Korean art throughout history
In the course of history, Korean art has been influenced by Chinese styles, obliged by Japan during the occupation period (1880-1945), and inspired by European styles in the modern era. But it has always kept its own style, elements, traditional symbols and patterns. Which all have their own meaning and representation, only perceived by those who are in the know.
There are subjects that are favoured, dating all the way back to the early days of Korean painting. And throughout time, there have also been certain genres and subjects that were temporarily more popular than others. So first, we will take you on a brief journey through the most important periods in Korean art history.
Important Korean art periods
Three Kingdoms period (circa 57 BCE–668 CE)
Each of the Three Kingdoms in ancient Korea; Silla, Baekje and Goguryeo, had its own particular painting style, although still under Chinese influence.
Early Silla paintings, while said to be inferior in technique to those of Goguryeo and Baekje, tended to be more fanciful and free-spirited. Some of them could almost be considered impressionistic. In 2000 remains from the Silla period were added to the World Heritage List.
The earliest Korean paintings that are found, are the tomb murals in the Goguryeo tombs. This dynamic art displays dancers, hunting, tigers and archers on horseback. These ancient murals were added to the World Heritage List in 2004.
The Baekje (Paekche) kingdom also produced notable tomb paintings and sculptures. It is said to have the most naturalistic and uniquely Korean Buddha images of the period, characterized by what has come to be known as the ‘Baekje smile’. Baekje holds an important position in Korean history because of its influence on the creation of Korean and Japanese culture. In 2017 the Baekje historic areas were also added to the World Heritage list.
Koryŏ period (918–1392)
During the Goryeo (Koryŏ) period, the flourishing of Buddhism in Korea created a need for Buddhist painting with Buddhist elements. Even though the influence of Confucianism outmoded that of Buddhism, Buddhist art was still seen in private homes. During the Goryeo era, artists began painting more realistic.
Chosŏn period (1392–1910)
Joseon (Chosŏn) era paintings offer the richest variety in Korean art history and are the most imitated today. The spread of Confucianism stimulated a renewal of the arts. The decline of Buddhism as the dominant culture moved Korean painting in a more secular direction. Paintings of the Joseon period largely imitated northern Chinese painting styles, but certain painters attempted to develop a distinctly Korean approach, using non-Chinese techniques and painting Korean landscapes and scenes from daily life in Korea.
Popular genres and Korean subjects
The beauty of Korean art and the strength of its artists lays in simplicity, spontaneity, and a feeling of harmony with nature. It values tenderness, a sense of balance, serenity and harmony. It is distinguished for its simple and elegant composition. Popular genres throughout the centuries are:
- Daoist Paintings depicting the ten longevity symbols known as shipjangsaengdo. Which are: the sun, clouds, mountains, water, bamboo, pine, crane, deer, turtle and the mushroom of immortality. They are often all represented in a single picture.
- Buddhist and Confucian paintings; showing the Buddha and Confucian art portraying as scholars wearing the traditional stove-pipe hats and monochromatic robes. Usually depicted in a teahouse near mountains or at mountain lodges.
- Hunting scenes; often seen in Korean courtly art. They are a memory of Mongolian and Persian hunting scenes.
- Decorative Painting; the vast majority of ancient folk painting, were used for decorative purposes.
One of the most popular motifs in Korean folk painting, known as minhwa, is the tiger. It is said that the adoration for the tiger originated from the mythical ‘White Tiger’. A guardian spirit of the east. It is significant for Korean art how the tiger is portrayed. Almost never as a ferocious beast, but mostly as a friendly and sometimes even comical and clumsy animal.
Also, often depicted are the mountain spirit and dragon king motifs. They have their origins in two famous figures in the history of Korea: Dangun and Munmu. Dangun is seen as the predecessor of the Korean people. Who, as legend has it, turned into a mountain spirit. Munmu is considered the first ruler of the Unified Silla period, and was known by the title of ‘The dragon king’. He is usually depicted flying amidst the clouds over a sea of high waves.
Because of the big influence of the Joseon period, there are four categories that are still popular in Korea to this day: landscape and genre painting, minhwa, the Four Gracious Plants and portraits.
Landscape and Genre Painting
When painting styles moved towards realism, a style of landscape painting known as ‘True View’ became a national style in Korea. Jeong Seon (1676-1759), is known to be the father of the True View landscape painting. Before, Korean artists were mostly orientated towards China. Jeong Seon made the painting of Korean landscapes hugely popular and is still most imitated to this day.
Minhwa, also known as Korean folk art made by common people, emerged near the end of the Joseon period. This type of colourful painting was created by anonymous folk artists following traditional forms. This type of art is supposed to bring good luck to the owner’s household. Popular subjects were: everyday life, the tiger, symbols of longevity such as cranes, deer, fungus, rocks, water, clouds, the sun, moon, pine trees and tortoises. The way subjects are presented also have a special meaning. Paired birds for instance are a symbol of marital love. Insects and flowers represent harmony between yin and yang. While books and bookshelves stand for learning and wisdom.
“The Four Gracious Plants”
The Four Gracious Plants, also known as the Gentlemanly Plants: plum blossoms, orchids or wild orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo.
Portraits were painted throughout Korean history, but were produced in greater numbers during the Joseon period. Main subjects were: kings, meritorious subjects, elderly officials, literati or aristocrats, women and Buddhist monks.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea, from the mid 1880s until 20th century 1945, Japan tried to impose its own culture on all aspects of Korean life, including art. Schools of art in Korea were closed, paintings were destroyed, and artists were obliged to paint Japanese subjects in Japanese style. This was a very difficult period for Korean culture. After World War II, Korean painters assimilated some Western approaches. Making Korean art vanish into a more international style. But elements of Korean painting has also been copied by western artists.
The rising of new art forms
Since the dividing of the Korean peninsula into North and South Korea, the west has known very little about North Korean art. Over the years, both countries developed their own unique style. Which resulted in two very different art scenes. During the Kim II-reign (1994-2011), painting was only permitted in the nationalist type. After the death of Kim Il, the restrictions on painting got less and were eventually eliminated. To supplement the propaganda posters, new art forms arose. Including a type of painting exclusive to North Korea. Due to its seclusion, North Korea has preserved its more traditional art. While art in South Korea, due to open borders, has been influenced by the west.
Korean paintings today
The majority of today’s Korean painters still follow the path of tradition. Each nature’s motif gives meaning to a certain conception of value, such as spiritual strength, firmness, longevity and wisdom. And even though the art scene in Korea has been influenced by different art movements, it has over the past centuries developed a distinctive style of its own. Based on the rich traditional and cultural history of Korea.
The Kaesong Collection
The Kaesong Collection, of high quality North Korean art works, unfolds a stylistic and genre panorama of Korean contemporary painting and brings out two aspects in the development of Korean painting. One is associated with long art traditions of Korea, the East Asian countries and their art heritage. The other, more modernist trends in the arena of world art. Containing the finest contemporary and modern oil paintings, watercolours and drawings. This makes the Kaesong Collection such an exclusive collection.
These works of art are created by noteworthy artists like Jong Chang Mo, Son U Yong, Rim Ryul, Tak Hyo Yeon, Kim Sung Hui, Kim Song Min and many others. Among them are several prize winners at international exhibitions held in Asian countries. They are widely acclaimed in South Korea, China, Japan, The Philippines and Thailand.
An impression of these contemporary artworks from North Korea can be found here. https://www.kaesongcollection.com/collection/