Korea in Knots: Palace Goods at Gyeongbokkung


Embroidered silk string pouch w/5-color tassels, by Choi Ji-Young

Embroidered silk string pouch w/5-color tassels, by Choi Ji-Young

An appealing feature of monarchy is its habit of engendering creativity and manual skill in the community of artisans that feed its appetite for the trappings of wealth and power by the possession of which it can be identified. Who but a monarch has both the means and commanding position to bring into being such extraordinary new examples of manual virtuosity as a Faberge egg, or ormolu clocks and light fixtures.

Royal retainers and staff assembled in the palace courtyard, in painting details that include items that appear further down in this post

Royal retainers and staff assembled in the palace courtyard, in painting details that include items that appear further down in this post.

Even the wealthiest merchant or landlord would prefer to give up his prize artifact to the crown, than for word to get about that his possessions were superior in beauty and value to those of the king or empress on whose favor his special trading privileges and social position might depend. The rules of that game are not “trickle-down”, but trickle-up.

There are worse places for keeping such treasures, too, than the heavily fortified and guarded palace compounds where frolic the pampered and demanding royal scions and their offspring. The steady flow of top-quality goods and services to and from royal purveyance has an attractive influence on all who would pursue such enhancements of their art and craft as can only be accomplished by including in the process the tools and materials and processes of utmost quality, precision and conceptual advancement.Traditional knot art display room in the Royal Museum

Temporary exhibitions are mounted in this room.

The ends of monarchy, historically, are neither placid nor pretty, and if the royal artifacts their flowering has produced survive that always-volatile process, they do so in the hands of those who know great pains must be taken to conceal them, as they are part of revolutionary plunder. They may gradually reappear as years pass, to be marveled at in museums, or as part of the private collections of the descendents of those whose fortunes were inherited from contemporaries of deposed royals, who were beholden to them for the permissions and investments that were first causes of amassed wealth.A classy ride, with human shock absorbers.

Royal palanquin
A scale model of the royal palanquin, replete with knotcraft tassels and other ornamentation.

A scale model of the royal palanquin, replete with knotcraft tassels and other ornamentation.

It is to these museum artifacts and the graphic representations of pieces like them, that any modern artisan must turn if they are of a mind to reproduce them at the same level of quality, and with the same skill of craftsmanship found in the originals. Today, the repositories of such artifacts can be found everywhere there was once a thriving monarchy, along with communities of modern artists and masters of craft whose creative mission it is to attempt their replication.

Detail of silk surrounding the top of the enclosure

Detail of silk surrounding the top of the enclosure

Corner detail of palanquin

Corner detail of palanquin

They are not motivated to the same hopeful degree of potential material gain as the original class of workers, but are moved instead by the sheer satisfaction that only comes with the knowledge that you have accomplished, and in some instances surpassed the level of skill mastery required in the production of the priceless originals that clutter the more fortunate museums. They can become very good at what they do; their work is neither priceless, nor in demand sufficient to qualify as a livelihood. They are artists, and that they take great pride in creating these works, shows plainly in the finish.

Tassel detail shows knotted webbing enclosing a gilt ball, about the size of a standard glass marble

Tassel detail shows knotted webbing enclosing a gilt ball, about the size of a standard glass marble

Knotted mesh surrounds and encloses gilt sqare.

Knotted mesh surrounds and encloses gilt sqare.

These were some of the thoughts chasing through my consciousness on a recent Sunday as I strolled through subterranean rooms within the grounds of Gyeongbokkung, the primary residence of the last kings and rulers of Korea, in downtown Seoul. Before they succumbed, at last, to a combination of historical forces: great power aggression, recent Japanese military success, home-grown intrigue and factiousness, treachery and the lack of sufficient strength to resist, the so-called “Hermit Kingdom” displayed in full the qualities both formidable and whimsical that make of monarchies one of the most interesting political establishments yet invented by a humanity in search of humane governance.

Crown detail of a 3-pendant assembly

Crown detail of a 3-pendant assembly

Detail of knots atop a 3-tassel pendant

Detail of knots atop a 3-tassel pendant

A royal procession as painted

A royal procession as painted

The Korean monarchy ended forever in 1910, when the peninsula was formally “annexed” to a Japan still basking in the warm glow of its recent military defeat of Russia and no other country willing, or with the ability, to stop them. The Americans would say to Japan, in essence, “We won’t interfere with you in Korea, if you ignore our move into The Philippines, and so it was done. Never again would occur such scenes as this partial portrayal in an old painting.

Each pennant marks status and function of those assembled under it.

Each pennant marks status and function of those assembled under it

I have found many things to like about Korea and her people in over two decades of residence. One of my favorites is that they have never invaded another country. True, they have thrown in with the US a couple of times on ill-advised military adventures abroad, but they soon pulled back, having properly observed the form, if not the letter, of alliance, and debt assumed by “liberation” at the end of WWII.

Brocade pennant. Others are silk, each with a characteristic color, shape and meaning.

Brocade pennant. Others are silk, each with a characteristic color, shape and meaning.

Some standards appear mystical to the uninitiated.

Some standards appear mystical to the uninitiated.

A powerful, magical protector.

A powerful, magical protector.

The Phoenix is a prominent mythical power being.

The Phoenix is a prominent mythical power being.

Name the monster.

Name the monster.

On my first visit to a Korean museum, almost a quarter-century ago in N. Jeolla Province, I was struck by what seemed then to be a rather ostentatious array of ornamental tassels, and so-called “maedup” pendants. I may have thought this display too expansive in relation to the totality of the royal ornamentation set. What’s so special about tassels and pendants, anyway? It’s taken me two decades to learn to appreciate the knots. For that, I must thank the artisan, Ms. Choi Ji Young, and her family, for bringing it to our attention and inviting us to join their family outing in its enjoyment.

Ms Ji-Young Choi, with her niece.

Ms Ji-Young Choi, with her niece.

On my first visit to a Korean museum, almost a quarter-century ago in N. Jeolla Province, I was struck by what seemed then to be a rather ostentatious array of ornamental tassels, and so-called “maedup” pendants. I may have thought this display too expansive in relation to the totality of the royal ornamentation set. What’s so special about tassels and pendants, anyway? It’s taken me two decades to learn to appreciate the knots. For that, I must thank the artisan, Ms. Choi Ji Young, and her family, for bringing it to our attention and inviting us to join their family’s tour of it.

It was our second visit to an exhibition of Ms Choi’s work. It’s included in the group exhibition of the national society of which she is a member. I have emphasized her work in this post for two simple reasons: I’m grateful to her and her family; the craftsmanship of the work is superb. I show it here in a mix with authentic palace goods, as displayed in rooms adjacent. I’ve included other recent works by member artisans,  original works inspired by the study of records from various periods of royal history.

Just a guess, but i'll say carved from wood and hollowed for variable tones depending on where struck.

Just a guess, but i'll say carved from wood and hollowed for variable tones depending on where struck.

No royal panoply would be complete without musical heraldry, and the Korean palace percussion instruments are unique and fanciful to see. I found myself longing to give audience to their use by masters of the form.

I think I could play this one, but I wouldn't want to make a mistake.

I think I could play this one, but I wouldn't want to make a mistake.

 Palace chimes, tuned by varying thickness of the metal, probably bronze.

Palace chimes, tuned by varying thickness of the metal, probably bronze.

A closer look.

A closer look.

A rack of cymbals

A rack of cymbals

A tin horn

A tin horn

A conch bugle

As fanciful a suspended gong as I'm likely to see anywhere

As fanciful a suspended gong as I'm likely to see anywhere

A pair of pipe flutes

A pair of pipe flutes

A large bell, the top roughly eye-level to the standing striker

A large bell, the top roughly eye-level to the standing striker

Tuned chimes, same shape as the large, solitary gong

Tuned chimes, same shape as the large, solitary gong

Corner view, with decorative pheasant tail-plume pendant

Corner view, with decorative pheasant tail-plume pendant

A closer look

A closer look

The royal water clock; a marvel of engineering and craftsmanship

The royal water clock; a marvel of engineering and craftsmanship

I found many more, and more satisfying, things to like in the glass cases and exhibition halls of the Palace Museum. They, and the group of people (and their families) devoted to their study and reproduction of pieces contained in them, moved me to new heights of appreciation, and exhausted my store of energy for their photographing. It’s time to wrap up this museum visit. How do I know? I consulted the Palace water clock.

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One response to “Korea in Knots: Palace Goods at Gyeongbokkung

  1. By palace museum, do you mean what they call the Folk Museum in English? It is one of my favorite places in Seoul!

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