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Korean Embroidery in Modern Times: The Birds Trying to Catch the Sun

  • 2024-05-01 ~ 2024-08-04
  • Deoksugung 2F Gallery 1·2, 3F Gallery 3·4

Exhibition Overview

Korean Embroidery in Modern Times: The Birds Trying to Catch the Sun
Kim Kyujin et al., ‹Embroidered Folding Screen of Plum Blossoms and Cranes›, 1870s-1930s
Kim Kyujin et al., ‹Embroidered Folding Screen of Plum Blossoms and Cranes›, 1870s-1930s
‹Ancient Ritual Bronzes Screen›, late 19th century, Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase
‹Ancient Ritual Bronzes Screen›, late 19th century, Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase
Co-produced by Students of Women’s Academy of Fine Arts, ‹Embroidered Screen of Peacocks›, 1914
Co-produced by Students of Women’s Academy of Fine Arts, ‹Embroidered Screen of Peacocks›, 1914
Co-produced by students of Sookmyung Girls’ High School, ‹Peacocks under Wisteria›, 1939
Co-produced by students of Sookmyung Girls’ High School, ‹Peacocks under Wisteria›, 1939
Kim Hyekyung, ‹Silent Night›, 1949, Courtesy of the artist’s family
Kim Hyekyung, ‹Silent Night›, 1949, Courtesy of the artist’s family
Song Jungin, ‹Wall Hanging›, 1967, Courtesy of the artist
Song Jungin, ‹Wall Hanging›, 1967, Courtesy of the artist
Han Sangsoo, ‹Embroidered Folding Screen of Pheonix with Royal Style›, 1994
Han Sangsoo, ‹Embroidered Folding Screen of Pheonix with Royal Style›, 1994
Choi Yoohyun, ‹Eight Scenes of the Buddha’s Life (part)›, 1987-1997, Courtesy of the artist
Choi Yoohyun, ‹Eight Scenes of the Buddha’s Life (part)›, 1987-1997, Courtesy of the artist

Embroidery, an ancient cultural heritage, entails adorning fabrics with decorative patterns using needles and a vibrant palette of threads. Across two millennia, Korean embroidery has been instrumental in cultural exchanges with East Asian nations, giving rise to distinctive and visually captivating artistic expressions throughout different historical periods. The term “embroidery” often evokes established traditional forms, notably referencing the home crafts practiced and cherished by women during the Joseon Dynasty. It also encompasses the subsequent transmission of inherited embroidery techniques. However, the concept of modern embroidery remains unfamiliar, primarily due to its perceived lack of a solid historical foundation. The historical trajectory of embroidery post-19th century has been shaped by pivotal periods marked by port openings, modernization, Westernization, colonization, warfare, nation division, and industrialization.


As the diverse developments in embroidery during these transformative epochs have been unfortunately marginalized within the purview of mainstream art history, this exhibition addresses this gap by highlighting the works of under-recognized embroidery artists. Furthermore, it delves into the trajectory of embroidery practices across various historical periods, providing valuable insights into their positioning within the broader framework of Korean modern art history. The visitors will discover that behind the delicate and intricately embroidered facade of modern embroidery history; there are interwoven layers of fine art and crafts, painting and embroidery, creation and imitation, tradition and modernity, East and West, male and female, public and private, handicraft and industrial (mechanical) craft, amateurism and professionalism. By incorporating the “external discourse” of embroidery, the exhibition seeks to move beyond fine art perspectives.


1. Artistry Woven: A Needle Perfected Through a Hundred Refinements

The exhibition starts with the embroidery with diverse traditional forms in the late 19th to early 20th century. Embroidery of Joseon period falls into two categories: Royal embroidery (gungsu), created by palace women in the embroidery department based on outlines provided by court painters, and folk embroidery (minsu), crafted by women from the general public. While the appreciation of embroidery for its aesthetic qualities traces back to the Goryeo period, significant development occurred during the Joseon period, particularly after King Sukjong‘s reign. While embroidered garments and practical items prioritize formalities and utilitarian purposes, embroidery on folding screens offers a fertile ground for artistic expression, drawing inspiration from traditional painting subjects in contrast.

Following the country’s port opening, the concept of “crafts” occurred within traditional society, marking a turning point for embroidery. With the emphasis on national strength and industrial development during the era of modernization, embroidery transcended its status as a self-sufficient “emale skill (yeogi)” hin the inner quarters of the home (gyubang). It began to regard craft as equivalent to technology and industry that could contribute to realizing a modern civilized nation. As a result, embroidery started to be prominently shown at domestic and international exhibitions. Additionally, the flourishing of commercial culture and transportation modernization led to an increased demand for embroidered goods, and this surge in demand spurred the rapid expansion of embroidery production by skilled male artisans in the Anju region of Pyeongan Province.


2. Embroidery Looking like a Painting

The modernization of embroidery involves changes in design, techniques,and materials, along with its shift towards gaining public recognition and engagement. During the late 19th to early 20th centuries, embroidery, once confined to the private sphere and passed down through generations by grandmothers and mothers in domestic settings, emerged as a significant element of women’s education. This shift coincided with implementing compulsory education policies, highlighting embroidery as a key handicraft within women’s education. Embroidery gained prestigious status as a valued skill and gentility bestowed upon women, aligning with the aspirations of a modern nation-state and its citizenry.

Under these circumstances, a number of elite women embarked on journeys to Japan to specialize in the art of embroidery. Tokyo’s renowned “Women’s Academy of Fine Arts (Joshibi)” emerged as the preferred destination for these aspiring individuals. Upon completing their studies, graduates from Joshibi secured teaching positions at women’s schools, art academies, and other educational institutions nationwide. They introduced a new form of embroidery that diverged from traditional techniques, and their economic self-sufficiency and active involvement in society played a significant role in elevating the status of women.

Meanwhile in 1932, a pivotal moment unfolded in the progression of crafts within the Korean art scene, particularly evident during the 11th Joseon Art Exhibition. This era marked the dissolution of the existing calligraphy division, and the establishment of a newly formed crafts division.

This transition played a crucial role in redefining crafts as “artistic crafts” and elevating their standing within the field of art. As a result, previously labeled merely as “crafters,” craftsmen started gaining recognition as both craftsmen and artists.


3. A Universe Woven in Embroidered Tapestry

The evolution of embroidery in the post-liberation era of Korea manifested in two distinctive forms: abstraction and the revival of tradition. Both approaches progressed concurrently, predominantly within academic circles, while the latter extended its influence beyond academia. The third gallery explicitly exhibits the expression of embroidery as a creative or modern craft while presenting the significant milestone of establishing the Embroidery Department at Ehwa Woman’s University in 1945. The process of integrating the Embroidery Department to the Textile Arts Department in 1980 reflects the changing status of embroidery.

The global rise of abstract art as a progressive visual language post-World War II significantly impacted Korea’s artistic landscape, gaining recognition in Western painting and extending its influence into Eastern painting, sculpture, and crafts. Embroidery actively embraced this new visual language of abstraction. Whether formally trained or self-taught, embroidery artists embarked on experimental journeys with abstraction, pushing beyond conventional techniques and materials. Despite persistent explorations in abstraction, the once-prominent status of embroidery within the National Art Exhibition gradually diminished. It began to be perceived as a medium that consumed materials and time inefficiently, necessitating modernization to overcome perceived limitations.


4. The Modernization of Traditional Beauty

In contrast to its diminishing recognition in academic circles, embroidery experienced a notable resurgence in importance beyond academia. It positioned itself as an industrial craft crucial to the nation's modernization and industrialization efforts during the period of national development. It garnered acknowledgment as a traditional craft deserving preservation and succession. During this time, Eastern embroidery gained attention, enjoying popularity both domestically and internationally as exports in the form of wedding gifts, souvenirs, and interior decoration. Skillful women from various regions collaborated in embroidery workshops to produce a diverse range of embroidered goods tailored to market demands.

From the mid-1960s onward, there has been a renewed interest in traditional embroidery, previously interrupted by Japanese colonial rule, which prompted active engagement in collection, research, and exhibitions. In 1976, Park Youngsook and Huh Donghwa established the Museum of Korean Embroidery, building upon their extensive collection of traditional embroidery and bojagi dating back to the 1960s. Simultaneously, scholarly literature emerged dedicated to a structured examination of Joseon embroidery, and finally embroidery was recognized as a national intangible cultural heritage in 1984, two decades after the implementation of the Cultural Heritage Protection Act. The preservation and modernization of traditional embroidery continue to be driven by individuals who possess deep passion and unwavering dedication, fostering a reevaluation of the intrinsic value of artisanal skills and crafts among their contemporaries.

  • Artist
    About 40 artists including Kim Insook, Kim Hyekyung, Park Eulbok, Uhm Jungyoon, Lee Shinja, Lee Hak, Chun Myungja, Chung Youngyang, Choi Yoohyun, Han Sangsoo
  • Numbers of artworks
    170

Audio Guide

#1. Korean Embroidery in the Modern Times: The Birds Trying to Catch the Sun Embroidery, an ancient cultural heritage, involves adorning fabrics with decorative patterns using a needle and a vibrant palette of threads. Over the course of two millennia, Korean embroidery has played a pivotal role in cultural exchange with East Asian nations, giving rise to unique and visually appealing artistic expressions throughout different historical periods. However, the delicate and perishable materials used in its creation pose significant challenges in preserving ancient and medieval artifacts, ultimately limiting our access to these invaluable historical resources. As a result, numerous artifacts commonly referred to as "traditional embroidery" emerged only from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The term "embroidery" frequently evokes established traditional forms, notably referring to the practice of "home crafts executed and valued by women during the Joseon Dynasty, also encompassing the subsequent transmission of embroidery techniques inherited from that specific historical epoch. The concept of "modern embroidery" remains unfamiliar, largely due to its perceived lack of a solid historical foundation. The historical trajectory of embroidery following the 19th century has been influenced by pivotal periods characterized by the opening of ports, modernization, Westernization, colonization, warfare, division of nations, and industrialization. However, the manifold developments in embroidery during these transformative epochs have unfortunately been marginalized within the purview of mainstream art history. This exhibition aims to rectify this oversight by unearthing the works of under-recognized embroidery artists. Moreover, it seeks to scrutinize the developmental trajectory of embroidery practices across disparate historical periods, providing valuable insights into their positioning within the wider framework of modern Korean art history. The audience will discover that behind the delicate and intricately embroidered facade of modern embroidery history; there are interwoven layers of fine art and crafts, painting and embroidery, creation and imitation, tradition and modernity, East and West, male and female, public and private, handicraft and industrial (mechanical) craft, amateurism and professionalism. The constituents of embroidery, notably needles and threads, puncture the fabric's surface, penetrating to underlying layers before reemerging. This procedural analogy contemplates the categorical divisions that demarcate the world into dichotomous pairs.
Korean Embroidery in the Modern Times: The Birds Trying to Catch the Sun

1.Korean Embroidery in the Modern Times: The Birds Trying to Catch the Sun