation in which the peninsula periodically closed itself actually stimulated more intimate and original reflections in the field of ceramic art.
The purity of the line, a reflection of an evident predilection for the effects of shadow and light arising from the soft inclinations of non-uniformly glazed walls, almost an invitation to non-metaphorically embrace the object in order to grasp the warmth that first the hands of the ceramist, then the intervention of the fire, and the impression of history have conveyed; the moderation of a decoration that is never over the top, classic in its meditated and lyrical alternation of pictorial passages, fleshing out and cuts; the illusion of lightness, that ethereal combination of parallel waves, the trace of the wheel, and of those running jolts that trace the sign of the dripping glass; the ambition of being able to transcend the colour intended as a chromatic background tout-court, to make it magmatic matter to enclose in a tone the jolt of the spirit; the motionless but not immobile alchemy of the earth.
The earth, coming to life as the air pushes through space.