Choson Period Paintings
The Essence of Choson Painting
The East differs from the West in that painting and
calligraphy are joined together under the term sohwa.
Among the many forms of traditional art, sohwa
enjoys the highest status. Unfortunately, few ancient Korean paintings remain
today. The decorative murals painted on the walls of palaces and temples have
disappeared when the buildings burned down. So many early paintings on paper or
silk were destroyed during frequent invasions and fires, that almost all extant
works in Korea after the 16th century Hideyoshi invasions have disappeared.
Paintings of the Three Kingdoms, such as the Koguryo
tomb murals, give us only a partial understanding of the vibrant colors and
lines of the period's art. Recently, some Buddhist paintings from the Koryo
period, such as the famous ?ater-moon Avalokitesvara,' have provided a glimpse
of the advanced level of the period's painting, but few pieces from this era
remain. Thus, for an appreciation of Korean art, we must limit our focus to that
of the Choson period.
Korean painting was strongly influenced by China over an
extensive period of time, but this was not limited to a mere imitation of
Chinese models. Korean artists chose elements according to their own aesthetic
sense and used these to develop their own unique artistic tradition. Looking at
Korean paintings up through the late Choson period,
one easily gets the impression that Korean painting was identical to that of
China. The artists often dress the figures in Chinese-style attire, sign the
painting with the name of a famous Chinese artist and paint the fantastic,
exaggerated landscapes characteristic of China. Yet on closer inspection, one
can see much that is uniquely Korean.
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In the East, utopias do not exist in the future but in the
past, and this tendency to idealize the past also finds its expression in art.
Perhaps for this reason, East Asian art tends to imitate the art of the past.
Yet, when East Asian artists model themselves on the great artists of the past,
they do not simply copy old masterpieces. As is suggested in the interesting
term p'ilui (mind of the brush), the artist,
through his own hand, re-experiences the world of the old masters so as to make
it his own.
During the late-Choson period,
paintings of the Korean landscape became popular. In this period, the gentleman
artist Chong Son
(1676-1759) created a series of works that particularly stand out in the history
of Korean painting. Even the works of the so-called Chinese style' which were
painted both before and after his time have much that is unique in terms of
composition and organization.
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Professional Artists and Dilettantes
In traditional Northeast Asian societies, professional
painters, in Korea known as hwanjaeng-i, tended to be looked down upon,
and Korea was no exception. During the Choson
period, professional painters, as members of the chung-in class, were
despised; yet this certainly does not mean that the paintings which they
produced were scorned.
Government artists were selected according to a practical test
of their skills. As part of the low chung-in class, they came under the
jurisdiction of the Office of Painting, which in turn belonged to the office of
rites. Their work included paintings solicited by the royal house, i.e.
paintings of palace functions, portraits of the king, decorative paintings,
pictures of meritorious subjects, portraits requested by the gentry and group
paintings of the nobility. They would also be assigned to government kilns where
they would paint figures on white-glaze porcelain, etc. When a Chinese or
Japanese delegation came to Korea, government painters attended as part of the
Choson entourage in order to record the event. Since
government artists had to paint according to the taste and demands of their
patrons, their works do not have the individuality and subjectivity that one
finds in the paintings of the literati. Nevertheless, there were government
artists of outstanding capability who created great masterpieces and achieved
fame. Representative professional painters of this period include An Kyon,
Yi Sang-jwa, Ch'oe Kyong, Kim Myong-kuk,
Ch'oe Puk, Pyon Sang-byok,
Kim Hong-do, Yi In-mun, Shin Yun-bok, Yu Suk and Chang Sung-op.
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The ruling class of traditional Korean society, from the king
to the gentry, loved to paint in addition to merely admiring art. Their works
are variously described as belonging to the "amateur school,"
"literati school," "gentleman's school" or "gentry
school." These dilettante painters served both as patrons of the arts and
critics. They had a great influence on the development of Korean painting and
were always ahead of professional painters in forming new styles.
When compared with the work of government artists, paintings
of the gentry school was inferior in terms of artistic expression and
illustrative technique. On the other hand, since these painters were able to
portray their own subjective visions of the world uninhibited by artistic
conventions, their art had its own particular character. The gentry school also
actively imported artistic styles from China, and thus played an important role
in introducing them to the Korean art world at large. Unconcerned about
portraying the external form of objects, the school's painters created
spontaneous paintings that emphasized the mind of the painter. Representative
artists of the Choson gentry school include Kang Hui-an,
Yang P'aeng-son, Yi Am, Kim Shi, Yun EUi-rip, Yi Chong,
Cho Sok, Yun Tu-so, Chong
Son, Yi In-sang, Kang Se-hwang, Cho Yong-sok,
Kim Chong-hui, Hong Se-sop
and Min Yong-ik.
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Development of Choson-Era Painting
Looking at the content and artistic styles of Choson-era
painting, one can divide the period into a former period of 300 years and a
latter period of a little over 200 years, or following an An Hwi-jun, into four
periods of 125 years.
If one follows the latter classification, the first period
runs from the 15th century to the mid-16th century. With support from the King
Sejong government's revival of the arts, painting seems to have flourished
during this era; yet, due to the Hideyoshi invasions during the late 16th
century, few works have survived. Extant paintings generally reflect the
"academic style" from China's Northern and Southern Song Dynasties.
Representative painters from this period include the literati painters Kang Hui-an
(1417-1464) and the king's relative Yi Am (1499-1545), as well as the government
artists An Kyon and Yi Sang-jwa.
The characteristic painting style of this era can be seen in
the works of An Kyon-the greatest master of the early-Choson period. His work ?A Dream Visit to
the Land of Peach Blossoms' or the work attributed to him known as ?Eight
Scenes of the Four Seasons' both have a scattered yet harmonious
composition, an exquisite sense of spacial expansiveness and majestic
landscapes. Yi Am, on the other hand, created animal paintings full of dogs and
cats, that had a lyrical, childlike quality.
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The second period, from the late 16th century to the late 17th
century was politically unsettled as a result of foreign invasions and the
"Four Factions Dispute." Nevertheless, a unique and creative artistic
style developed during this time. In the paintings of this era, human figures
appear large, and landscapes, serving primarily as the background for the
figures, are portrayed with rough, thick strokes of ink which form a strong
black and white contrast. Painting composition during this time is somewhat
chaotic and animated. This period's style developed out of the Che school style
of the Ming Dynasty, and its origins can be traced back to paintings such as
Kang Hui-an's mid-15th century work Sage
Contemplating the Water. Representative artists of the period include the
literati painters Kim Shi (1524-1593), Yi Kyong-yun
(1545-1611), Cho Sok (1595-1668) and the government artists Yi Hung-hyo
(1537-1593), Yi Ching (1581-1674), Yi Chong
(1578-1607) and Kim Myong-kuk (1600-1663). In
particular, Yi Chong, EO
Mong-yong and Hwang Chip-chung's ink drawings of bamboo, plums and grapes went
on to become standard motifs in Korean painting.
The third period, which runs from the early-18th to the
mid-19th century, is very important within the history of Choson
painting, for it was during this time that both realistic landscape painting and
genre painting (works based on everyday life) were introduced.
The Southern school style of the Ming Dynasty's Wu school,
which developed during the 15th and 16th centuries, exerted a gradual influence
on Korean painting up to this time. By the 18th century, Koreans had transformed
this style into a new realistic style of landscape painting. Chong
Son (1676-1759) in particular, loved to use Korea's
bare granite peaks as subject matter. In his depictions of rocky pinnacles and
mountains, he pioneered the technique of using repeated vertical lines. He thus
established a unique artistic style that could be clearly distinguished from
that of China. This realistic landscape style also influenced the works of
literati painters such as Kim Yun-gyom (1711-1775),
Kang Se-hwang (1713-1791) and Chong Su-yong
(1743-1831), government artists such as Kim Hong-do (1745-1806) and Kim Sok-shin
(1754-?), and the professional artist Ch'oe Puk (1712-1786). Other contemporary
artists such as Shim Sa-jong (1707-1769), Yi In-sang
(1710-1760) and Yi In-mun (1745-1824) gave the landscape style of China's
southern school a uniquely Korean interpretation.
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In addition to the realistic landscape style, genre painting
emerged as a style of stunning originally. Kim Hong-do, the artist extensively
known for his genre paintings, was also adept at painting a wide range of motifs
including Taoist and Buddhist figures as well as flower and bird motifs. He
filled his canvases with warm scenes from the daily lives of the gentry,
farmers, artisans and merchants. In his paintings, his precise but humorous
depictions of subjects such as blacksmiths, shamans, wrestlers, or workers at
harvest time masterfully express the traditional Korean character. Another
interesting artist of the period was Shin Yun-bok (1758-?), styled Hye-won. (It
has recently been discovered that Shin's original name was in fact Shin Ka-gwon.)
With his daring use of a woman and her lover as subject matter, Shin vividly
depicts the passion and romantic tastes of his era. Shin also excelled at
landscapes in the literati style, depictions of birds and animals and
It was also during this period that Western painting was
introduced via China. The characteristic techniques of Western painting, such as
shading, perspective and depth, seem to have been introduced by a Korean mission
that traveled to Yenjing. Kim Tu-ryang (1696-1763) and some other painters of
the 18th century were the first to employ Western painting techniques, which
were then used by government painters for palace paintings and pictures of
scholarly implements. The early introduction of Western techniques can be seen
in works by Kang Se-hwang (1713-1791) and Kang Hui-on
(1738-1784). The former, who is thought to have been Kim Hong-do's teacher,
added a sense of depth to his work A Trip to Songdo, while the latter, in
his work, Mt. Inwangsan, paints the sky blue.
In the fourth period, which runs for more than 60 years from
the late 19th century, realistic landscape and genre painting styles went into
decline. In their place, the Southern school's literati style, which was
centered around Kim Chong-hui's
group, became even more influential. In addition, a group of maverick artists
created a style based on a new artistic sensibility, which came to be known
simply as the ovel style.'
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This new style is best represented by the refined genre
pictures of Kim Chong-hui
(1786-1856) and his followers Cho Hui-ryong
(1789-1866), Ho Ryon
(later renamed Ho Yu, 1809-1892) and Chon
Ki (1825-1854)-the so-called Ch'usa school, and by the works of Kim Su-ch'tol
and Hong Se-sop. While Kim Chong-hui's
Ch'usa school can be credited with advancing the painting style of the Southern
school, painters such as Kim Su-ch'iol and Hong Se-sop,
created a novel style, which as its name suggests, had a unique sensibility. Kim
Su-ch'iol, with his bold omissions, simple elegance
and subtle coloring, created novel paintings that resembled water colors. His
style became a beacon for traditional painters, and formed the link between
traditional and modern painting. The talented government painter Chang Sung-op
(1843-1897) is a representative figure from this period.
Around this time, Yi Ha-ung
(1820-1898) and Min Yong-ik (1860-1914) popularized
ink-drawings of orchids while Chong Hak-kyo
(1832-1914) popularized fanciful paintings of granite peaks. In addition, the
accumulation of wealth during this era led to the creation of regional circles
of painters, such as the one centered around Ho Ryon
in Cholla-do province, Yi Hui-su
(1836-1909) and Yang Ki-hun (1843-1908) in P'yongyang, Chi Ch'ang-han
(1851-1901) and U Sang-ha in the Hamgyong-do area
and So Pyong-o
(1862-1935) in the Kyongsang-do area.
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In Korea, the status of folk paintings as part of traditional
art was obscure up until the 20th century. Folk painting, which is not unique to
Korea, is typically understood to fall under folk studies rather than art
history. Yet, there is a great difference in opinion among Korean scholars
concerning the position of folk art within traditional art in general, as well
as the scope and definition of the term. In the 1960s, a pioneering Korean
scholar by the name of Cho Cha-yong collected folk art works and conducted
excavations. Beginning with the "Tiger Exhibition" in 1969, special
exhibitions of folk art were held on a regular basis. Around this time,
information on folk art began to appear in publications, creating popular
interest in the subject.
Since folk paintings are generally ordinary paintings made for
a practical purpose, typically no mention is made of the artist's name. At first
glance, the paintings seem crude. Yet, they vividly portray the simple beauty of
the common people, and express a faith filled with secular aspirations and
optimism. With their humor and variegated colors, they capture the honest and
natural aesthetic of the Korean people.
Since folk paintings are created for a practical purpose, few
old examples remain. Yet, folk paintings have a diverse range of subjects, are
colorful, concise in expression and treat familiar themes. Notably, since the
1960s, folk painting has begun to influence modern art circles.
Folk paintings can be classified, according to content, into a
few or as many as 20 or 30 different styles. Distinguishable from general
landscape paintings, minhwa landscapes include the typical Eighth
scenic views of the Hwiao and Hwiang Rivers (a theme from China) and Korean
landscapes. One can also find folk paintings created to decorate the interiors
of rooms. These often depict the flower and bird motif, peonies, tiger-hunting
scenes, comical magpie and tiger scenes and genre pictures of farmers working.
Other pictures depict scholarly implements or contain inspirational verses-a
clear demonstration of the respect for scholarship found in Confucian countries
such as Korea.
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Flower and Bird Motif
Paintings of flowers and birds, along with depictions of
landscapes and people, developed early within the general painting tradition of
Northeast Asia. Indeed, paintings of the flowers and birds motif are the most
common decorative folk paintings among those that remain. These works were
sought after since they were most suitable for interior decorating. Such
paintings, with their depictions of gorgeous blossoms and pairs of beautiful
birds, symbolized the love between husband and wife and the desire for abundant
offspring. They were generally kept in the bridal chamber or the bedroom where
the wife and children slept.
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Paintings of Peonies
As a symbol of wealth, the peony, with its splendid blossoms
and wide, smiling leaves, has been adored by the people of Northeast Asia.
During the late Choson period, artists such as Ho
Yu made black-ink painting of peonies. In folk paintings, on the other hand,
blue and red paint was used to paint peonies jutting forth from rocky crags.
These paintings are classified according to their size, which varied from small
works to others that were more than nine meters long and were hung in the
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Depictions of scholarly implements, known as ch'aekkori
or ch'aekkado, are important as a uniquely Korean theme that is rarely
seen in other countries. These paintings, which often covered the folding
screens of the palace, incorporated the Western techniques of perspective and
shading. The pictures typically show unusually large shelves of books and
scrolls along with decorative pottery and metal bowls. Government painters
(particularly Yi Hyong-nok) are especially famous
for paintings of this theme. Pictures of this type are diverse and include
depictions of tableware or books and just scholarly implements without the
accompanying shelves. Symbolically, these paintings reflect the honored position
of scholarship in Confucian societies.
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In these paintings, each character of a classical Chinese
phrase extolling Confucian virtues such as filial piety, loyalty, etiquette or
humility, is decorated with designs and pictures. The motifs within each
character give hints to its significance, thus this style of painting is used
for purposes of edification. As with other folk arts of the period, one rarely
comes across two calligraphy paintings that are alike. Thus, this artistic form
demonstrates extensive experimentation, imagination and colorful techniques of
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Tiger Hunting Paintings
Paintings of hunting scenes have been around for a long time.
Due to the large number of folk paintings of this type, hunting scenes are often
thought of as a subject matter belonging exclusively to the minhwa style.
However as with other types of folk paintings, tiger hunting scenes were first
painted by professional painters. These thrilling depictions of large groups of
hunters dressed in the attire of Manchurian nomads, are generally used to
decorate military housing and installations. They are also used, by the common
people, to ward off evil spirits.
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Korean Landscape Paintings
Landscape painting occupies the highest position among the
painting styles of North-east Asia. Landscape was inspired by the idea of
portraying beautiful scenery, majestic mountains and other lovely scenes from
nature. Although it is often compared with Western landscape, Eastern landscape
painting, having begun several centuries earlier, is clearly distinguishable.
Gradually developed out of Northeast Asians' unique view of nature, Eastern
landscape painting eventually surpassed the painting of people or flowers and
bird motifs, to become the chief artistic form.
The beginning of Korean landscape art can be seen on the wall
paintings of Koguryo tombs. In the Tomb of the
Dancers, there is a painting of a hunting scene. As an excellent period piece
showing hunting and dancing of the fifth to sixth century, the painting captures
the vibrant, optimistic spirit of the Koguryo
people. The picture also depicts numerous twisting valleys. In the Kangso
great tumulus, amateurish texture strokes are used to depict mountains. Although
it is not a painting, Paekche tiles bearing "mountain and river"
motifs demonstrate an improvement in terms of the use of space in landscape
composition. Since there are no extant Shilla landscape paintings, we cannot
know exactly what they may have looked like, but it can be assumed that they
underwent considerable development along with other Shilla art forms, and the
same can be said of Koryo.
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The realistic landscape style, known in Korean as shilgyong
sansu or chin-gyong sansu, does not
simply represent an attempt to create photo-realistic reproductions of actual
Korean landscapes. For in this style of painting, not only the subject matter
but even the artistic techniques are different. While painting their own native
landscapes, Korean artists created unique illustrative techniques for depicting
mountain landscapes, which look quite different than those of the main-stream
Korean painters are generally classified as either
professional painters working for the government's Office of Paintings or
literati who painted as a hobby. These two types of painters played
complementary roles in the development of Korean art. Literati artists at times
displayed crude technique, but played a positive role in the introduction and
popularization of new styles from China.
The Toyotomi Hideyoshi invasions and the Manchu invasion of
1636 led to a period of introspection. The national awakening that was born out
of this period appeared throughout Korea, affecting its society, economy and
culture. In this sense, these changes can be compared to the renaissance that
the West underwent from the late-fourteenth to the early sixteenth centuries.
This Korean renaissance also occurred in the realm of
painting, for it was during this era that genre paintings became popular. In
addition to depicting high-ranking officials, these paintings took the daily
lives of farmers, artisans and merchants as their main subject matter. These
paintings, which would have previously been unthinkable, have today become
invaluable as historical materials. Looking at these paintings, scholars can get
a vivid glimpse of the vibrant atmosphere of the times and learn much that has
not been passed down in the texts of the period. In addition to genre works,
realistic landscape painting was also popular at this time. The elegant
landscape style of this period is often referred to as the most
characteristically Korean art style. Fortunately, many paintings from this
period still exist today. Just as kimchi is the representative Korean
food, realistic landscapes along with genre paintings are artistic styles that
exhibit the true Korean character.
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The government official Chong Son
(1676-1759, styled Kyomjae) developed a unique
landscape style which served as a model for Korean painters. Clearly
distinguishable from Chinese landscape, this new style, which came to be known
as the Kyomjae school, had a deep impact on both
government and literati painters of the period.
Although to a lesser extent, Chong
Son's influence was also felt among government
artists. Kim EUng-hwan (1742-1789) , who is thought
to have been Kim Hong-do's teacher, demonstrated composition and brush style
similar to those of Chong Son
in his work Mt. Kumgangsan and in his album
of Mt. Kumgangsan paintings. Kim Hong-do
(1745-1806), in particular, developed the style, establishing a distinctive form
for Korean landscape. This style's influence can also be seen in Mt.
Tobongsan by Kim Sok-shin (1758-?), P'yohunsa
temple by Ch'oe Puk (1712-1786) the paintings of Kim Yu-song
(1725-?), Cho Chong-gyu (1791-?), Yu Suk (1827-1873,
and Em Ch'i-uk's paintings, which resemble those of
Under Chong Son's
influence, literati painters also began to develop a slightly different painting
style. Although few in number, the realistic landscape paintings of Shim Sa-jong
(1707-1769) bear traces of Chong Son's
influence. Other masters of realistic landscape created a distinctive style
based on the Southern school. Examples include the "Sea and Mountains"
album and the more than 10-meter-long painting of the Han-gang river by Chong
Su-yong (1743-1831), A Trip to Songdo by Kang
Se-hwang (1713-1791), and the paintings of Yi In-sang (1710-1760) and Kim Yun-gyom
In the mid-19th century, Kim Chong-hui's
(1786-1856) new artistic style and theory signified the end of the realistic
landscape style; yet its traces can still be detected in the landscapes of Pyon
Kwan-shik (1899-1976) and Yi Sang-bom (1897-1972).
The period from 1700 to 1850 formed the background for
realistic painting. Preceded by the mid-Choson
period (16th century) with its emphasis on Neo-Confucian thought, the 17th
century in China was marked by the transition from the Ming Dynasty to the
Qing-a dynasty established by the Jurchen people of Manchuria. Koreans were
greatly confused by these events; yet on the other hand, they felt a great sense
of pride as the true successors of Chinese culture. It is thus natural that
Koreans, at precisely this time, began to look to their own landscape for
subject matter and started to paint human figures wearing Korean instead of
Chinese clothing. Both genre paintings and realistic landscape paintings
appeared from precisely this sort of background.
This new movement was not limited to painting. For calligraphy
and crafts such as sculpture and ceramics, the late-Choson
period was a "golden age" during which Korean art developed its most
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When seen from a broad perspective, modern Korean art has been
a pendulum swinging back and forth between two divergent approaches. On one
hand, there has been an effort to transcend traditional forms. On the other
hand, many artists have been attempting to rediscover the spirit of traditional
The former trend is based on the premise that Korean art must
break free from the inertia of the past. In other words, a dramatic leap in
development is required to make the nation's art meaningful to the current
generation. The abstractionist movement that dominated the international art
scene after the World War II has encouraged this trend.
The latter trend is partially a reaction to the former
movement. Some artists have been concerned that the attempt to transcend
traditional forms would result in the creation of generic art that had no
connection with Korean history and culture. There is also concern that the
modern Korean art movement might result in second rate Western style works.
Thus, many artists have advocated the development of traditional black ink and
color paintings along with the traditional perspectives on man, nature, objects
and the universe. These artists, who are mostly young, are pushing for a
restructuring of traditional forms from a modern perspective.
Others claim that the abstractionism now seen in modern art
actually formed the basis of Korea's traditional art and calligraphy. Moreover,
they claimed that this abstractionist trend could be found in many facets of the
Korean character, such as the love of nature, preference for natural media and
minimization of artificiality. Furthermore, they claim these attitudes were
expressed not only in paintings, but in traditional Korean sculpture and
handicrafts as well.
Thus, the movement to transcend tradition and the
counter-movement to rediscover it, have been the two key ideological currents of
Korea's modern painting. Below, we will look at how these two approaches have
appeared within each era.
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Born at the beginning of the twentieth century, Korea's modern
art initial development occurred during chaotic times marked by Japanese
colonial rule (1910-45), the transition to self-rule and the Korean War
(1950-1953). The era was characterized by ideological conflict and the
irrational cold war struggle between the South and the North. Young artists were
thus engulfed within an intense existential struggle.
During this time, the traditional value system collapsed,
leading to a quest for new values. Likewise, artists searched for new meaning in
their art as they attempted to change artistic attitudes and goals. Many of
these artists turned to the international art world and the non-traditional,
abstract forms of expression currently popular in European and American art
after World War II.
Most artists of the period strongly felt that traditional art
forms were unable to meet the demands of the new age. This general sense that a
change was needed presaged a new phase in modern Korean painting. At this time,
Korean painting was composed of two general trends: the so-called Oriental and
Western styles of painting (By the 1990s, these two trends have become less
distinct due to synthesis). The fifty-year history of modern Korean painting is
actually the history of the inter-relationship between these two trends as
artists have attempted to assimilate them into a modern Korean style.
The first movement towards assimilation of these two trends
occurred during the Korean War. As artists fled to the countryside, their works
began to show an introspective attitude. The movement began with so-called
Oriental style painters, such as Kim Ki-ch'ang. Using traditional materials such
as paper, brushes and ink, Kim painted in a unique, semi-abstract style. In his
paintings, Kim employed strong outlines to draw human figures with divided
planes as well as scenes from everyday life. Kim's unique style and innovation
is particularly remarkable in light of the fact that he was a tradition painter
of Oriental colored paintings.
Kim also experimented with abstract representations of Chinese
characters and the use of crumpled paper, which was then died and painted with
dots. In this respect, he clearly wanted to transcend traditional Korean art
forms and create a new painting style using Western painting techniques. His
wife and fellow artist, Pak Nae-hyon, also went
beyond traditional painting styles to create her own artistic form. Later in
America, she created an entirely new painting style using fabrics and woodblock
Another artist by the name of Kwon Yong-u investigated the use
of Korean paper, which had served as a medium for traditional paintings. Going
beyond the use of paper as a mere painting medium, Kwon experimented with
blotting, tearing and folding as ways to accent the paper's color. Kwon recently
held an exhibit at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul
Yun Hyong-gun, on the other hand,
used Western-style oil painting, but imitated traditional Korean styles. His
paintings utilize the traditional sense of space and through the use dark brown
on a light-colored canvas, he is able to create the blotting effect of black ink
paintings. The above painters sought to break free from the strict adherence to
tradition so as to create a new artistic form. It is interesting to note that
attempts to reach a new interpretation of traditional art were put forward by
artists schooled in both Western and Eastern painting styles.
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As a government-run institution, the National Exhibition
played a leading role in the advancement of Korean art. Although this important
center remained active for thirty years after its 1949 inauguration, it had a
productive and significant influence for only a few years after it was founded.
The institution's collection primarily consisted of black ink landscape
paintings and traditional color paintings of human figures. Its influence can be
attributed to its willingness to accept a certain amount of innovation and
experimentation. Western painting was particular problematic for this exhibition
The National Exhibition had a rather formal, academic
atmosphere and therefore tended to chose works that were realistic. In spite of
its hidebound sensibilities, the exhibition wielded tremendous authority. Young
artists saw this institution as an unbearable obstacle. Looking at people and
objects from a new perspective, these young upstarts sought to create an art in
tune with the new age.
By about 1957, these artists were actively setting a new
course. As enthusiasm for a new generation of art grew, opposition to the
institutionalized art establishments also increased. Meanwhile, young Korean
artists collectively embraced the abstract expressionism movement that arose in
Europe and America around World War II. Abstract expressionism arose from the
experience of the war, and Koreans, having first hand experience of the war's
great tragedy, confidently took up this new movement. For one decade beginning
with the late 1950s, young painters such as Pak So-bo
and Ha Chong-hyong zealously devoted themselves to
this new style, known as the Informal' movement. The daily newspaper Chosun
Ilbo also contributed to the modern Korean art movement by holding several
exhibitions of free form art.
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From the late 1960s and 1968 in particular, modern Korean
painting began to change directions. The Informal' movement, with its spirit of
free expression, gradually became less influential. Artists, looking for a new
direction, became interested in geometrical abstraction and optical trends. In
particular, the Origin Group of artists sought to re-establish the original
value of form.
Other artist groups took a deep interest in subject-matters
that conveyed the innate unity between man and nature. The Avante Garde' Group
and space and Time' Group were also formed during this time. Ironically, these
young artists, in their attempts to push Korean art beyond the limits of
tradition, had actually arrived at the traditional conceptualization of man and
nature as an indivisible unity.
In the late 1970s, this trend expanded into the new direction
of monochromatic paintings. This movement, which could perhaps be called Korean
minimalism, was essentially a method of reducing modern art to Korean
traditional forms. This minimalist, monochromatic movement also corresponded
well with the sculptural trends of the time. With broad appeal, it became the
representative form of Korean art, both in Korea and abroad.
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Korean painting of the 1980s was largely a reaction to the
modernism of the 1970s. During this period, many artists strongly felt that art
should convey a message about current social issues. Perceiving their art as a
form of social criticism, these artists sought to distinguish their works from
other modern art genres. Young artists from the period sought a pertinent social
role for their art. In artistic terms, they seem to have generally followed the
Western return to representational art.
From the mid-1980s to the present, and particularly as a
result of the 1998 Seoul Olympics, there has been a strong international trend
in Korean art. On one hand, there has been an interest in the issues of
modernism and post-modernism. At the same time, there has been a dramatic
increase in the number of foreign exhibitions shown in Korea and Korean
exhibitions shows abroad. Korean artists are now confident that the foreign
artistic community can appreciate their treatment of artistic themes. Put
simply, modern Korean art can survive on the world stage. The mid-1970s
enthusiasm for traditional art reappeared during the mid-1980s. By the 1990s,
Koreans became interested in the uniqueness of Korean traditional culture.
Korean artists began to realized that their unique traditions had certain
features that gave it worldwide appeal. Korean painters are now using refined
techniques and forms of expression to create modern paintings based on
traditional Korean culture. In this sense, Korean painting and Korean art in
general, is developing at an unprecedented pace.
A good example of these modern trends can be found in Yook
Keun Byung's painting Saengjonun Yoksada
(Life is History). Commonly known as 'the tomb with eyes,' this painting was
featured in the ninth (1992) Cassel Documentary. According to Yook, human beings
contain the universe within themselves, and the essence of human beings is
reflected in their eyes. In his videos on the history of man, he also emphasizes
the importance of man's eyes. During the Venice Biannual in 1995, the Korean
State Pavilion was constructed. In another work called Hoksongui
Panghwang, Yook mixes ancient Shilla clay figures with modern garbage of
which art work has been widely acclaimed.
In 1995, the International Kwangju Biannual was held in
Kwangju. The event provided an opportunity for modern Korean artists to get
together in one place with leading figures of the international art world. Paik
Nam-jun's Info Art' show was one of the more prominent exhibitions. Kang
Ik-chung, a Korean representative at the Venice Biannual, provided a glimpse
into one aspect of modern Korean art with his collection of small,
In addition to these external developments, there have been a
number of significant internal changes within the Korean art world. In
particular, Korean artists have succeeded in capturing the spirit of traditional
art while presenting it in modern terms so that it appeals to modern
sensibilities. In the 1990s, numerous paintings are appearing that employ
controlled expression and ample use of space. The spirit of such paintings is
readily found in Korea's traditional art.
Sanjong is a representative Korean
artist. He employs black ink, fast and slow brush strokes, light and heavy
strokes and control over brush pressure. At the same time, his paintings
demonstrate an exhilarating sense of freedom. Kurin,
Kuriji Annun Hoehwa
is another important modern work painted by the young artist Kim Yong-gil who is
also working in the United States.
Wall murals and mosaics have also become a popular art medium.
Artists are experimenting with new possibilities in modern art by producing
paintings on key public buildings, subway stations, schools, hospitals and
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