King-portrait-Kim-Eun-Ho Korean Modern Art

A new exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum explores the development of modern art in Korea driven by artists’ encounters with, and reinterpretations of, the foreign influences that came along to shape it. Covering the years 1897 to 1965, the exhibition spans the period of European-influenced art via Japan in the Korean Empire (1897-1910) and colonial period (1910-45), explores American influences absorbed and experimented with during and after the Korean War (1950-53), and looks at the beginning of the contemporary art scene in the county.

This is a period when profound changes were seen in art in Korea and explores the influences, contacts, and methods these artists used to transform thinking on contemporary art. Dr Virginia Moon, the curator of the exhibition, explained the main theme of the exhibition, ‘The project is a rare opportunity to introduce people to the modern art of Korea by looking at the influences that drove its development. It is a departure from most presentations of modern art in Korea by bringing together all media that was introduced to the country at this time. These artworks, not shown outside Korea before, show how Korean art broke traditional moulds to introduce new and borrowed ones amid the grave challenges the country faced during this era’.

The Era of Modernisation

The show of Korean Modern art  is divided into five sections to explore this period when Korea reluctantly moved into an era of modernisation during the early 20th century, when the country developed a newfound nationalism in response to the imperialist intentions of Japan and the attempted erasures of its language and culture. In the art world, Western influences introduced via Japan brought about a period of interpretation and experimentation and the questioning of the future of Korean art. The works portray how modern art in Korea developed due to, and in spite of, foreign influences alongside the traumatic events of the Japanese colonial period (1910-45) and the Korean War (1950-53). Created during a time of great upheavals, these works reflect the embrace of new ideas as well as a dedicated resolve to persevere.

The first part of the exhibition is called Modern Encounter. Here, the drawings and photographs explore the encounters with the world outside of Korea and the reluctant but growing realisation that the country should modernise. In 1897, the last two kings of the Joseon dynasty converted Korea into an empire to signify its initial steps toward modernisation, and photographers were brought to Korea from Japan at the invitation of the imperial family to document the changes. Photography remained in the country and affected the ways traditional ink painters approached their artmaking, as seen in Kim Eunho’s Portrait of King Sunjong (1923). The unfinished draft portrait was based on a 1909 photograph, resulting in the hyper realistic rendering of the subject’s face

Modern Response

Modern Response, the second gallery, looks at works produced during the colonisation of Korea (1910-45). Although traditional art practices continued, access to art schools and new styles was only through Japan. Artists who could afford it learned modified Western styles of painting and sculpture, then returned to Korea to share new media of oils and other techniques with their colleagues. The section portrays the artists’ response to unfamiliar materials and styles like oils and academic styles of painting. Self-portraits and new compositions pushed the boundaries of how figures and people were portrayed. Early Korean photography, not yet recognised as an art form, attempted to capture through the lens how life in Korea was seen by its people. Through the challenges of the colonial period, a sense of nationalism and activism emerged with purpose.

In Modern Momentum, the works represent what can be considered the peak of the momentum in artistic creativity to reveal how artists became more comfortable with acknowledging the foreign influences with which they had been experimenting and began to infuse their art more confidently with ideas of their own. The different media introduced during this period strongly suggest the reality that the artists were conversing with each other to see how modern artistic ideas were being processed, regardless of medium. On show here are works by one of Korea’s most famous modern painters, Kim Whanki (1913-1974). Kim Yisoon, in the accompanying catalogue, wrote that the artist made his debut in 1935, when he was selected to show at Japan’s representative anti-establishment art events, the Second Section Art Exhibition (Nikaten) and the Free Artists’ Association Exhibition.

Korean War

Met with the Korean War upon his return home, Kim spent three years in refuge in Busan, during which he produced Refugee Train and Jars and Women. Refugee Train depicts a train brimming with refugees while Jars and Women visualises a Utopia rid of painful reality. Though refugee tents can be made out at the far end of the beach, the foreground is dominated by semi-nude women peacefully carrying jars. The Joseon-period moon jars depicted in the painting are the kind Kim passionately collected and admired throughout his lifetime. The work, founded on Modernism, treats the social impact of the Korean War and the issue of modernization meeting tradition. Kim later relocated to Paris, where he further developed a style that marries modernism and tradition. He then moved to the United States, where he experimented with basic formal elements – point, line, and plane – to reach his signature style of abstract pointillism distributed over the entire picture plane.

New Women in Korea

The fourth element looks at the rise of the New Woman in Korea, The Pageantry of Sinyeoseong. Underlying the modern era was a new type of feminism that was initially centred around the education of women, an idea initiated by men, with the hope that they would educate their children in turn and strengthen future generations. Education created new opportunities for women to lead somewhat independent lives, and was accompanied by changes in women’s outward appearance. The Sinyeoseong look is exemplified by Shin Nak Kyun’s 1930 portrait of Choi Seunghui, who was the most famous female Korean entertainer during her lifetime. While the movement did not ultimately gain widespread acceptance as the revolutionary aspects of its ideas did not sit well with the predominantly male-oriented, Confucian-based society, this remains the most printed photograph in Korean history.

The final theme of the Korean Modern art exhibition, Evolving into the Contemporary, begins in 1957, when a group of artists rebelled against the government-sponsored National Art Exhibitions (gukjeon), a prominent outlet for artists to promote their works. Frustrated with the elitist attitudes and continuing colonial practices of the National Art Exhibitions, these artists displayed their works across City Hall, along the walls of Deoksu Palace. The independent and strong-willed convictions that motivated this artist uprising were considered to be the characteristics of what it meant to be contemporary. The works in this final section reveal an evolution built upon earlier artistic developments and reflect a determination to expand what Korean art can be. The struggles to make sense of and incorporate new artistic trends during the modern era continued into the contemporary, weaving the roots of identity, nationalism, post-colonialism, and modernity well into the late 20th century.

The Space Between: The Modern in Korean Art, from 11 September to 19 February, 2022, at LACMA, Los Angeles, lacma.org. A atalogue ais vailable