Review of The Multivalent Screen

Written by Jennifer Chen-su Huang

Newly released this week, The Multivalent Screen: Materiality and Representation in East Asian Visual Culture, features nine essays on Asian screens. This volume grew out of the symposium, “The Screen in East Asia and Beyond” held by the Department of Art History at the University of Chicago in May 2011. Organized by the Center for the Art of East Asia, the conference was divided into four panels: Partitioning and Defining Space; The Screen in Ritual and Performance; Illusion and Representation; and Medium and Materiality. For those of us who could not be there, this collection of essays provides a deeper insight on select surviving screens and recent archaeological discoveries. 

Concentrated primarily in China, Korea, and Japan, this volume is a compilation of multiple areas of research regarding screens — from its social and cultural meaning to its physicality and material disposition. As mentioned in the Introduction, the editors Foong Ping and Chelsea Foxwell unify this collection of essays as being able to emphasize the role of screens as a representation of cultural interchange and hybridities.

A notable example of this is observed in the Joseon Court (1392-1910), as observed by the Maxine and Howard Curator of Korean Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In her essay, “Displaying Authority: Screen Paintings of the Joseon Court,” Hyunsoo Woo highlights the influence of Chinese history and culture on screens rendered for the royal family in Korea. 

Frequent color image reproductions of artifacts comparing and contrasting Chinese and Korean depictions of similar themes support Woo’s argument. For example, the popular motif of the Ten Symbols of Longevity (which includes the sun, water, pine trees, bamboo, lingzhi mushrooms of immortality, turtles, cranes, deer, peach trees, clouds, rocks, and mountains) become the subject of an 18th-century Joseon folding screen. All ten symbols are arranged in an expansive panoramic composition, whereas in Chinese art, all ten symbols are rarely depicted together as a subject of a painting. Rather, a small selection of these longevity symbols more frequently appear as decorations in craft objects, like ceramic dishware.

In addition, artists from the Joseon period often rendered Chinese historical and legendary figures, like General Guo Ziyi and Queen Mother of the West, in their screens to validate the power of the ruling family. In the screens of elaborate banquet scenes, Woo considers the questions: “What was a painting full of Daoist and Buddhist immortals doing in the court of Confucian rulers? Also, why were Daoist and Buddhist iconography prominently combined?” (198).

The screen, Banquet of General Guo Ziyi, from the late 18th to early 19th century, features the Chinese military man who put down the An Lushan Rebellion and consequently saved the Tang Dynasty (618-907) from collapse. This historical figure was often depicted in Korean art; “[he] was greatly admired in Korea for living an exemplary life in which he achieved social distinction and longevity and produced many offspring” (195). Guo Ziyi symbolized a fulfilled life and was a popular subject for screen paintings, especially in the Korean court, which sought to use his imagery as a way to impart the same goodwill on the royal family. 

Painted in the same time period is The Queen Mother of the West’s Banquet at the Turquoise Pond, depicting the revered goddess from Daoist lore. While the Chinese also frequently portrayed the Queen Mother of the West, Woo notes the differences between Korean and Chinese depictions. The Chinese works are often long hand-scrolls that place more emphasis on the landscape and do not commonly feature the close-up banquet scene, whereas the Korean renditions tend to ornately illustrate the lavish banquet scene on large-scale screens. Woo cites the two Royal Protocols that ordered that “a ‘Banquet at the Turquoise Pond’ screen [was] to be used at the wedding ceremonies of King Heonjong, confirming the theme’s close association with royal banquets” (202). Through researching primary sources, the author discovers that The Queen Mother of the West’s Banquet at Turquoise Pond was considered an auspicious theme that also symbolized kingly authority and was to be used in the private spaces of his palace as opposed to the outer court.

The menagerie of Daoist and Buddhist deities as well as ancient Chinese historical figures depicted on screens created for the Joseon court served to symbolize the power of the royal household. In order to legitimize the authority of the royal court, the commissioned artwork represents a mix of religions and philosophies, namely from Chinese sources. These associations served to glorify the royal family’s regime.

In essays such as Hyunsoo Woo’s, the cross-cultural nature of painted, paneled screens becomes explicitly clear. The Multivalent Screen is a concise collection of researched arguments that give readers deeper insight to this unique art form.

The Multivalent Screen: Materiality and Representation in East Asian Culture is available for purchase here.

The Banquet of Seowangmo (Xiwangmu), Queen Mother of the West
Korea, Korean, Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), 18th-19th centuryPaintings; screens
Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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