Art Through Time: A Global View
Domestic Life Art: Brush Holder
Openwork porcelain brush holders like this one gained popularity in late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Korea.
Brush holders, along with other writing paraphernalia such as ink stones, paper boxes, and water droppers, were requisite items in the study, or sarangbang, of elite scholar-officials (yangban) during this time. The sarangbang was the center of the yangbanhome in Chosôn Korea, the place where the male head of house would work, but also where he would entertain guests. Writing accoutrements fulfilled a utilitarian function in this context, but also a social one. The aesthetics of the objects communicated messages about the owner’s philosophies, as well as his taste and status.
The Chosôn (also spelled Joseon) period in Korea began in the fourteenth century. Chosôn literally means “Fresh Dawn,” a name that alluded to purification following the corruption of the previous regime. Among the major changes enacted by Korea’s new dynasty was the rejection of Buddhism as the official state religion. Neo-Confucianism replaced it as the prevailing influence on government policy as well as social ideology. The yangbanstudied, practiced, and promoted Confucian principles, which in turn seem to have influenced their aesthetic preferences. Undecorated white porcelain, for instance, embodied the highly valued virtues of simplicity and purity. Although embellished, the brush holder seen here incorporates a motif that speaks symbolically to the same ideals. Lotus flowers are a traditional symbol of purity and rebirth in Korea.
White porcelain, called paekcha, developed in Korea in the fifteenth century and was initially restricted to use by royalty. Soon, upper classes, such as the yangban, were also given access to the porcelain produced by the royal kilns known as punwôn. By the time this brush holder was made, the demand for porcelain had become widespread and local kilns were established to supply the general population. However, the quality of porcelain varied widely, and the best examples remained in the hands of the elite. The bluish tint of this piece is typical of white porcelain in the later Chosôn period.
Soyoung Lee, Associate Curator of Asian Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“The Korean society and home during the Chosôn Dynasty was very segregated in terms of the sexes. Within elite homes, there was a strict division of the male quarters and the female quarters. The objects that belong to the male quarters generally comprised of things that were related to the scholar’s activities, such as writing, or reading, or painting. The brush holder was an important part of the scholar’s writing implements. So it’s ceramic that was made from white clay with a very clear glaze. Porcelain was the major kind of ceramics made in Korea during the Chosôn Dynasty from about the end of the fourteenth century all the way through the beginning of the twentieth century. China was the first to produce porcelain, and then Japan and Europe caught on later in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and porcelain brought on this sort of revolution in ceramics worldwide. And so Korea was participating in that.
What’s unusual about Korean porcelain is that there’s very limited use of color, which is very unlike porcelain made everywhere else in the world. So this particular brush holder is undecorated. It does have design. You can see on the surface a very beautiful lotus flower that’s been cut out into the body of the brush holder. What does lotus mean? Originally the lotus flower was associated with the Buddha and often the Buddhist figures would stand on lotus petals. But by this time the Chosôn is a period when Buddhism, which had been the state religion in Korea for over a thousand years, was actively suppressed. Many of the motifs that had originally been associated with Buddhism were taken out of that context. The lotus was associated with the Confucian scholar because the lotus grows in a muddy area but remains pristine and pure. Whether that symbolic meaning is reflected in this particular brush holder we don’t know. Sometimes the lotus flower was just a design.
The appeal of the undecorated pure white porcelain for the Koreans, particularly the Korean elites at this time, had very much to do with Confucian principles that emphasized understated elegance, understated beauty, purity, and frugality actually. When porcelain use spread beyond the elite class, different grades or different qualities of porcelain were produced. So, of course, the elites, the court, was still able to get the most beautiful, the most refined, the most white porcelain produced at quality controlled kilns, whereas the lower classes would have to do with the slightly lower quality porcelain.”
Finlay, Robert. “The Pilgrim Art: The Culture of Porcelain in World History.”Journal of World History 9.2 (Fall 1998): 141–187.
Hongnam, Kim. Korean Arts Of The Eighteenth Century: Splendor And Simplicity. Boston: Weatherhill, 1993.
Kim, Jae-yeol. White Porcelain and Punch’ong Ware: Handbook of Korean Art.London: Laurence King, 2003.
Lee, Soyoung. “Yangban: The Cultural Life of the Chosôn Literati.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/yang/hd_yang.htm (October 2004).
Roberts, Claire, and Michael Brand. Earth, Spirit, Fire: Korean Masterpieces of the Chosôn Dynasty (1392–1910). Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 2001.
Smith, Judith E. Art of Korea. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998.