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Exhibition of Korean White Porcelains and Contemporary Photographs by Bohnchang Koo Explores Vision and Continuity

PHILADELPHIA, PA.- Plain Beauty: Korean White Porcelain/Photographs by Bohnchang Koo explores the elegance and seemingly simple beauty of plain white porcelains of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) through the viewfinder of Bohnchang Koo, a Korean photographer who made a four-year project of photographing these superb ceramics, and through the display of 16 examples of Korean white porcelain. Produced since the beginning of the 15th century, white porcelains mirrored the neo-Confucian ideals and restrained taste of the Joseon’s ruling elites. The vessels in the exhibition were fashioned for a variety of functions, ranging from a small water dropper to an imposing globular “moon jar.” In addition to presenting works created during the Joseon dynasty, Plain Beauty: Korean White Porcelain/Photographs by Bohnchang Koo also includes contemporary ceramics inspired by these historic wares from the Philadelphia Museum of Art's collection and on loan from other collections.

“These vessels represent exquisite craftsmanship and their qualities are made all the more manifest when seen in the context of Koo’s large-scale, almost portrait-like photographs,” said Hyunsoo Woo, The Maxine and Howard Lewis Associate Curator of Korean Art. “Koo captures the stained, cracked and worn surfaces of these ceramics in a beautiful and subtle light. We believe that the dialogue between the vessels and the photographs will transcend both the difference in medium and the different times in which they were created.”

Although the development of ceramics in East Asia was closely related among neighboring countries, Korea’s preference for plain white porcelain was prominently distinguished from that of China and Japan. In China, potters quickly replaced the fashion for plain white wares with lavishly decorated white porcelains called Wucai, featuring flamboyant, multicolored patterns. In Japan, vivid polychrome Imari gained enormous popularity. As a result, the production of pure white ware over a long period of time became a uniquely Korean phenomenon. The color white also represented a commitment to frugality reflected in other aspects of Korean life, where people who worked the earth were identified by their white garb, and only the richest citizens wore lavishly decorated clothing.

Drawn from the Museum’s collection and supplemented by loans from public and private collections, the wares in the exhibition range from early 15th-century examples to ceramics from the 21st century, including a vessel created in 2009 by Gee-Jo Lee. The porcelains made at different times during the 500-year period represented in the exhibition are distinguished by subtle differences in shapes, styles, and tones. Early white porcelains are characterized by a “milky white” or “snow white” body, whereas 17th-century wares are generally distinguished by their “grayish” hue. Works from the 18th-century and later bear a “bluish” tint, as seen in Bamboo and Prunus Bottle and Flowerpot stand.

The photographs of Bohnchang Koo (b. 1953) also portray a large sample of monochromatic porcelains from a broad period of time. Koo has worked with subjects including insects, animals and plants, and self-portraits, frequently examining themes of life and death. In 1998, he started incorporating his Korean heritage and tradition more directly into his work in the series called “Masks.” To capture the images in the “Vessel” series (2004-2008) seen in this exhibition, Koo visited museums in Korea and abroad. He photographed the variable hues of white ceramics in black and white as well as in color with a fleshy pink tone. Twenty photographs will be included in this exhibition.

Philadelphia Museum of Art | Bohnchang Koo | "Plain Beauty: Korean White Porcelain/Photographs" |

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