Tags for: Exploring Gender Roles in the Creation of Korean Embroidery Arts
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Exploring Gender Roles in the Creation of Korean Embroidery Arts

Sooa Im McCormick, Curator of Korean Art
August 6, 2020
A Pair of Rank Badges with Single Crane Motif, 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). 2019.78
Installation view, Diversity in Korean Embroidery Arts, Korea Foundation Gallery 236. Image courtesy David Brichford for the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea celebrates women artists who lived in late 18th- and 19th-century Korea. Their art was mostly produced in the inner quarters of the house called gyubang, where they were confined. Due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, a restricted life is no longer Korea’s remote past, but part of today’s normalcy. During this forced solitude through social distancing and quarantine, many of us, including myself, took up the needle and thread to enjoy the meditative effect of pushing in and pulling the thread out of the cloth or to make masks for frontline professionals.

Complementary to Gold Needles, Diversity in Korean Embroidery Arts debunks a prevalent misconception of needlework that assumes the embroiderer is female. By the final decades of the 19th century, male embroiderers from the city of Anju created large-scale embroidered folding screens for a fast-growing commercial market.

Gyubang-based Women Embroiderers

Toward the latter half of the Joseon dynasty (1392−1910), women increasingly faced rigid restrictions in all aspects of life. Upper-class women in particular were obliged to stay in the inner quarters of a house, called gyubang. Embroidery, alongside other subjects, was taught to middle- and upper-class young women to demonstrate feminine virtues. This art form soon became a powerful tool to reclaim one’s own identity. The skills of embroidery were passed downed as treasured knowledge in families and communities.

Gyubang-based embroiderers created works such as rank badges — official insignias that represent the wearer’s political status. While many Chinese rank badges were produced in professional workshops, Korean rank badges were embroidered by home-based embroiderers: wives and daughters. This pair of rank badges sewn with the image of a red-crowned crane holding a lingzhi mushroom in its beak was attached to the front and back of a scholar-official’s uniform. As shown in this pair, each stitch was treated with great precision to showcase the embroiderer’s skill.

A Pair of Rank Badges with Single Crane Motif (단학흉배), 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Silk, satin damask weave; silk thread embroidery; each: 25.4 x 25.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Alma Kroeger Fund, 2019.78

This embroidered eight-panel folding screen colorfully renders a birthday party of an 8th-century Chinese military general named Guo Ziyi.

General Guo Ziyi’s Birthday Banquet, early or mid-1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Eight-panel folding screen, embroidery on silk; painting: 60.9 x 30 cm (24 x 11 13/16 in.); overall framed: 195.2 x 332.4 cm (76 7/8 x 130 7/8 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, gift of the honorable Joseph P. Carroll, KM, and Roberta Carroll, M.D., in recognition of the contribution of Marjorie Williams to the development of The Cleveland Museum of Art 2020.87

Due to Guo’s successful career and blessed family life, his birthday feast became a symbol of blissful living. In 18th- and 19th-century Korea, this type of multipanel folding screen with this subject was often presented as a wedding gift for newlyweds. Simple satin stitches done in an inconsistent manner suggest that a number of gyubang-based embroiderers with different skill levels joined in making this screen, possibly as a wedding gift.

Detail of General Guo Ziyi’s Birthday Banquet (곽분양행락도), early or mid-1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Eight-panel folding screen; embroidery on silk; overall: 195.2 x 332.4 cm. Gift of the honorable Joseph P. Carroll, KM, and Roberta Carroll, M.D., in recognition of the contribution of Marjorie Williams to the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2020.87

Royal Embroiderers

Most surviving large-scale embroidered folding screens were done by royal embroiderers, exclusively women. Recruited from low-class working families, girls from seven to eight years old were trained at the royal embroidery studio. After about 15 years of training they could join major embroidery projects.

Ancient Bronze Vessels and Ten Longevity Symbols are excellent examples sewn by royal women embroiderers. The first is coveted for its silk threads naturally dyed to form the golden color of brilliant bronze vessels. Each panel depicts different kinds of bronze vessels deployed for ancestral rituals in the royal court. A short writing placed next to each vessel conveys wishful thoughts regarding the family’s happiness, health, and longevity — outcomes of sincere offerings to ancestors.

Ancient Chinese Bronzes (준이종정도), late 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). Ten-panel folding screen; embroidery on silk; 224.9 x 493.2 cm. Gift of the Honorable Joseph P. Carroll, KM, and Roberta Carroll, M.D., in recognition of the contribution of Marjorie Williams to the development of the Cleveland Museum of Art, 2020.86

Ten Longevity Symbols depicts a paradise with the ten symbols of longevity: rocks, water, clouds, sun, pine trees, turtles, deer, cranes, bamboo, and fungus.

Ten Longevity Symbols (십장생도), 1700s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). Eight-panel folding screen; embroidery on silk; 141 x 365.9 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase with funds from the Founders Junior Council and the Korean Community, 1985.14. Image courtesy of the Detroit Institute of Arts

This was one of the most frequently painted subjects in the royal court, done in vibrant mineral pigments.

Ten Longevity Symbols (십장생도), late 1800s–early 1900s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Ten-panel folding screen; color on silk, each panel: 152.5 x 34.3 cm (Changdeok 6447). Image courtesy of the National Palace Museum of Korea

In making this type of large-scale embroidery screen, women embroiderers collaborated with male court painters. Painters usually provided their needlework partners with detailed designs indicating compositional elements and color schemes. Their professional collaboration resulted in a great deal of thematic overlaps between Korean court-sponsored painting and embroidery of the Joseon period. Female embroiderers did not simply lend their skills to replication but successfully translated a pictorial prototype with a variety of sophisticated stitches in colorful silk threads, achieving a higher level of elegance.

Male Embroiderers

To respond to the growing demand of large-scale embroidered folding screens, men organized professional workshops in the city of Anju in Pyeongan Province, a region known for high-quality silk threads. In contrast to royal embroidery made of small and tight stitches in fine twisted silk threads, Anju embroidery works were done with long stitches in thick untwisted silk threads.

Geese and Reeds (노안도), 1905. Yang Gi-hun 양기훈 (Korean, 1843–1919?). Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). Twelve-panel folding screen; embroidery on silk; 200.5 x 335 cm. Seoul Museum of Craft Art, 2018-D-Huh-0046

To secure commercial success among upper-class male elites, Anju male embroiderers developed a close professional relationship with a number of famous monochrome ink painters, such as Yang Gi-hun (1843–1919?). Yang provided his embroidering partners with detailed preparatory drawings of literati themes such as Geese and Reeds or Plum Blossoms to cater to the tastes of educated elites.

Installation view, Diversity in Korean Embroidery Arts, Korea Foundation Gallery 236

The juxtaposition of Geese and Reeds in the Korea Foundation Gallery — one in embroidery and the other in monochrome ink — highlights how brilliantly embroidery art embraced the monochrome ink painting tradition. By the early 20th century, Anju embroidery screens became trendy, luxurious goods for those who wished to display their wealth and elevated taste.

Diversity in Korean Embroidery Arts in the Korea Foundation Gallery illuminates socioeconomic and gender diversity in the community of embroiderers. Their artistic innovation prevailed over the strictly gendered Korea of the Joseon period. The act of stitching is a metaphor for the empowerment of people of both genders, across social classes, who aspired to artistic and economic success.

 

Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea is on view now in the Arlene M. and Arthur S. Holden Textile Gallery 234.

Diversity in Korean Embroidery Arts is on view in the Korea Foundation Gallery 236.