This thesis examines how Japanese art critic Yanagi Sôetsu’s (1889 – 1961) acquisition of a collection of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392 – 1910) ceramics from 1914 began as novice interest in the peninsula’s arts, but changed as he attempted to co-opt the works to corral anti-colonial sentiment towards Japan’s campaign for empire. In the wake of the brutal Japanese response to Seoul’s March First uprisings in 1919 Seoul – in which thousands of Koreans demonstrating against Japan’s occupation of the peninsula were killed or injured – Yanagi mounted the first reading of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty ceramics in an ethnopolitical discourse he called the ‘beauty of sorrow.’ Its fullest articulation, set out in his 1922 work Korean Art, alleged that the white glazes, the decorative motifs, and, above all, the long, curvaceous lines that he perceived as the most emblematic traits of Chosŏn ceramics were physical manifestations signifying the ‘sad and lonely’ demeanour of Korean nationals who ‘lived in mourning’ due to their experience of repeated foreign invasion. The thesis argues that the combined impact of Yanagi’s limited knowledge of European art historical models and his desire to mount a campaign which aimed at rectifying the injustices endemic to imperialism overwhelmed his capacity to appreciate and contextualise distinct periods in the Chosŏn ceramic canon.
Methodologically, the thesis adopts an interdisciplinary approach across the fields of Japanese studies, art history, and postcolonialism. It draws on prior scholarship detailing Yanagi’s appropriation of Western power structures that helped to legitimise Japan’s colonial project (Duus, 1995; Brandt, 2000; Kikuchi, 2004), his overreliance on certain aesthetic characteristics in the construction of his discourse (Ch’oe, 1976; Idekawa, 1988), his endorsement of cultural pluralism (Nakami, 2011), and the development of the Chosŏn ceramic canon (Chung, 1993, 2000; Itoh, 2000). In bringing together these disparate strands of research, the thesis constitutes the first sustained scholarship of Yanagi’s ‘beauty of sorrow’ discourse. It is also the first study to offer a full English translation of Korean Art.
The thesis argument develops in three stages. Firstly, it demonstrates that in addition to incorporating elements of Leo Tolstoy’s humanism, Mohandas Ghandi’s passive resistance, and Peter Kropotkin’s mutual aid, Yanagi’s aestheticisation of Korean pathos synthesised a number of European formalist models of artistic style. Of these, his greatest enthusiasm was reserved for the work of William Blake, whose advocacy of the merits of the ‘bounding line’ also alerted Yanagi to the positive, spontaneous power of the Romantic imagination. The thesis expands significantly on prior research to assert that Yanagi’s reading of this linear sorrow as the dominant force guiding the production of Chosŏn ceramics encased the objects in a rigid narrative employing values and meanings based less on historically verifiable evidence than on his desire to use the objects to ameliorate the ‘Japan-Korea problem.’
The thesis then gauges the reception and impact of the discourse to highlight how Korean Art not only met with popular and, until the 1970s, mostly inveterate acclaim, but also how the ‘beauty of sorrow’ emerged as the principal factor influencing Japanese views of Korean art and culture during the colonial period and beyond. The global burgeoning interest in postcolonial studies in the postwar period coincided with the first Korean translation of Korean Art in 1974, which sparked a series of fiery rebuttals attempting to distance Korean material culture from what one of Yanagi’s most outspoken critics described as an ‘aesthetics of colonialism.’ The thesis argues that despite his altruistic intentions, Yanagi’s discourse contributed not only to essentialisation and primitivisation in the reception of Korean culture, but also, in its disavowal of Korean agency, legitimised populist Japanese notions of Korean ‘stagnation’ and ‘degeneration.’ Ultimately, Yanagi’s ‘beauty of sorrow’ became enmeshed with a colonial irony that reinscribed the imperial enterprise even as he championed Japan’s withdrawal from the peninsula.
Finally, the thesis asserts that because Yanagi’s focus in Korean Art was fixated on attaching anti-imperial freight to the works, his limited knowledge of European art historical methods prevented him from offering a periodised analysis of the ceramics. His sweeping ‘beauty of sorrow’ definitions promoted the illusion that the canon was characterised by an artistic rigidity, continuity, and homogeneity, and that its trajectory lacked intercultural exchange. Taking stock of extensive art historical, archaeological, and archival evidence, the thesis challenges these unyielding parameters to argue that Chosŏn ceramics can be classified into three broad periods of stylistic change. In each, the Chosŏn potters borrowed selectively from China or strived to develop a native idiom to varying degrees, in response to such factors as the availability of materials, sociopolitical change, state requirements, and consumer preferences. The detailed examination of each period reveals not only the industry’s state of flux and the canon’s diverse forms of artistic expression, but most importantly, that the Chosŏn state’s adoption of Neo-Confucianism as its governing ideology in the late fourteenth century was catalytic to determining the dynasty’s aesthetic idiom.