Embroidery arts of the Joseon Dynasty era (1392–1910) are usually described as gyubang culture. During the Joseon era, when the division between the male and female realms was strict, women were compelled to spend their time in their bedrooms called gyubang. Women of the yangban upper class, in particular, could not freely leave their homes but were to remain in their rooms, reading, writing, or sewing. Today, their literary writings, paintings, and crafts have found a spotlight as boudoir arts. Particularly, pouches and wrapping cloth, embodying functionality and artistry, are hailed as the quintessence of Korean embroidery.
At the Cleveland Museum of Art in Ohio, in the United States, an interesting exhibition exploring the tradition of Korean embroidery is underway, co-organized by the museum and the Seoul Museum of Craft Art. Aptly titled Gold Needles: Embroidery Arts from Korea, the show introduces 70 works of art, including thimbles, wrapping cloth, a wedding gown, and embroidered folding screens, created by women artists of the 18th and 19th century. The Cleveland Museum has a large collection of Korean artifacts. In 2013, the KF established the largest permanent Korean Gallery in the Central United States at the Cleveland Museum and assigned a Korean curator there. In 2017, the museum received an enthusiastic response from art lovers for a travelling exhibition featuring painted screen masterpieces focusing on “chaekgeori” or “the books and things” of the Joseon era. The Cleveland Museum has shown consistent interest and high regard for Korean art and now sheds a fresh light on Joseon embroidery.
One of the major exhibits is the hwarot, a bride’s wedding gown, from the Cleveland Museum’s collection that expresses the bright and lively aestheticism of the women of Joseon. The gown, purchased in Korea in 1915 by Langdon Warner, the American art historian specializing in East Asian art, attracts viewers’ attention with its patterns of peonies, butterflies, and phoenixes embroidered in colorful threads. Also on display are the folding screen Sipjangsaengdo (Ten Longevity Symbols), from the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection, and Junijongjeongdo (Ancient Chinese Bronzes), a folding screen with paintings of ancient Chinese vessels, from the Cleveland Museum of Art’s collection. These folding screens have special significance as rare examples of collaborations between female embroidery artists and male painters during the Joseon period.
According to the Cleveland Museum, evidence shows that embroidery had come out of the women’s quarters by the end of the 19th century. As the needlework art became commercialized, men too began to be active as embroiderers. The current exhibition invites attention to the fact that there were people who had different ideas even in the male-dominant society, and that such diversity and creativity led to changes in Joseon embroidery. The lives and arts of Joseon women that went beyond the high walls surrounding their rooms have now crossed the Pacific and are offering unusual impressions to people in a new country. The exhibition continues through October 25, and detailed information is available at the Cleveland Museum of Art website: https://www.clevelandart.org/exhibitions/gold-needles-embroidery-arts-korea
Written by Kim Moonyoung