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Daily Art Moment: Subok Screen

“Two auspicious characters, meaning longevity and good fortune, repeat in seemingly endless variation as the main design of this Korean textile screen. Across ten panels, with three columns of eleven characters each, the characters su 壽 and bok 福 are embroidered in brightly colored silk floss on a plain silk ground. The color in this work is fantastic: from rich crimson and deep purple to subtle, shimmering grey and pale peach. But what is incredible is the combination of absolute meticulousness—imagine making those stitches!—with so much surprise and diversity in how each individual character is rendered, drawing on calligraphic tradition and the pictographic abstractions possible in Chinese characters. It’s both elegant and playful. It focuses your attention on the beauty of form. It’s also a fresh take on an old idea—East Asian art is full of auspicious symbols—but feels modern and new every time I see it. And it offers a lot of 🔥 to any lover of design, calligraphy, or typography.

This embroidery screen was recently conserved at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul, where it was lightly cleaned and remounted in a period mounting with dark blue, patterned silk edged in violet. On our website, you can see images before conservation, taken by the NMK.”

Jeannie Kenmotsu, Japan Foundation Associate Curator of Japanese Art & Interim Head of Asian Art

Attributed to the Joseon Dynasty Royal Embroidery Workshop. Subok Screen: Characters for Longevity and Good Fortune in Various Scripts, 19th century. Ten-panel screen; silk floss embroidery on silk ground. Partial gift of The Robert and Sandra Mattielli Collection, and partial purchase, with funds provided by the Margery Hoffman Smith Fund, Jerry Lamb, Virginia Nelson, Travers Hill Polak, Erick Schiess, and others, 2010.33

Detail of six embroidered, stylized Chinese characters, two rows of three each on woven silk fabric of a light tan color. Starting at the upper-left corner, the first character is pale pink having the rough shape of a butterfly with a small unfurled folding fan above. The second character is dark blue and resembles two equal signs beside each other over marks that resemble six small spoons of alternating length lined up side by side. Last character in the row is stitched in deep red resembling a roofline with a cross above a squared off numeral 2 above stylized Y and X shapes. Lower row starts with a character in black resembling a human figure, head, torso and arms at sides, over a dash and image that resembles a table with two feet and a large U shape around the table. The center character is a pink circle filled with diagonal wavy lines. The last character is medium green and divides into four quadrants: in the upper left are two parallel strokes; upper right resembles an overhead view of two birds following each other; lower left resembles a single bird and lower right an X within parentheses.
Detail of six embroidered, stylized Chinese characters, two rows of three each on woven silk fabric of a light tan color. Starting at the upper-left corner, the first character is pale pink having the rough shape of a butterfly with a small unfurled folding fan above. The second character is dark blue and resembles two equal signs beside each other over marks that resemble six small spoons of alternating length lined up side by side. Last character in the row is stitched in deep red resembling a roofline with a cross above a squared off numeral 2 above stylized Y and X shapes. Lower row starts with a character in black resembling a human figure, head, torso and arms at sides, over a dash and image that resembles a table with two feet and a large U shape around the table. The center character is a pink circle filled with diagonal wavy lines. The last character is medium green and divides into four quadrants: in the upper left are two parallel strokes; upper right resembles an overhead view of two birds following each other; lower left resembles a single bird and lower right an X within parentheses.