Korean screen with royal ties finds new home in US

OSAKA – A 19th-century screen with ties to the Korean royal court has found a new home in New York City, after surviving Japanese colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula as well as the Korean War.

The 10-panel screen, 4.91 meters wide and 2.14 meters high, was probably created by royal court craftsmen of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea (1392-1910).

The panels are intricately embroidered in golden silk thread with images of bronzes used in religious rites in ancient China, such as bells and three-legged “ding” vessels.

“Chinese tanning was highly regarded during the Joseon Dynasty as a symbol of wealth and power,” said Kenichi Osawa, director of the Osaka History Museum. “A work of art embroidered with similar images in bronze, which takes a lot of work to create, is extremely rare. In all likelihood, no similar item survives even in South Korea. “

The artwork, which belonged to Shin Gi-su, a Korean ethnic historian in Japan, was placed in the care of the museum after it opened in the Chuo district of Osaka in 2001.

The screen left for New York in August after being acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has types of ancient Chinese bronzes depicted on it. It is expected to be presented at a special exhibition in the spring of 2023.

Kenichi Osawa, left, director of the Osaka History Museum, poses with Rika Shin in front of the screen in Osaka on August 9. (Jin Nishioka)

The “screen embroidered with images of antique bronzes” dates from the second half of the 19th century, a time of upheaval in East Asia.

Han Myo-sook, the screen’s former owner, had married relatives of Queen Min, known posthumously as Empress Myeongseong, who was murdered in 1895 by Japanese military officers. and others under the command of the Japanese minister in Korea.

The screen was kept in the family residence throughout Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945) and the ravages of the Korean War (1950-1953), according to Rika Shin, Shin Gi-su’s second daughter, who interviewed Han.

Shin, who died in 2002, told his daughter that he acquired the screen in 1991 at the request of a former Japanese diplomat, and not on his own initiative.

A London-based researcher for documentaries, Rika, 57, was curious as to why she ended up crossing the Strait.

Rika began to explore her origins after going to study in the land of her ancestors and reuniting with Han, who lived in Los Angeles, in 2012.

Han, who died in 2017, said she had no choice but to ask her younger sister to get rid of the screen when she married a U.S. Army officer in 1964 and moved to the ‘foreigner.

The former Japanese diplomat, then stationed in South Korea, agreed to take care of the screen.

The screen with ties to Korea’s Joseon Dynasty, seen here in Osaka on August 9, was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. (Jin Nishioka)

Shin, who aspired to serve as a bridge between Japan and Korea, kept the artwork from fading into obscurity and possibly being lost in history.

Over 140 items from Shin’s collection, including calligraphy and paintings, have been housed at the Osaka History Museum.

But the screen remained in its underground repository after being shown at an exchange exhibit at the Daegu National Museum in South Korea in 2010, the centenary of Japan’s annexation of the Korean peninsula.

“There was no other screen associated with the royal court in Shin’s collection, so it was not easy to create opportunities to display just this one,” Osawa said.

The screen came into being unexpectedly.

A curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art who visited the Osaka History Museum in February last year asked Rika if the museum could add the artwork to its collection because it represents cultural ties in Asia. from the east.

“The screen is a living witness to the turbulent history of East Asia,” Rika said to himself at the time. “The artwork could be appreciated from various points of view if it were to go to a melting pot of races, rather than being kept in Japan or South Korea.”

Shin Gi-su (Photo provided by Rika Shin)

Shin, a historian with no institutional affiliation, discovered documents and materials relating to the “Joseon Tongsinsa” diplomatic missions, which the Korean dynasty sent to Japan 12 times during the Edo period (1603-1867).

He also created video works, including “Korean Missions in the Edo Period,” a 1979 documentary film that had an impact on how Korean envoys were portrayed in textbooks. A second-generation Korean born in Kyoto, Shin was influenced by famous director Nagisa Oshima, a friend also from the ancient capital.

“The ties between Japan and Korea go back a millennium in history,” Rika said, quoting his father telling him all the time. “When you take action, you must not only look to the unfortunate 50 years of the past, but also to the future 100 years from now.”

Rika said: “I hope the screen, which has awakened from its long slumber, will weave a new story of peace with the peoples of the world.”