Tags for: Gold Needles: Korean Embroidery Arts from the Women’s Inner Quarters and Beyond
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Gold Needles: Korean Embroidery Arts from the Women’s Inner Quarters and Beyond

Sooa McCormick, Associate Curator of Korean Art
March 6, 2020
Bridal Robe (Hwarot), late 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). 1918.552
Gift-Wrapping Cloth (Bojagi), early 1900s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (11392–1910). Plain weave cotton; silk and metal thread embroidery; 41 x 41 cm. Seoul Museum of Craft Art, 2018-D-Huh-1564. Photo: Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art

In this year marking the centennial of the passing the 19th Amendment giving American women the right to vote, on March 8 we celebrate International Women’s Day. It is also the opening date of a special exhibition celebrating women artists from Korea whose names are lost to history: Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea. The exhibition reclaims works of embroidery by anonymous Korean women artists in patriarchal Joseon society as tools of awareness of the constraints upon female expression. Co-organized with the Seoul Museum of Craft Art, Gold Needles (Arlene M. and Arthur S. Holden Textile Gallery, March 8−July 26, 2020) presents stunning examples of Korean embroidery and patchwork dated up to the early twentieth century. Most of the loaned works on display, which include embroidered gift wrappings, folding screens, rank badges, and sewing tools, are from the Seoul Museum of Craft Art.

Thimbles, early 1900s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). Silk and cotton; each 2.8 x 2.5 x 1.5 cm. Seoul Museum of Craft Art. Photo: Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Embroidery arts flourished in the Korean Peninsula long before the Joseon period. Ancient texts such as the History of the Three Kingdoms (삼국사기), informs us that embroidery was a luxury deployed to display wealth, taste, high social status for royalty, and around the 800s, embroidered silk robes were also worn and enjoyed by commoners. However, many such earlier materials did not survive the devastating foreign invasions of Korea and the Korean War (1950–53). The earliest known embroidery work in the collection of a Korean museum is a late fourteenth-century Buddhist hanging scroll now in the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art that depicts the image of Amitabha Buddha.

Amitabha Buddha, late 1300s. Korea, Goryeo period (918–1392). Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art. Image courtesy of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

Most surviving embroidered objects are from the late Joseon dynasty (1392−1910) and were mostly created by both amateur and professional women artists confined to the innermost space of a house, called gyubang (규방), or inner quarters. Confining women and their public activities, however, ironically encouraged them to build a strong sense of a supportive community, to develop creativity, and eventually to fashion their own artistic and cultural identities. Many of the works on view include wrapping cloths called bojagi (보자기) that demonstrate women’s bold and exuberant aesthetics. Featuring stunning colors and striking arboreal and geometric patterns, wrapping cloths were used to pack and store items as small as little pouches and as large as clothing.

Gift-Wrapping Cloth (Bojagi), early 1900s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). Plain weave ramie; cotton and metal thread embroidery. Seoul Museum of Craft Art. Photo: Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art

An exquisitely embroidered bridal gown (hwarot 활옷) is a central anchor piece in this exhibition, accentuating women’s distinctive aesthetic sensibilities. In contrast to monochrome ink painting done by male elites — the most prominent male-centered art form — the red silk surface of the gown is lavishly embellished with various decorative images in colorful silk threads: peonies, butterflies, lotus flowers, a pair of white cranes, and phoenixes. Yet the bridal gown does not attest to material extravagance. On the contrary, many traces of repairs, trimmings, and patchwork reflect women’s commitment to valuing a frugal and modest lifestyle. This gown is the one acquired in Korea in 1915 by Langdon Warner (1881−1955), who served as the field agent for research in Asia on behalf of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Given its current condition, it must have served for up to thirty years as an important resource for a working-class community.

Wedding Gown (Hwarot), late 1800s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Satin weave silk; silk embroidery; paper edging on neck and sleeves. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Worcester R. Warner Collection, 1918.552. Photo: Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Among a group of folding screens on display, Ten Longevity Symbols (Detroit Institute of Arts) highlights the technical sophistication of women master embroiders in the Joseon royal court. According to a royal archive that details the king’s wedding in 1847, the theme of “ten longevity symbols” was featured on one of the many painted and embroidered screens commissioned for the royal wedding to evoke a heavenly blessing on the newly married royal couple.

Ten Longevity Symbols (십장생도), 1700s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392−1910). Eight-panel folding screen; embroidery on silk. 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

By the final decades of the nineteenth century, embroidery no longer belonged exclusively to women. To respond to the growing demand for large-scale embroidered folding screens, many men organized professional workshops, particularly in the city of Anju in Pyeongan province. While the artistic language of Anju male embroiderers — bold compositions and bright color schemes — was deeply indebted to the one established by women artists, they reached new heights of artistic sophistication with thick, multilayered stitches. The desired effect was voluminous textured surfaces. One Hundred Children at Play is an excellent example of Anju embroidery. In the lower section boys swing, wrestle, sail, shoot arrows, spin tops, climb trees, and fly kites in a garden setting, while the upper section depicts creatures such as pheasants, cranes, and phoenixes.

Detail of One Hundred Children at Play (백동자도), early 1900s. Korea, Joseon dynasty (1392–1910). Ten-panel folding screen; embroidery on silk. Seoul Museum of Craft Art. Photo: Howard Agriesti, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Having many children, particularly boys, was believed to be advantageous in the agricultural society of the Joseon period. Thus, the theme of “one hundred children” became a typical symbol of prosperity and happiness. Nevertheless, the pressure to have many offspring was a source of great anxiety to married women at that time — as well as the major cause of death. Recent studies reveal that about 10% of high-class women died in labor, suggesting that a far greater number of lower-class women also lost their lives in childbirth.

 

This special exhibition that celebrates women and their triumphant resilience that transformed social constraints into a potent source of artistic creativity was made possible by generous funding from the Seoul Metropolitan Government, the John D. Proctor Foundation, Cathy Lincoln, Joon-Li Kim and Robert Gudbranson, and the Textile Art Alliance. Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea runs through Sun, 7/26.